Discussion Review: NeverDead

Review written by Matt Litten & Stephen Byers.

NeverDead

Matt: Has there been a game about a dude who can dismember himself at will and use body parts as weapons and puzzle-solving devices? I’m sure there probably have been, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head that I have played in my lifetime. The head swapping in Dead Head Fred is the closest thing that comes to mind, but in no way does it compare to the main gameplay hook of NeverDead, a game that is as hit-and-miss as its developer, Rebellion.

Bryce Boltzmann is the wisecracking star of NeverDead, an action game in the same class of dual-pistol-packing, sword-slashing games as Devil May Cry, only with a comically morbid twist and none of the acrobatic flash. After a demon hunt gone terribly, terribly wrong, our hero, Mr. Boltzmann, is cursed with immortality by the Demon King, Astaroth. Now Bryce spends his endless days moonlighting as an agent for an anti-demon agency, his inability to die making him an indispensable force in the fight to save the city from a demonic invasion.

Bryce’s main power is that he cannot die. As he incurs damage, he gradually loses body parts but never stops fighting. Without a leg, he limps around. When both legs are gone, he continues to crawl, and does the best he can with only a torso and a pair of arms (‘tis but a flesh wound, as the Black Knight from Monty Python might say). Arms that are lopped off remain deadly as you’re still able to fire whatever gun was equipped at the time of its dismemberment from its immobile position on the floor. Good luck hitting anything, but still, the ability in and of itself is pretty frickin’ sweet. Eventually Bryce will be reduced to nothing but a decapitated head bouncing and rolling about trying to reunite with its fleshy friends. Once a gauge fills, you can click in on the left analog stick to fully regenerate, but in the meantime dismembered body parts can be reattached by dodge rolling over them.

He can also manually rip off his own head and limbs, or electrocute himself on exposed wires to the point that he completely explodes. Arms can be upgraded to function as flesh grenades when chucked at opposing demons and his head, once ripped from the spine, can be tossed up on ledges to reach collectibles or through vents and small openings so you can circumvent locked doors, regenerate on the other side, and open the way for Arcadia, Bryce’s very killable female sidekick. (If she dies, she must be revived before bleeding out—that’s one of the only ways to be greeted by a game over screen.) One puzzle early on has you guiding Bryce’s noggin through tubes and over ramps like some lost level from Marble Madness or Super Monkey Ball. But sadly the developers failed to build on this moment enough throughout the rest of the game.

NeverDead is the type of game that tries to do things differently just for the sake of being different. Because of this, as you might expect, the game sometimes cuts off its nose to spite its face. For example, other action games use buttons for melee combat, but not NeverDead. Bryce’s sword slashes are controlled by plucking the right analog stick in different directions. This works reasonably well and has a satisfying flow once you get the hang of it — building combos requires almost rhythmic stick flicks while wildly flailing around results in puny attacks that do very little damage – but I couldn’t help but feel that hacking up demons wasn’t as smooth or responsive as I’m sure it would have been with traditional face-button controls.

Real frustrations begin to bubble up inside as the game hits severe difficulty spikes. You’ll be going along just fine, enjoying the unique gameplay mechanics, and then all of a sudden you’ll be confronted with a battle that will have you cursing at the screen and slamming your controller. One or two hits will send Bryce’s head flying into the air far away from the rest of his body, and then once you mange to roll back and reattach to the torso, he’ll be immediately decapitated as soon as he’s whole again, before you’re given a chance to get him out of harm’s way. Sometimes I wish Bryce would just die and respawn at the previous checkpoint to spare me from having to reunite his head with his stomach and limbs for the millionth time.

Compounding the problem is the game’s emphasis on environment destruction. Unlike most games that add destructible environments as a visual touch that superficially makes a game look more exciting, NeverDead uses environment destruction as a weapon. Ceilings can be shot to cause debris to fall on enemies, destroyed pillars become projectiles, and certain walls can be crushed through or collapsed entirely. This is really cool and is actually an effective tool in combat; however falling debris hurts Bryce as much as it does his demon adversaries. Because of this, expect to accidentally mangle yourself on a regular basis.

What’s even more annoying is the way rubble clutters the environment. Severed body parts get stuck up against walls or behind debris and trying to roll Bryce’s head through a mess of bricks and stones is sometimes like traversing an impassable obstacle course. Then you’ve got these pesky little vacuum cleaner demons that are constantly trying to suck up Bryce’s head, at which point a meter pops up on the screen and two points must be stopped at the exact moment they intersect, or else it’s an immediate game over. These Hoover-approved critters never stop respawning as long as other demons are alive, making them unavoidable pests.

I have a few more thoughts to touch on, but before moving the discussion too far let me pause for a moment to let you jump in here, Stephen.

Steve: Well, as an answer to what may have been a rhetorical question at the beginning of all this, I can think of a few other mainstream games that involved a dude using masochism as a puzzle solving device. In 2003’s Voodoo Vince, the titular, self-aware voodoo doll can use levers to activate various traps to light himself aflame to solve puzzles and to punish his burlap form which causes analogous injuries to foes. A couple of years later, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel without a Pulse, a then Xbox exclusive (now available on Steam and Xbox LIVE Marketplace), featured an unlucky traveling salesman who gets turned into a zombie. In addition to commanding a horde of newly raised undead, Stubbs could rip his arm off to have it crawl around like a tarantula to scout out new areas and possess humans by grabbing onto their heads, somehow, to advance the pursuit of brains, or pull his head off to roll it like a bowling ball to trip people. Going back a little further, Treasure’s Dynamite Headdy for the various ‘90s Sega systems (minus the 32X), also fits the bill a little bit insofar as Headdy throws his noggin around instead of shooting a blaster like a normal murderous mascot. While a fun and trivial walk down memory lane, the only thing those games have to do with NeverDead is that all of them are better games to play than Rebellion’s newest offering.

There is not really a lot to say about the story other than perhaps to say “it has one.” I never found the main character or any of supporting cast appealing (“supporting cast” being a bit generous as I believe the game has only 8 or so characters). There is a spoiled, teeny bopper idol that gets a fair amount of screen time that is particularly annoying in her voice, mannerisms, and the way she plays into the story. Perhaps that was the point; she is supposed to be a pain in the bottom, but bratty pop star feels like a tired cliché in 2012.

I would agree that it is clear the one central mechanic that separates NeverDead from other bland, non-cover-based third-person shooters has to do with the title, stated more directly: Bryce can’t die. A little unclearer is the phenomena of the poor man’s Captain Buggy being cleanly dismembered – always only at the ball and socket joint or neck – whenever something hits him. You’d think he’d just have a big cut on his leg, a bloody gash or something equally gruesome a la Death Becomes Her. Instead of taking damage as shown on a meter and having to find health packs or wait for his health to regenerate, the gunman loses limbs. If enough damage is done to the man’s left arm, it will fall off. This has the immediate effect of reducing the amount of dually wielded pistols by one half, and necessitates finding said appendage. The arm usually has an aura glowing about it and is fairly easy to spot when it is not hidden amongst a horde of creatures or under a heap of junk from the partially destructible environments (which it usually is). To reattach the limb, Bryce must go near the arm and do a quick roll to regain the ability to spit bullets in two barrels. There is no animation for this reattachment; it just floats up to the joint.

When one leg is shot off he hops, when both are bitten off he crawls, and when he has no arms he ineffectively head butts baddies. I can’t decide whether it is amusing or insensitive to the disabled, but when he is a just a torso, he flops around like a trout on a river shore. Should it become impossible to gather every piece of the Bry-force, holding a button for a few seconds will regenerate all of his being. This ability is on a fairly slow timer, so it cannot be used very often in a battle.

While all this is somewhat unique, though not as much as previously thought (see supra), it is not necessarily fun. Often what will happen when overwhelmed with enemies is his body will collapse into spare parts, the enemies will hang out near said plugs and sockets and you’ll need to roll over to a safe area to regenerate. Bryce losses parts pretty quickly, so this can happen a lot. When it does happen, there is typically no consequence, just time in the player’s finite lifespan lost. The fun factor tends to swing from novel experience to slowed-down tedium. It does not help that the main character will constantly ask no one in particular “Where is my Right Arm?!?!” and the like over and over again until he is whole. Similarity, sometimes the protagonist will be decapitated and can roll his head around by itself on the floor like a nasty marble (do not look through an image query for “nasty marble” with the safe search function turned off). This lets him run through air ducts to access new places or away from the fray, and he never shuts up about it. “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’,” wasn’t funny the first time. The fiftieth time I heard that lame reference to a decade old nu-metal hit almost made me want to go get something to break. Indeed, dear reader, I needed someone to give me something to break. And, as an aside, I hope you know I pack a chainsaw, to skin an ass raw.

See, that reference was neither timely nor funny, but at least you don’t have to read it another hundred times while trying to blast enemies and save some bratty, blond bimbo.

Failure, from an objective fulfilling perspective, comes from either the ingestion of the main character’s severed head by strange little blue basketball shaped monsters covered with tentacles or from the death of Bryce’s partner Arcadia, the aforementioned hen-pecking slattern. Both give a chance for last second redemption. The gal can be helped back up to her feet if she gets knocked down and the overly active head is given one chance to escape if a timing mini-game is completed. It is amusing to see the panicked face of the immortal struggling to free himself from a squishy hentai tribble’s innards. It is not fun or amusing to have to repeat an entire section because a button was hit at the wrong time. The problem with these limited means of demise was that it felt like there was very little danger in the game world. I would have preferred that death be entirely eliminated rather than only dying in cheap ways like digestion and escort buddy down.

Dismemberment design aside, the problem in the game is the combat. Unlike Matt, I did not find the game difficult at any point, just boring. There are two ways, apart from thrown exploding limbs, to kill demons: guns and a big sword. The guns feel totally ineffective. It is necessary to fully empty clips from guns held in both hands to kill the smallest of demons. Conversely, the sword kills the same demon in three or four hits. Comparisons might be drawn at this point to Devil May Cry, where Dante’s semi-automatics do little damage and are mainly there to break up the swordplay or keep combo chains going. So while Bryce might effectively have his own Ebony and Ivory, the problem is that the sword play is sloppy. Rather than pressing the Attack button, the demon hunter has to lock onto an enemy and then swing his sword in the cardinal directions when the player waggles an analogue stick. There are no combos and no difference in effectiveness that I saw when different enemies were hit from different sides or at different angles. Just get up next to the enemy and move the stick back and forth a lot and you’ll win. There are upgrades for the gun power, but even leveled up they felt useless. The most boring parts of the game stem from many, many rooms that force the immortal to destroy mouth-like nodes that barf up enemies until they are destroyed. Which is all well and good in theory, but when the most effective way to deal with the problem is to get up next to them and flail a sword around, it does not make for edge-of-your-seat action.

Now, the news is not all bad with NeverDead. The creature design is largely very distinct and memorable. The weird little blue head-sucker-uppers look like alien fauna that Fantastic Four would have encountered in the Silver Age. The dog demons, called “puppies”, have squat, little legs and then a central body that is entirely comprised of a huge maw with many rows of pointy teeth. Bizarre, otherworldly giant knives and machine guns on stilt-like legs also pose a threat. These creatures are fun to look at, but it is a shame they are not more fun to kill. Also, aside from the bosses, there are only another two or three enemy variants than these detailed here. The boss battles are dull, pattern repeating affairs which are substantially slowed down by waiting to either recharge the ability to regenerate or roll around the level looking for limbs.

Matt: Thanks for the refresher course on masochistic gaming heroes. I’d forgotten about good ol’ Dynamite Headdy! I know of Voodoo Vince and Stubbs the Zombie, but I never owned the original Xbox (just played a friend’s from time to time) so I missed out on playing those when they were first coming out. I’ve actually been meaning to track down an old copy of Stubbs to play on my 360 (unfortunately Voodoo Vince was never made backwards compatible). Still, I’m thinking NeverDead’s approach pushes the boundaries even further, for better and worse.

I’m surprised to hear you didn’t find the game that challenging. From the perspective of having to die and retry a lot, this game isn’t that difficult since there are only two ways to actually fail and have a game over screen shoved in your face, and both of those ways have player-controlled workarounds. However, the game can be absolutely maddening due to how easily Bryce falls apart. I recall walking into countless rooms only to watch Bryce’s head go flying after a single hit, and then the next few minutes would be spent avoiding enemies to refill the regeneration meter or survive the cranium-rolling trek back to wherever the torso flopped off to. Danger is a constant, even if technically you can’t die.

After the first two or three levels, I was so steaming mad that I wanted to rip the disc out of my PS3 and crack it in half. But the upgrade system turned out to be a life saver, really helping to balance things out. Even though I still had to battle through a few more severe difficulty spikes, I rather enjoyed the remaining two-thirds of the campaign.

One ability upgrade in particular, called Sixth Sense, alleviated much of the hassle. With Sixth Sense equipped, a slow-mo effect automatically kicks in whenever there’s threat of an enemy strike or architectural collapse, thus providing a little extra time to roll out of harm’s way and avoid combustible dismemberment. This ability doesn’t make the game any easier, per say, as you still have to be pretty nimble and aware of your surroundings to avoid whatever is about to hit you, but it does cut down on the cheap hits and the subsequent tedium of having to collect body parts so often.

Upgrades are beneficial in a myriad other ways too, and because you’re limited on skill slots there is some tactical thinking that goes into preparing for each encounter. Some abilities bolster sword/gun damage or increase running speed, while others speed the refill time on the regeneration meter or give a boost to the rate of experience gain so you can unlock better skills quicker. The fact that Bryce starts out so weak is the real problem here, and why I think I encountered so many frustrations early on. But as I upgraded abilities and found a skill blend that worked for me, the game became less work and more fun. NeverDead is a very slow starter, but it gradually gets better as Bryce shakes off the rigor mortis.

Button mashing (or should I say analog stick mashing?) does indeed turn the game into a boring trudge through waves of the same handful of demons, but there’s actually a lot more to the combat than I think you’re recognizing. Enemies do in fact have weaknesses to different weapons and attack angles, with guns effective against certain foes but weak against others. Once shotguns, assault rifles and grenade launches join the arsenal, projectile weaponry becomes the most effective way to quickly eradicate certain monsters. Catching Bryce on fire or picking up an electrical charge by stepping on exposed wires adds elemental damage over time effects to gunfire as well, which is a nice touch.

Wild sword flailing works, but it’s also the slowest, most tedious way imaginable to play this game. There is a method to alternating the angle of attack and timing slashes, and there are upgrades for a charged attack and a combination strike. Dealing with those demon-barfing spawning machines you mention isn’t so tedious when you drop a ceiling down on them, use arm grenades, or sword slice with focused timing over frenzied slashing. The combat system is far away from what I would ever consider graceful or sophisticated, but it does have layers of complexity that may go unnoticed.

One thing it seems we can both agree on here is the creature design. Others you didn’t mention include hulking beasts called “pandas” that charge full-steam ahead like Juggernaut, flying gargoyle-like monsters that rain down laser beams, and these strange beings that suck up surrounding objects (dumpsters, barrels, boxes, etc.) to fling at you. They’re almost like walking black holes with rock shields protecting their soft spots. I do disagree a bit on the bosses, though. Some do involve nothing more than dull, predictable pattern recognition, but just as many require clever usage of Bryce’s dismemberment skills. A flying demon moth-like baddie comes to mind: you have to blast its soft underbelly while waiting for it to open its mouth, at which point you chuck in a limb to do massive damage. The end boss also brings in some neat tricks with portals and shifting terrain.

Have you been able to test out any of the online mode? Low exposure games like this typically draw larger multiplayer crowds on Xbox Live, but unlike the game’s hero, the PS3 version’s online is completely dead at this point, which saddens me some because I do like the game enough that I wish I could do some demon slaying with others. Browsing through the setup process, it looks like some of the events could be interesting, such as cooperative wave survival and civilian rescues as well as competitive egg collection games and checkpoint races. It would have been nice had these been playable offline or even soloable in some capacity.

Even with some dispute, I think we both can agree that this is not a good game by conventional standards. NeverDead is saddled by a lot of flaws, some of the design elements so ill conceived it makes you want to scratch your head. But it’s obvious I was able to uncover redeeming qualities where you could not, and that is fine.

It comes down to this: If you’re willing to endure some early pain – inflicted both by frustration and tedium – there is a fun action game buried amongst the jumbled mess of dismembered body parts. I know I shouldn’t like it but can’t deny that I do, for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger directly on. NeverDead has become a total guilty pleasure. Everyone has those games in their collections, and this is one of mine. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to replay it and have to endure the early aggravations again, but I’m glad I saw through the game’s negative reception and played it for myself. If you have a similar ability to find the good in a game over the bad and have the patience to stick with it through the tough times, I think you’ll find NeverDead worth taking a chance on as a rental or, at the most, a low-risk bargain bin pickup.

Matt-TryIt

Pros:
+ Unique combat and puzzle mechanics are fun in a not-so-traditional kind of way
+ Surprisingly in-depth upgrade system offers a lot of customization and helps balance the early growing pains
+ Bizarre creature designs and some pretty inventive bosses
+ Mass dismemberment leads to some Monty Python-esque humor

Cons:
– Maddening difficulty spikes
– Bryce starts off too weak and explodes into a mess of body parts far too easily
– Constantly rolling Bryce’s head through piles of debris becomes awfully tedious
– Body part puzzle designs don’t push the envelope as much as they could have

Steve: I think my problem with the guns is not that later guns are as totally ineffective as the early ones, it is that I burned through their ammo so much that they might as well not have been there. I do like the one-handed cocking animation with the shotgun. Bryce will let go of it for a second and catch it in mid air to pump it, but after the shells go out, it’s back to waggle time. It is not that it takes a long time to kill enemies or nodes with the sword, probably only fifteen seconds or so for the toughest armored mouths vomiting up enemies, it is just boring. This is the main problem I have with the game, a general lack of interest in it and what is going on within it. A bit like the main character, who seems to have grown apathetic to his own existence, having learned that without the threat of loss there is little meaning to any conflict. At no point was there any incentive for me to change things up because the waggle through it method absolutely gets the job done. Had I known I could have gotten through it faster with timing sword swings, I would have done so with that motivation. But largely as long as one avoids the little blue head eaters, it is hard to fail. All the gameplay might be OK if the action were faster, a little flashier or had a noticeable reward for changing things up other than faster progression. For me, this game was a slog to get through, and I only cared to see the interesting-looking bosses, and eventually, the end.

As for the online mode, I am reminded of the scene in A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer’s Yuletide loving nephew decides to throw a lavish party for all of his friends and whatever money grubbing relatives happen to be guilted by ghosts into showing up. In the party a phased out of reality Scrooge watches the partygoers play a game of similes because that is what people had to do back then while they waited for the alcohol and snuff to kick in. The game is played by the host going around the room saying “[insert adjective] as” and the person challenged must respond with the most commonly accepted simile in five seconds or be out. I guess the last person left is the King of Xmas and gets to have his way with the protagonist’s niece-in-law (the book does not really elaborate on the spoils). So a typical back and forth would be the challenge “Proud as,” with the respondent saying “a peacock.” The gag that everyone shares at Scrooge’s expense is when the challenge “Tight as” is given, the response is “Your uncle Scrooge’s purse strings.” While amusing, it is not the correct response of “a drum” and the wise cracker is out.

If I were playing similes and the challenge “dead as” came up, I would be out with my response of “the online scene in NeverDead.” No mulled punch for me.

Like the above, NeverDead is a long and dull walk with little payoff. It is not my opinion that this is a horrible, horrible game that is riddled with bugs and a lack of any objective. Rather, the impression felt in my mind after thankfully hitting the eject button to forever remove it from my 360 was that it is just a boring game. The uninspired characters, drab levels, repetitive sounds, and utter failure to do anything interesting makes it difficult for me to recommend. The idea of an action game with a main character that can never die is a good one, but the game feels like a last generation game that does not bring anything memorable to the table other than this initial concept. If Bayonetta had just been a simple run and gunner with a buxom lady who has guns strapped to her feet, it would not have been memorable or even worth a second look. At the right price and in the right circumstances, you could play NeverDead. But in today’s environment of more good games than could ever be fully played, in my opinion it is not worth anyone’s time.

(Historian’s note: I think “high heels which are also guns” might be a feature unique to Bayonetta. Cherry’s machinegun leg in the grindhouse flick Planet Terror is sort of close, but not quite the same.)

Stephen-SkipIt

Pros:
+ Enemies have an interesting look
+ The idea of a dismemberable hero is novel

Cons:
– The core action is not fun
– Level design can be confusing
– Voice acting falls flat

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (Both platforms reviewed)
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Rebellion
Release Date: 1/31/2012
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (2-4 online)
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!