At first, NeverDead seems like a standard, straight-up action game. You know the type. Walk into a room, kill a bunch of monsters, the door opens up, repeat. Every so often, there’s a mini-boss. At the end of the level, there’s a big boss. Pretty basic stuff. You attack with dual guns, or a sword. You block. You dodge. And sometimes you get hit.
And that is the moment when everything goes wrong for NeverDead… when the one concept that makes the game unique and original breaks it instead. Protagonist demon hunter Bryce Boltzmann has been cursed with immortality, you see, and with that comes the “ability” to drop limbs like so many leaves off a tree. It’s certainly an interesting gimmick. That is, it would be, if it didn’t completely ruin the game.
Think about it like this: Action games are all about quick reactions and precision. You need to be able to dodge when you need to dodge, block when you need to block. And without limbs, it’s tough to do that. It’s cool to have a visual representation of your failures, but when it only leads to further failures, that’s a problem. Punishing players for mistiming a dodge by chopping off their legs, thus making it impossible to dodge more isn’t interesting design. It’s unfair. It certainly doesn’t help that limbs go flying off Bryce at the slightest bump, which makes most of the game a mad scramble to get your limbs back.
The worst part, though, is when Bryce’s head gets knocked off, which happens at least a few times in every fight. Left as a slow-rolling cranium, he has to reattach to his body before he can keep fighting. As he rolls along, small enemies will attempt to suck him up, leading to a quicktime event that, upon failure, means death for Bryce. It’s one of the most frustrating design decisions we’ve experienced in a while.
This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the general combat design wasn’t so flawed as well. Bryce’s default weapons of choice are dual handguns. Unfortunately for his easily detached arms, aiming is sluggish and imprecise. By the time he manages to get the aiming reticule around to an enemy, there’s a strong chance that another will have snuck up behind him and bitten something off. Of course, that means he’ll miss the first one, leading to a frustrating cycle of aiming, getting whacked, searching for missing limbs, and repeating.
Thankfully, swordplay is a little more effective. Featuring a nice auto-targeting mechanic, aiming isn’t really a problem. Plus, the sword does a heck of a lot more damage than the guns, making the often tedious combat sections go by slightly quicker. You can also take out large groups of enemies by using the sword on the destructible environments, though crushing them with falling sections of buildings isn’t as satisfying as it should be, as it seem to happen at random. There’s very little rhyme or reason to what is destructible, so actually killing anything with debris is tough to do on command.
Boss battles do have occasional flashes of brilliance, but their strength tends to be in their design and not the actual execution. Some are huge, hulking beasts; others are smaller but brimming with personality. Actually defeating them is an exercise in frustration, however, as the fights are long, multi-stage endeavors filled with annoying hordes of smaller enemies, lots of searching for lost parts, and attacking glowing weak points. Serious levels of yawn involved.
To make matters worse, Bryce is one of the most genuinely unlikeable game characters in recent memory. He’s kind of a jerk, but the real reason to hate him are his constant, awful jokes. Occasionally, he’s met with a section where his head must be torn off to sneak through some vents or hop across a thin platform (why he couldn’t just crawl or jump himself is beyond us). During these sections, he spews horrible one-liners about how all the rolling will mess up his hair, his motion sickness, or what we’re pretty sure are Limp Bizkit references. The “jokes” are repeated ad nauseam, making us want to hop into the game and punt the annoying head through the nearest pair of uprights.
There’s little story to speak of, and what is there is poorly told, mostly focusing on Bryce’s job as a demon hunter while intermittently throwing in flashbacks showing how he became cursed with immortality. Supporting characters are bland and just as annoying as Bryce himself. But hey, it’s an action game, so who cares, right? The story is just supposed to string together the action sequences, which is where the strength of the game is supposed to shine. Unfortunately for NeverDead, it seems to have forgotten that essential element.