Giant Bomb Review

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NeverDead Review

2
  • X360

NeverDead's one-note dismemberment gimmick wears out its welcome long before you reach the game's miserable conclusion.

Only a few arduous hours into NeverDead's campaign, its title suddenly sounds much less like a potential boon than a veiled threat. By that point, the developers at Rebellion have long since shown their hand. You've seen every mechanic, concept, and joke the game has to offer, but you still have several more hours of those exact things to slog through. The same cheesy one-liners, the same cumbersome combat sequences, the same idiotic puzzle sequences, it all just keeps repeating itself for hours and hours until it finally gets around to tossing out two of the most poorly-designed boss fights in recallable memory. By the time you're ready for NeverDead's campaign to be over with, it won't be anywhere near so. It just...won't...die.

Try not to lose your head playing NeverDead. Seriously, don't. It's really frustrating when you do.
Try not to lose your head playing NeverDead. Seriously, don't. It's really frustrating when you do.

That's perhaps fitting, given that NeverDead's conception of immortality is something akin to Sisyphean torment. Its lead character, the blandly grizzled Bryce Boltzmann, has lived for centuries thanks to an ill-defined curse by some manner of demonic asshole. When mortal injury strikes Bryce, he doesn't so much get hurt as he does just kind of burst apart at the seams. Remember those old Incredible Crash Test Dummies action figures? The ones that exploded at the arms, legs, and neck if you breathed on them too hard? That's Bryce in a nutshell.

That's also NeverDead's sole distinction. Rebellion has centered the entirety of this aggressively unpleasant character action game's design around Bryce's constantly crumbling frame. The slightest brush from a nearby enemy will send any number of limbs flying, which Bryce then has to scramble to pick back up (or find a nearby regeneration icon to magically regrow them). It's even nuttier when Bryce's skull pops off, in that you suddenly find yourself in control of a severed head that feels a little bit like what would happen if a Katamari could verbally curse its own existence.

When you aren't frantically trying to reassemble yourself, you're fighting off generically grotesque demon grunts in rooms that receive those wonderful magical demon barriers that block the exit until you've killed every last one of them, as well as the "womb" that barfs them out ceaselessly until you destroy it. You can choose to do so either with the game's clunky gun combat--aiming barely functions at all unless you go into the more precise aiming mode, which also happens to slow you down immensely--or use Bryce's comically oversized sword, which you can't swing unless you press the lock-on button, and then use the right analog stick to swing with. Imagine the shot stick in EA's NHL series, but about a thousand times less functional; that's the idea here.

The controls and combat aiming are cumbersome enough without NeverDead's myriad camera problems. Thanks to your general inability to see what the hell is going on around you, battles tend to devolve into chaotic messes in which you just swing your sword wildly and assume you're hitting things. The destructible environments--which are pretty much NeverDead's sole visual element worth lauding--also do damage to enemies, so in a sense, your best bet in most non-boss combat scenarios is to just wave your sword around like a crazed lunatic and explode every piece of scenery you can, because odds are some of that stuff will hit enemies and kill them, or maybe your sword will, or maybe they'll just knock your head off and it'll get sucked up by those skull-eating demons that skitter around every single level.

What is this even supposed to be?
What is this even supposed to be?

That's NeverDead's way of creating some semblance of a "lose" condition. After all, Bryce is technically immortal, so how do you create a game around a guy you can't kill? By bringing out demons that will suck up your severed head in a second, if you aren't careful. Once it does devour your head, a brief, timing-based minigame pops up that, if successful, flings your head back out into the battle zone. If you fail, your head remains in that demon's digestive tract forever.

It's a potentially amusing little spin on the idea of video game death that becomes decidedly unamusing when you bump up against NeverDead's half-busted physics. Once your head pops off, your body goes all rag doll, and sometimes lands in positions that makes it nigh-on impossible to actually reattach yourself. Never mind that you're a pitiful head rolling around a dizzying and chaotic battlefield in which demons will often knock you back dozens of feet just by bumping into you. In one level section, I spent upwards of 10 minutes just trying to reattach my head. Whether it was getting sucked into a demon's belly, getting knocked back to the opposite side of the level, or getting knocked into a wall I literally could not escape from without restarting from the last checkpoint, every single possible factor combined to award this moment as one of the single most irritating gameplay experiences I've ever endured.

Incidentally, that award only lasted for about four hours, because later in the game, I came across the game's second-to-last boss, which then ripped that dubious award away for itself. To put it succinctly, NeverDead's boss fights are obnoxious, laborious affairs that test your patience far more than your skill. Everything is pretty much just a variation on "hit the weak point until it morphs into something else, then hit that something else's weak point," with only the occasional life-regenerating quirk thrown in for good measure. It's bad in the beginning, still bad in the middle, and by the time you get to the last couple of boss fights, you'll wish you'd never put this disc in your console to begin with. There is challenge, there is frustration, and then somewhere, thousands of feet beyond frustration, there is NeverDead, gleefully flipping you off as you endure yet another horrendous boss fight.

What's really baffling about NeverDead is how utterly pointless all of it feels. Even the most superfluously silly games usually try to justify their existence in some way, either by being somewhat funny, or doing something that feels remotely unique. Instead, NeverDead puts all of its chips on its barely-amusing-for-a-minute dismemberment gimmick, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing to build out the rest of the world around it. It's as if someone with a genuine disdain for the games of Suda 51 sat there, trying to pick apart what it is that people like so damn much about his works, then proceeded to didactically try to assemble those ideas into a game without ever completely understanding them.

Presumably Arcadia is there to titillate, but all she does is irritate.
Presumably Arcadia is there to titillate, but all she does is irritate.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game's story, which might as well not even exist. The back story of Bryce is told through a few cheesy cutscenes in which we learn all about how he and his demon-hunting wife were defeated by the earlier-mentioned demonic jerk, leaving her dead and him forever cursed. Knowing this back story does little to endear Bryce to the audience, as the tragedy of his former life and the shittiness of his current life never quite come together into something you'll remotely care about.

The real issue is that Bryce's role as a modern day demon hunter is severely underwritten. He's a pile of really annoying one-liners--most of which involve hacky passes at his female compatriot, a non-immortal human named Arcadia--and no actual personality. He bitches ad infinitum whenever he loses a limb, repeating the same three or four lines until you actually get around to regrowing whatever limb he lost. His sexual deviancy and utter disregard for personal hygiene elicit mild chuckles during their first couple of examples, but by the hundredth time you've heard Bryce crack the same basic one-liner he's been cracking all game long, you'll really wish he could be killed. Immediately.

The surrounding cast and plot is no better. Your companion Arcadia is written as little more than sarcastic cleavage that you have to rescue a tad too often (except when you can't because demons keep knocking your damn head off). The demons you hunt are largely bland monsters devoid of personality. The sole exception is Sangria, a Duke of Hell with the personality of a Southern dandy and the visual aesthetic of Mark McKinney's Chicken Lady by way of a catastrophic acid trip. He's such an over-the-top goof that at a point, I almost started rooting for him to make good on his evil plan and dispatch Bryce and company. That evil plan, by the way, inexplicably involves a petulant teenage pop singer who looks like she wandered in out of a dinner theater production of Final Fantasy X-2. You will hate her.

This is nowhere near as cathartic as it should be.
This is nowhere near as cathartic as it should be.

Therein lies NeverDead's greatest failure--it mistakes lazy sarcasm spouted by lousy characters for clever outsider humor. Suda 51 has made his reputation crafting very strange games around very strange characters who sometimes aren't immediately likable. The difference between what Suda does and what Rebellion has done here is that Suda still finds time to add layers to his characters that make them far more interesting than they initially appear. Even a chucklehead badass like Shadows of the Damned's Garcia Hotspur morphs into something far more interesting as that game goes along, due in no small part to unexpected character touches and unpredictable humor. The writers of NeverDead never find a way to deliver any more than the expected. Bryce never morphs into anything beyond what we expect him to become. His personality never grows into anything worth laughing at, let alone sympathize with.

And that's not even to mention the variety of technical gaffes and awkwardly built mechanics that permeate much of NeverDead's experience. Certainly Suda's games are known for their sometimes frustrating jankiness, but that's pretty much all NeverDead consists of. It's all of the jank with none of the charm.

I haven't even mentioned NeverDead's multiplayer component--a cooperative arena battle style mode that brings to bear all the worst traits of the single-player combat, and somehow makes things even more chaotic--but at this point, do I really need to? Nothing about NeverDead works, even when it's working as intended. No amount of perfunctory challenge maps can make up for a game design so functionally lazy, so utterly indifferent to your enjoyment, that it can't even be bothered to make its lone gimmick work even slightly well within its hacked-together world. If the developers in charge of NeverDead didn't care enough to make it a remotely enjoyable experience, why should you care enough to bother with it?

Alex Navarro on Google+