Sony PlayStation 3Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360
Being immortal always sounded like a nice proposition, no fear of death, no lasting damage from injury and getting to witness the vast progresses of time. Then again you would be destined to be eternally lonely as every relationship you have would fade against the tides of time, you would become bored by the banalities and repetition of human events and there’s only so much of anything you can take. However, how about being an immortal demon hunter who carries an amazing arsenal, who can detach limbs at will and use them as weapons and who cracks wise while drinking liquor? This is the type of immortality I can get behind, this is NeverDead.
NeverDead is the latest offering from Konami and British based developer Rebellion who, under the direction of Konami veteran Shinta Nojiri, have delivered this third-person shooter with a sadistic twist. Where gaming convention would have you trying to keep your character away from harm and generally all in one piece NeverDead goes the opposite way; it makes you put yourself directly in harm’s way, throw yourself off ledges and in more than one instance it requires you to rip your own limbs off. Fear not however as injury and death are for mere mortals and as an immortal you can take these injuries in your stride, or in your hop...depending how many limbs you have attached. NeverDead is the story of Bryce, a 500 year old demon hunter who after losing a battle with evil head honcho Lord Astaroth all those years ago was left with the curse of immortality. Lord Astaroth not only defeated Bryce and cursed him but also killed his wife making sure to leave Bryce in an eternity of loneliness and suffering. These days Bryce now hunts demons that manifest in the world working for the corporation NADA (National Anti Demon Agency) earning his money to buy him his next drink at the bar. With flashbacks and playable sequences that take place in Bryce’s past tying the story together with the present day, NeverDead plays as a mixture of Hellboy and Highlander with a feeling of a slightly more reigned-in Bayonetta.
The main unique selling point of NeverDead has been the fact that Bryce cannot be killed; if you lose a leg you just hop around, lose both and you’ll drag yourself around looking for your once attached appendages. The first thing you notice that this approach brings to the game is humour, losing both your arms only to try and kick your enemies while you try and find your arms has a real ring of the Black Knight sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail about it. If you suffer a severe beating you will end up rolling your head around collecting your limbs like some sort of macabre version of Katamari all the while with Bryce genuinely cracking wise. It’s utterly ridiculous but never dull to play because of this mechanism, had this been a straight shooter I feel it would be average at best so hats-off to Konami and Rebellion for daring to be that little bit original and twisted.
Being dismembered is not just for laughs however and being able to use your ability to lose limbs to your advantage is key to success here. There are various ways to utilise your ability, firstly it is for generally just making your way through a level. If there is a ledge you just can’t reach or a ventilation shaft that is too small you can just rip your own head off and throw it to where you want to go. While NeverDead does give you a fresh way to look at making your way through levels it remains ultimately very linear with very little in the way of exploration or even puzzles. Every part of every chapter plays out in exactly the same way, you must get to the next area but it’s blocked by a ‘Demon Seal’ and you must defeat all demons in that area for the ‘Demon Seal’ to unlock the door. For a game that has pushed to be different it was legitimately disappointing to see this well worn arena mechanism appearing, but once you accept this is how it will be throughout the whole game there is fun to be had.
You will feel that NeverDead in its confined paths and basic puzzles never meets its true potential, in a freer and bigger game-world it could have been something indispensable. This sense of confined design also leaks into the character design too, while Bryce and Arcadia feel well realised, if cliched, the enemies are reasonably forgettable. The small demons, which you will encounter over and over again, will all be a variation on a set of around four differing types and after a few hours they get old very quickly. The bosses are a different affair, they are large and creative and they stand out as not only interesting design but also as a reminder of what could have been if these small creative strokes had been given a broader brush to paint the game with.
The ability to use and abuse your limbs also translates into the combat arena in various forms; for example if you need to get some space you can throw your arm to play fetch with some dog-like demons buying you some time. You can also still shoot from your severed arms which can come in handy against certain Demons that like to suck in items to launch at you. NeverDead is humorous and inventive at times and it’s these moments that will stick with you, but there is no denying that the combat can be overly frenetic and disorientating. At a moment’s notice your head can be knocked from your body launching you to the other side of the arena, onto a ledge or in my case I got knocked into an area I wasn’t supposed to be in and had to restart the mission from the start again. It’s not a common occurrence but on my play-through across three sittings I had at least one game stopping bug in each, I have no doubt that the excellent Rebellion will look at these issues post launch.
To layer the gameplay and give a sense of depth to the proceedings there are skills that you can unlock/buy by earning XP points, these are gained by killing demons or gathering up collectibles. You can add skills such as shooting bullets of fire when you set yourself alight or turning your arms into exploding devices when thrown, there is enough here to accommodate the playing styles of both the sword wielder and the gun-nut. There is also a bit of skill management going on as well with each skill taking up different numbers of ‘slots’ in your inventory so you will need to mix and match to both your style and the situation. Ultimately though it feels like these skills don't really add that much to the game, I had managed to get half way though the game without using my guns (only when absolutely necessary) and without purchasing any skill upgrades.
The inability to die does not negate the ability to see a game over screen at a moment’s notice, Rebellion have been wise and added a few ways to fail which balances the possibility of the game playing out without any real sense of danger or urgency. The first thing you must be careful of is keeping your sidekick Arcadia alive, luckily she isn’t one of those easily beaten sidekicks who you will be continually having to revive and to a large degree will look after herself. It could have been a real dampener for the game if you needed to continually run/hop/crawl/roll after Arcadia but she seems to serve more as a vessel for exposition and being the object of puzzles as you usually have to succeed to meet up with her after being separated.
You can also be greeted with a ‘game-over’ if you succumb to the advances of the ever present Grandbabies; these are star-fish like demons that roll around and if you literally lose your head they will try and hoover you up into their stomach. If they manage to capture your head, you do have a hilarious head spin attack to help avoid them, you will be greeted with a basic QTE that will determine if you escape or if you are to be digested forever. It was a wise move for Rebellion to keep this sense of danger, it’s not overly pervasive but it’s there and it’s enough to make the stakes matter.
As Bryce faces off against his old foe in a bid to right his previous failure and save the girl all the while beset by double crosses you will feel you’ve heard this story a million times before, and probably told a lot better. It’s a real shame that by the end of the first level you will be able to predict everything, and I do mean everything, that will happen over the next few hours. This could’ve been a real shot at developing characters and a story you care about but beyond Bryce everyone else seems formulaic and shallow. Arcadia is the no nonsense, and pretty rude, sassy sidekick who could have been dropped in from hundreds of other titles and Nikki Summers, the spoiled brat superstar who isn’t quite all that she seems, just ooze lazy characterisation. Luckily Bryce is a delight, if the series is to continue then it’s up to how Konami and Rebellion develop him, he is funny, rude but ultimately good natured and with his history of loss and need for redemption there is genuinely an engaging character in there that doesn’t truly get to shine.
It’s good news though for NeverDead as its successes far outweigh its failings and for every frustration such as the pitch black sequence (where you have to set yourself on fire to find your way out) there are multiple moments of humour backed up by a solid combat system. It’s not going to change the shape of gaming or be remembered forever but it far exceeds any claims that the body destruction element is a gimmick and nothing more. NeverDead deserves to be played but a sequel only deserves to happen if Konami and Rebellion give Bryce the world and freedom you will want to see him in. There’s a new hero in town and even though he may lose appendages quicker than a Mr Potato Head in a nursery hopefully he’s here to stay...in however many pieces he chooses.