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Without a head in NeverDead [Review]

30 Jan 2012  by   Paul Younger
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If I’m being kind, I’d describe NeverDead as Bayonetta with guns. If I’m being honest, I’d describe it as an interesting mess.
NeverDead’s opening cinematic sets the tone perfectly for what’s to come. A young woman (clothed in the kind of lower body wear that would most certainly warrant a ban from BBC programming) is being accosted by a dog-like creature of sorts.
This dog is hardly Lassie. Packing savage, great white shark style teeth and an equally savage asshole (a white baby in place of inwardly-folding skin) this beast has a taste for our provocatively dressed friend. If the baby-asshole-dog wasn’t enough, the opening also depicts a scene from the past featuring a demon that can only be described as a posh looking Jabba the Hutt (complete with Victorian ruffle and garish leggings).
Posh Jabba is throwing a fellow demon out of hell, and it’s through the eyes of the banished that we view NeverDead. Back in the present day and the world of humans, the banished’s name is Bryce Boltzmann and he’s a demon hunter. Yeah, a demon as a demon hunter… so many layers there.

However, the demon hunter thing is not NeverDead’s main selling point. That’s reserved for Bryce’s ability to be torn limb-from-limb and not die. Not only that, but he can reattach his limbs simply by rolling over them.
It’s a crazy premise and a crazy game. The sheer volume of wackiness on offer acts as an incredibly strong force in making you want to like it. I really want to like this game. Unfortunately, try as I might, the execution of the gameplay makes liking it an incredibly difficult job. It’s almost as if the dev team at Rebellion have tried to create an action game in the Japanese style of over-the-top action and constant challenge, but have failed to balance the ideas with the interaction.
Losing limbs aside, the idea behind NeverDead is a tried and tested one. Work through levels which are split into areas of combat, dispatch of the high number of enemies you encounter in each zone, solve the odd minor puzzle/platforming section, defeat the level boss and repeat until complete. It’s Devil May Cry without the slick style or intriguing members of the underworld.

Unfortunately, a dodgy camera, inconsistent enemies, areas that are too confined, a re-limbing mechanic that works only when it wants to and some very suspect boss designs do their upmost to rid you of any enjoyment or satisfaction whatsoever. For every moment of wonder as you attach head to torso, via right leg and left arm, there’s a moment of frustration as one of the game’s many systems fails to live up to its billing.
Initially it’s forgivable, but the irritation is cumulative and gets to the point (after only a few levels) where it becomes a genuine hurdle to your desire to see the game out.
There is no one element that is more annoying than the other, each note combining to form an un-Godly crescendo. The two notes that appear most frequently are the awkward camera and areas that are much too small to properly show off the combat. Of course, these two are intimately related, with the camera forced into sub-par positions due to the size of the locales.
However, it’s the inability to defend enemy attacks that renders these areas particularly annoying. Blocking and dodging are your only realistic options when it comes to defending yourself, but both prove useless in tight confines; blocking is only effective in one direction and dodging (via rolling) doesn’t work when there’s nowhere to dive to.

To make things worse, levels can take 45 minutes to complete which is particularly grating when you’re stuck in one consisting mostly of corridors. Much of the environment is destructible, which adds a pinch of drama and randomness to proceedings thanks to the incoherent way it’s implemented. On many more than one occasion I was caught off guard by a pillar, wall, ceiling or rogue piece of masonry that killed everything in sight and left Bryce spread over all corners of the room.
Some indication of what can and cannot be destroyed would be welcome. You can’t even presume that everything is destructible, because the rules seem to change from one room to the next – with previously brittle pillars becoming as strong as steel without explanation.
Despite all of this, the humour to be had in losing and re-attaching your limbs is palpable. Never before have I purposely electrocuted myself in order to forcefully pop my head off of my shoulders with a view to rolling it through an air vent and opening a door.
Still, even with the de/re-limbing mechanic there are problems. These problems come in the form of rendering Bryce as a bit of false hero. While it may be neat that he can survive such brutal injuries, the frequency with which he survives them makes you question how special he really is. If we’re supposed to feel like a ‘bad ass’ while playing as Bryce, why are we being compromised so often?
Sure, he can reattach his limbs, but wouldn’t it be more impressive if he were skilled enough to not take so much damage in the first place? Rebellion clearly want you to experience what it’s like to wander the Earth without a leg, which is presumably why the enemies and the environment rip them off so often and without giving you a fair chance to defend yourself against it.
I’m all for interesting new gameplay mechanics, but when the rest of the game suffers in a bid to wedge them in somehow I’m not impressed.
There are some good ideas in NeverDead, it’s just a shame that they sit so clumsily on top of one another. Expanding the environments and rethinking the frequency in which your limbs are removed would improve the game no end. As it stands, NeverDead’s primary mechanic is so overdone it’s a chore rather than a pleasure.
This is a genre that is hardly lacking for content. Unless you’re a true hack ‘n’ slash nut, I recommend you look elsewhere. 

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