A common complaint levelled at modern action games is that many playable characters refuse to die. A hail of bullets will simply make the screen go red and force you to duck behind cover, and if you do manage to take one too many explosions to the face, a gentle tap on the shoulder from a friend is often all it takes to immediately recover all your health.
NeverDead tackles this modern trend in an interesting way. Protagonist Bryce Boltzmann, like Community’s Señor Chang, is a man who can never die. Cursed centuries ago with immortality so that he may suffer an eternity of grief and guilt over his dead wife, Bryce has led a long, long life of demon hunting, and he spends most of his time in this game shooting and chopping at wave after wave of monsters alongside his human companion, Arcadia.
He can’t die, but Bryce can be torn apart. His arms, legs and head can all get ripped off, leaving him at varying degrees of battle readiness until he reclaims -- or regrows -- his lost parts. And although he never ‘dies’, every level is littered with little creatures that can swallow his head if it comes loose, prompting a ‘game over’ screen and an eternity of being digested for poor Bryce. You can’t let Arcadia die either, although she can mostly handle herself well.
NeverDead is at its best when it finds creative ways to use Bryce’s invincibility. The passage ahead of you is too dark? Light yourself on fire. Can’t squeeze through a gap? Rip your own head off and hurl it through there. You can even tear off an arm and throw it, continuing to fire whichever gun it was holding. It’s unfortunate that the inherent fun of messing around with your undead abilities rarely spills over into genuine cleverness, though. There are a few boss fights that really highlight the game’s potential, asking you to do things well outside the standard third-person shooter box, but the vast majority of the game boils down to hacking away at everything with your sword, occasionally switching to your guns to deal with the enemies that they can actually hurt (a lot of enemies can only be killed by your blade).
The blade controls seem clever at first – you hold down the left trigger to ready your blade and then flick the right stick to pull back and slice forward. But flicking the stick like a madman without much rhyme or reason will still get you through a lot of encounters. After just a few hours, it starts to feel a bit stale - it’s hard to imagine how bored Bryce must be after over 500 years of doing this over and over again.
The game is presented well. The CGI cut-scenes that pop up throughout the campaign are fantastic, and while Megadeath’s soundtrack for the game won’t be to everyone’s tastes, it suits the crazy action well enough. The graphics are decent as well, albeit a bit jaggy, but while creature designs are mostly fantastic the same ones pop up over and over again throughout the game. The first time you encounter the misleadingly named ‘Spoon’ enemy, with its bladed head and sinewy body, it’s a bit creepy. By the time you’ve hacked up your fiftieth spoon a few hours later, you’re sick of the damn things.
There are a few multiplayer challenges thrown in as well, although unfortunately in our time with the game we didn’t encounter anyone online. Don’t expect a huge online population when the game comes out – the action doesn’t seem well-suited to exciting multiplayer shenanigans – but the thirteen challenges seem like a decent, brief distraction, even if most of them are just variations on a small handful of basic themes.
NeverDead is the kind of game you want to like more than you actually do. The gimmick is a smart one, it’s quite funny when it wants to be, it’s peppered with cool moments, and it’s a big improvement from the developer’s other recent efforts (Rogue Warrior, anyone?). Alas, fun though it is, NeverDead is several good ideas short of fulfilling its conceptual promise.