- CLR Rating:
Release Date: January 31st, 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Rebellion Developments
Genre: Single Gimmick 3rd Person Shooter
Auteur Attached: Shinta Nojiri (Director)
ESRB: M for Mature
Not Quite Immortal Beloved,
More Like Immortal Friendzoned
According to fiction, the biggest problem with immortality is the weight of time. As it keeps marching on, you lose everything that once made you human: friends, family, necessity, giving a hoot about flossing. Plus there’s always a catch with being forever young; if you aren’t sucking blood out of hapless teens, you’re trying to make sure Lex Luthor isn’t removing your head from your shoulders or destroying your furniture.
Some of these same issues, namely the calcified caring about putting your best foot forward, also affect the longer running gaming franchises. After all, when you get to the fourth or possibly fortieth sequel in a series, you’ve essentially reached the status of immortality in this industry. But you’ve also probably long forgotten what made the series good in the first place, simply slapping together various parts of your previous entries like a Frankenstein’s franchise of futility, a situation which seems to increasingly become the norm. It’s times like this when gamers may not simply want, but need something new to sate the appetite for novelty.
Thus enters NeverDead! The rare game these days that isn’t a sequel, reboot, or spin-off, which in this day and age of regurgitated ideas and safe bet adaptations is enough to warrant a look, especially as it actually brings at least one genuinely new idea to the table. But is it worth more than just a look and able to start its own never ending series of sequels, or does it end up dead on arrival?
If there’s one profession unique to gaming for how much more prevalent it is in the medium than in any other, it’s Demon Hunter. A job as badass as it is overly specific (and usually unnecessary), NeverDead’s grizzled hero, Bryce Boltzman, joins ranks with Dante, Garcia Hotspur, the other Dante, the Painkiller guy and half the cast of the Castlevania series in paying dues to Devil Slayer’s Local 764. He even meets most of the standard prerequisites – an avid gun user, wields an improbable sword, teamed up with an annoying female sidekick, subject to an ancient curse – you know, the usual. It’s so usual that it could even be boring, if it weren’t for one little detail.
For Bryce Boltzman has, through a series of melodramatic backstory events, the rather beneficial curse of immortality; and not some form of namby pamby, “I have a weakness to garlic and dull high school girls” immortality, but the “cannot be killed by any means” real deal. Rip off a limb; he can reattach it like it was just a Lego piece. Hide or liquefy said limb, and he’ll just regrow it. Though he still feels pain upon such socket separation, he’s effectively unstoppable, which is pretty useful considering his job doesn’t offer health insurance.
This “immortality without invulnerability” concept is the focus of NeverDead’s health system, and the primary mechanic that separates the game from others; without it, NeverDead would be just another 3rd Person Shooter. In fact, this feature is such a focal point that the entire experience lives and dies by how well it works. Considering I, along with plenty of others out there, want some novelty in my gaming it pains me to say that this unique health system is as uncouth and unrefined as the first draft of a beating.
The way the system works is simple: when an enemy attack hits Bryce, rather than subtracting some “health” numbers from a total that ends the game upon reaching zero, it tosses whatever limb(s) it came in contact with flying like a punch from the Hulk. Bryce, as long as he still has his head attached to his torso, then hops, flops, or crawls around the battlefield trying to retrieve his body parts while fighting off foes with any available working arms. All damage ever really does is delay the player, either by making it take longer to kill enemies (arm removal), harder to move (leg removal), or by rolling your head like a Katamari to your torso (decapitation). Considering the additional ability to regenerate limbs rather than retrieve them if you’re feeling lazy, there is no ultimate threat from enemies other than inconvenience.
Which might be fine as that is the fundamental concept, but the developers realized something Superman fans never seem to: a functionally invincible hero is boring if there isn’t some risk. So taking a cue from Ico and Gears of War Bryce has a partner, a fellow demon hunter lady named Arcadia, who can be killed, and there are also roving small enemies that can suck up your head when you’re doing your best John the Baptist impression. Neither concept is bad, but they’re both poorly balanced; reviving Arcadia has little cost to the player and is so easy to do that it’s functionally moot, and avoiding the demonic vacuum enemies is either frustratingly difficult if your noggin lands too close to them or stupidly simple if you have even a minimal distance.
But the inconsistent difficulty of these “true” threats isn’t the problem so much as the constant disorientation is. When your head achieves some hang time the camera follows it exclusively, and since Bryce’s goes to pieces if some foes so much as breath on him, you end up with as much jarring camera whiplash as watching Cloverfield on a rollercoaster. This is followed by a rolling to your body, which is fun for a while, but by the end simply becomes tedious since you do it all the time. Nausea and boredom do not make good bedfellows for an action game.
Actually, tedium is probably NeverDead’s greatest nemesis. Not only does the core concept engender it, but so do the overly long levels and overwrought, clunky story that completely misunderstands how to use such a unique character. Rather than ever exploring anything interesting about a man half a millennia old by juxtaposing Bryce against the backdrop of history (as the original trailer suggested), the tone jumps into Saturday morning cartoon genericisms about convoluted and under-explained magic secret weaknesses, poor motivation, and toilet humor. Some effort is made to plant tongues firmly in cheek amidst the hum drum plot and barely developed characters, but the game’s writing simply isn’t witty enough to make the bad dialogue enjoyable ironically.
The biggest shame though, is that so many of these problems exist in what is otherwise a fun, exciting action game with a neat hook. The levels, while long enough to get boring, all feature unique locations and show excellent art design with a broad color palette. The core shooting and diving battle mechanics, with highly destructible environments that you can turn against the hordes are actually quite a bit of fun to play around in. Heck, there’s even a nifty sword swinging mechanic that’s underdeveloped and shallow, but has potential to become great should it get used again in a different game.
More telling though, is that Bryce’s “detachable everything” gameplay can actually be a lot of fun when it’s used for puzzle solving. At times you need to pull off your dome and free-throw it into places you can’t otherwise reach to open paths, or chuck an arm to play fetch with the dumber demons. These moments are enjoyable enough to prove that the main gimmick has merit; if it were rebalanced so that you didn’t break apart as easily and actually had to trade off something to keep your escort alive, it could be a genuine alternative to other options in gaming health systems as opposed to the clunky mess it currently is.
All in all, though at times it’s without a leg to stand on NeverDead’s otherwise completely decent gameplay keeps it from being a bad game. The misused and undercooked immortality concept could have been much more than the result, but it’s at least a solid first step in a unique direction. This is exactly the type of game that needs a sequel to hammer out some fundamental problems, add depth, and plant seeds for a unique tale to develop, but the “Eh, it’s alright I guess” overall quality will most likely prevent that from ever happening.
Unless something as unexpected as an overly beneficial “curse” occurs, this is one potential franchise that’s deader than a depressed dinosaur. Considering the title, somehow, somewhere, the god of hubris is laughing to himself.
Oh wait, that’s just me.