When creating a videogame protagonist with a particular super power, there's an extra responsibility to create a challenging, rewarding sense of balance. If your hero has enhanced strength and speed, how do you keep enemy opponents threatening without undermining the player's advantages? If your character cannot die, what elements can be introduced in order to maintain a believable conflict?
NeverDead is a game that does not ask these questions. In fact, it uses the invincibility of its protagonist as an excuse to cut corners and ignore even the most basic factors of game balance. After sitting through the end credits of NeverDead, I am proud to say I did something that developer Rebellion did not do ...
I finished the game.
NeverDead (PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed]) Developer: Rebellion Developments Publisher: Konami Released: January 31, 2012 MSRP: $59.99
NeverDead's central premise revolves around a demon hunter named Bryce who cannot die. As the 500-year-old victim of a demonic curse, Bryce's physical form can be wounded, eviscerated and decapitated, but it cannot be destroyed. Should Bryce be blown apart, he can pull himself together. If he loses a limb entirely, he can grow a new one.
It's a novel concept for a videogame, and the core idea of a temporarily destructible protagonist paves the way for all sorts of clever challenges and level design. Rebellion decided to take none of those paths, settling instead on repetitive combat against a handful of skittering monsters. While the occasional fresh idea surfaces, the vast majority of the game is spent in tepid combat with the same stock enemies that are regularly regurgitated from beginning to end. Much of the experience literally does not change over the course of five hours.
Bryce is able to acquire a number of traditional guns, ranging from vanilla pistols to standard grenade launchers that can be dual-wielded in any combination. At the touch of a button, he can switch between firearms to a sword, which is awkwardly controlled via the right analog stick as opposed to face buttons. Although the sluggish input means that swordplay feels unwieldy and unreliable, it is typically the weapon of choice, since basic firearms are pathetically weak against most enemies.
Combat is a crude, sloppy, disjointed mess. There's a horrible lag to the camera that sees it stick for a while before swinging wildly, and Bryce moves as if the floor is made of soapy ice. The enemies fly in from all corners with such speed that it's impossible to do anything but hack and slash blindly while hoping something gets hit. Most of the time, it'll be Bryce who takes the damage, since enemies are faster and quicker to attack than he is. This seems to have been done on purpose, just to shove the limb-shredding gimmick down our throats.
As far as the limb shredding goes, what starts as a cute little stunt quickly becomes a tiresome, grueling endeavor. The ironic upshot of an invincible character who can be torn apart is that Bryce is one of the flimsiest, weakest protagonists a videogame has ever had. Almost every single hit will have an arm, a leg, or a head come flying off. There's no sense of procedural damage in NeverDead -- it's pot luck as to which limb gets lost, and Bryce will have to perform a dodge roll over the severed body part in order to re-attach it -- though reattachment often doesn't happen, because nothing quite works right in this game. If players are lucky enough to keep a limb, our hero will instead hit the floor like a ragdoll, leaving him prone just long enough for another attack to sever something.
Should Bryce's head become detached, it can be manually rolled around, and players will either have to trundle toward Bryce's neck to rejoin the torso, or wait for a while and regrow a new body. As just a head, Bryce is prone to a "death" of sorts. Small demonic creatures known as Grandbabies patrol the levels, and they can consume body parts. Should they swallow Bryce's head, players have to beat a simple, one-button quick-time-event in order to escape, otherwise he'll be stuck in the digestive tract of a monster forever.
With Bryce becoming decapitated roughly once a minute and shedding other body parts with more regularity, the core premise outstays its welcome long before the adventure is over. The game is never "challenging" in a traditional sense, since Bryce cannot die and escaping a Grandbaby's stomach is easy. However, because of this, Rebellion thought it was okay to ignore proper game balance or even stop the game during a cutscene (you can be attacked, torn apart, and swallowed by a demon off-camera while cutscenes play, because nobody bothered to pause the action). Dodging doesn't dodge anything, blocking is a pointless endeavor given the volume and speed of incoming attacks, and there are many moments where players will ostensibly feel like a tennis ball, shunted around the floor after being ripped to bits. However, apparently it's okay to have combat that lacks even basic refinement, so long as the player cannot die.
Every fight, no matter how insurmountable, will be beaten through sheer attrition. So long as the player has the mental willpower to keep regrowing limbs every few seconds, there is no battle that cannot be won. It might take half an hour to beat a section that contains less than a minute of actual gameplay, but it will be won so long as you stick with it. Never before has a game's unique idea been exploited to so blatantly get away with lazy design.
Every now and then, Bryce can exploit his immortality for an advantage. He can set himself or fire or electrocute himself, turning his body into a conduit for burning and paralyzing foes. That's all he can do, though. Rebellion had that one idea, threw it in at the most basic level, and left it at that. This happens to be one of NeverDead's biggest problems -- having ideas, but not following them through and evolving them into something truly exceptional.
Although most of the game is spent pretending to be a poor man's Serious Sam, there are quieter moments where NeverDead has the audacity to attempt environmental puzzles. Bryce can pull off his own head, as well as his arms, and he can use these abilities to interact with otherwise unreachable objects, or reach high places that he couldn't traditionally jump to. As with everything else in NeverDead, there are hints of clever mechanics with no follow-through, so instead of engaging in clever, provocative puzzles, players will just repeatedly throw their heads into air vents or onto ledges and roll around for a bit.
The only moments of true inspiration comes with boss battles, where there is some impressively smart design going on. One particular boss is a gigantic bug that sucks in surrounding objects, and has to be killed by yanking one's arm off, letting it get swallowed, and shooting the monster's stomach from inside. These large-scale battles sometimes border on genius but every fight is so unreasonably lengthy that whatever goodwill the innovation earned is wasted. An idea ceases to become engaging when you're asked to repeat it a dozen times in a battle that goes on three times as long as it should. It doesn't matter how inventive it is. The penultimate boss, who can regenerate health faster than Bryce can recover from his ragdoll flailing, is the ultimate slap in the face and indicative of just how little the developers care for a player's patience or time.
Levels are littered with collectibles (imaginatively called "collectibles"), which are picked up for experience points. XP is spent on a range of skills that upgrade damage, make Bryce's limbs explode, or confer other combat properties. Ability slots are so restricted, however, that unlocking new skills becomes a waste of time. One would think that Rebellion could at least get upgrade systems right, or otherwise copy one of the hundreds of upgrade systems that have been in far better games, but no. Even something as traditional and basic as this is implemented poorly.
All of this ridiculous nonsense is suffered while having to babysit an A.I. partner, although it's insulting to even the most basic of A.I. programs to insinuate that the "supporting" character Arcadia has any intelligence, artificial or otherwise. The character loves charging headlong into explosions, or standing in the way of oncoming trains, and players will need to keep reviving her, lest she die and create a contrived game over. Despite having a limited ability to fight, Arcadia essentially turns a vast majority of NeverDead into an escort mission. So, that's something else to hate the game for.
It was never mentioned during the advertising campaign that NeverDead boasts an online multiplayer mode, but it does. The five-hour campaign is bolstered by several competitive and co-op challenges that range from simple survival modes to rudimentary capture-the-flag games. There are a handful of people currently playing (I'm guessing single-digit figures), but the rubbish map design and uninspired game types aren't worth hanging around in a lobby for.
Few games are as lazy and slapdash as NeverDead, but to its credit, few games are quite so obvious about it. Even the narrative premise and monster design is honest in its desperation to be controversial and edgy like a Suda 51 game. It tries so cloyingly to ape such efforts as Shadows of the Damned or Killer7 that you can almost taste the flagrant shamelessness. From boss monsters that need to be shot in the anus to camp demons with penis-shaped noses, every attempt at humor or shock value is a cynical, convoluted attempt to remind you of better, more entertaining videogames. This is a game that understands what made titles like Devil May Cry iconic, but doesn't know what made them good.
NeverDead is an embarrassment fit only for mockery. Sometimes, when I use the word ridiculous, I mean it in a positive way. With this game, I mean it with sneering contempt. NeverDead is a ridiculous videogame, one that is so clumsy, bedraggled, and neglectful that I am furious it exists, let alone carries an asking price of $59.99.
There are bad games that failed due to poor budget, ill-conceived mechanics, or a simple lack of skill, and then there are bad games like NeverDead -- that could have been good if the developers hadn't cut corners, used its innovations as excuses to get away with incompetence, and absolutely, positively, failed to give a single solitary shit about the people unlucky enough to be playing. For games like that, there is not an adequate word in the English language to vocalize my disgust.
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