The worst part of this job is reporting on a game that's got a lot of good ideas but can't unify them into a cohesive whole.
It's certainly the case with NeverDead, which sells itself with cool concept, likeable lead and hellishly imaginative enemies. It scores easy points immediately for striking out into Demon Hunter territory; that stubble-sporting, hell-raising subculture of the action adventure genre that, if it's not posturing through a series of ever-more ludicrous cutscenes, it's cutting through hordes of foes by way of olympian feats and an expansive combat system.
The rich vein of cigarettes, one liners and oversized swords can be argued as either tongue-in-cheek or crass. But even detractors can't dismiss the depth of gameplay that when done right, can offer the wealthiest selection of split-second battle tactics this side of Street Fighter.
NeverDead scores the triple bullseye with cocky protagonist, T&A cutscene shots and an upgradable move set that strengthens fighting strategies. It slam-dunks the frantic nature of overwhelming odds, huge bosses, dual-wielded guns and massive chopper for close encounters. Then shoots itself in both feet by mismanaging the enterprise with a claustrophobic camera and two quality gameplay hooks that are used without a necessary conservatism.
Gameplay: tackling a relentless barrage of enemies across police stations, subways, bridges and skyscrapers, with doorways locked until rooms are cleared. Typical of the genre, and new foe types are slowly introduced over the course of the eight hour or so campaign. Skittering demon dogs with huge leaping lunges, squat mouths with legs who projectile-vomit debris with a sniper's aim, legged blade-stalks who scythe at close range and more, each with a particular strategy needed to take out quickly.
You're frequently swamped. And it's here that the component cogs to the machine start chewing on your appreciation - and each other.
NeverDead pinballs you between tight corridors and open arenas, which are also cramped. The genre's icons - and we're aware that NeverDead doesn't try to ape them in this capacity, but it should do - keep the camera pulled out of the action so you're aware of enemy location and your immediate surroundings at a glance and therefore are able to chain together an attack strategy on the fly. These titles give you a generously long rolling dodge to skilfully duck enemy attacks that you've seen coming.
NeverDead keeps the camera locked in over Bryce's shoulder. As such, your peripheral vision is heavily restricted and at odds with the moves required to counter attacks and dodge others. Study of enemy movements matter little when you're unaware of where they are, and skirting the borders of each area while back-pedalling to keep everything in sight seems counter to what you want to do.
There are mechanics sown into the combat system to keep numbers manageable, split up attacking groups, and thin the herd: but their execution lacks precision.
The first, and the biggest hook for the game, is how the developer plays on Bryce's immortality: immortal doesn't equate to invincible body. Rare is it that five minutes goes by and one or more limbs aren't being severed from your torso by attacks.
Even your head's relationship with the body isn't assured. Body parts lopped off by attacks, torn off by explosions or splattered apart by long drops lie where they land until roll into them to bind them to you once more.
The situation arises more often than not that you're left rolling your bowling ball of a head around an area looking for spare parts, or waiting for a short recharge to finish so you can regrow your bits with a click of a stick.
It's partly sold as a fighting mechanic. Theoretically you can tear off your arm, weapon still gripped tight, and toss it to one side of the room, using it for covering fire or a trap to lure enemies into. The loading screen tips repeatedly references tossing arms as distraction for the standard dog-like demons to chase.
Yet either strategy rarely materialises. You're either overwhelmed by beasts hounding at your waist to think past surviving the next ten seconds, or you're unable to gain enough breathing space to break up the attacking horde successfully. Due to the camera disabling the chance of a wider view and thus opening up your back to attack, your reduction to 'armless hop-along is a foregone conclusion. If there's a silver lining to the continual recollection of your bits is that it breaks up the drudgery that demon-slaying becomes after a while.
XP collection lets you unlock new abilities with an emphasis on higher attack percentages for standard moves. You've only got a limited selection of slots, and better moves take up multiple. To begin it's a nice restriction, suggesting customising play styles, but even by the third act the choke-hold on slots hasn't lessened, making later slot-swallowing purchases worthless. You'll need to retain some essential abilities just to keep up.
Such as an optional slow-mo mode that kicks in when you're near danger. It's highly recommended upon debut in the in-game store, but should have been default from the start. It gives you a much needed moment to respond to threats, counters the camera issue - and gets the heart rate pumping. Dodging debris, trains, cars, collapsing bridges all show how to do brilliant set-pieces without QTEs, keeping the player in total control. We're getting a buzz of remembrance from those moments just writing this.
Another brilliant idea with poor execution is the extensive environmental damage system, offered to such an excessive and joyous degree that we've rarely seen since John Woo's Stranglehold.
Structural integrity be damned as you can sword slam or shoot walls, ceilings, pillars - anything - with the plan to hammer enemies with debris for an outright kill, or at least tear off a chunk of their energy bar. Likewise you can charge your body with electricity from cables or set your flesh on fire to stun or damage enemies.
However, aside from shooting down ceilings, it's hard to judge where debris will fall, and thus it's more chance than planning that'll see collapses toppling your foes. As for the fire and electric damage, barrels or electrified panels hug the edges of open areas so that they never fit smoothly into your combat flow: you'll need to break off, find one, absorb, and run back into battle - hopefully before the effects dissipate from your body.
Surprisingly for a game that's offering such a diverse range of demons, the bosses, at least early on, are the weakest part of the experience. Design-wise, fantastic. A Sword-Pig, a six-limbed sharp-snouted beast straight out of a Studio Ghibli feature. A hulking Hydra that turns into a room-swallowing eyeless bumblebee when its heads are lopped off.
Gameplay wise? Frustrating, with the Hydra especially needing to be lured into a doorway to trap its heads in a manoeuvre whose activation seems frustratingly random. They do get better though - your nemesis who's hilariously self-aware that he's playing the bad guy, a swollen and effeminate frog-like creature, a huge demon whose stomach is disguised as an office block. There's a inventiveness that, along with a fairly light but entertaining story, drives you on to see what's next.
NeverDead escalates the odds so deftly - from the mid-act subway brawl to the closing act's charge through a ravaged city - you wish the rest of the game was stitched together with such care.
Yet it's a game that feels ill-formed: you can see what's intended, enjoy the separate parts for what they are, but are left wondering what could have been had design choices fitted differently.
It's the fascination of seeing a disembowelled man: objectively you could appreciate the compact components and how they work together, but you can't eradicate that sick feeling that the parts are not where they should be.
- System:PS3, Xbox 360
- Offline players:1
- Release date:02 February 2012
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