Konami’s NeverDead is a game that seems promising enough. You can’t die. You dual-wield some pretty badass guns and claim a formidable-looking sword. The protagonist, Bryce Boltzmann, is an immortal demon hunter whose wife was killed by the demon king, Astaroth. So you’ve got a formula fit for an action-adventure title where your main protagonist has every reason to decimate any environment he comes across in his quest to defeat his nemesis.
Add to that the fact that you can tear off appendages and still use them to shoot enemies and the intrigue grows moreso. Seriously: You can toss an arm halfway across the room and have it shoot demons while it’s detached. How, then, does it all go so wrong?
NeverDead is an okay game. Heck, it almost borders on enjoyable — when it works. And those three words are what make playing the game painful at times. The team at Rebellion Developments has some fairly good, original ideas. It’s just a shame that they never amount to anything more than short bursts of fun that fall apart when the game tries to kick things up a notch.
NeverDead uses both front shoulder buttons to trigger Bryce’s guns, a mechanic that plays decently when you’re fighting enemies up close. Pressing the triangle button holsters your guns and equips the Butterfly Blade, which is unsheathed by holding the L1 button. While Bryce is in his defensive stance, you use the right joystick to slash. Switching between these two button configurations is how you’ll spend most of your time in NeverDead.
The sword controls are easy to get the hang of and satisfying when you’re given room to breathe. The dual-wielding mechanic NeverDead employs is also enjoyable. It’s unfortunate, then, that both features are hampered by sub-par enemy encounters and a lack of overall polish.
Although the control schemes in NeverDead work for the most part, it’s putting them to any skilled use that’s the problem. Neither sword- nor gunplay is very quick, which allows you to be precise with your shots and swings. Unfortunately, most enemies, particularly those in the latter half of the game, hardly give you an opportunity to play well. Instead I found myself running around with the Butterfly Blade equipped, swinging for dear life in hopes that the barrages of enemies would subside.
The hordes of enemies onscreen at a given moment weren’t necessarily the problem, either. In NeverDead, your character can’t die. Instead, each time he takes a substantial hit or gets sliced by one of the billions of blade-headed monsters, he’ll lose an arm, a leg, his head or all five (There are seriously demons that are almost literally walking swords.) You then retrieve each body part in a twisted Katamari-esque style, tapping O to collect appendages as you make your way back to Bryce’s body.
Although you can’t die, it’s almost preferable to what you’re subjected to when faced with attacks coming from every direction. One moment you’re slicing and dicing through a mob of demons, the next your head is rolling halfway across the room because a foe jumped out of an area that’s not even in your periphery to decapitate you. As Bryce’s head rolls around, it could get sucked up by Grandbabies. Once inside these things’ stomachs, you’re subject to a timed button-pressing mini-game that, if failed, forces you to start over from the most recent checkpoint.
All this wouldn’t be so bad if Bryce’s head didn’t crawl at a snail’s pace. Even when you purchase an upgrade that enhances its rolling speed, it’s still not enough. Add the fact that the reattachment mechanic is so finicky that you must pose Bryce’s severed head directly above the neck in order to resume playing and large-scale melees become that much more frustrating. Oh, and did I mention that the environments are destructible? They are. And sometimes that debris can land right on Bryce’s body, keeping you from continuing playing until your “health” meter is refilled so you can summon Bryce’s torso and appendages immediately.
You see the same basic combination of demons in every single stage. Four-legged monstrosities called “puppies” and those blade-headed demons populate every stage. There are a few more types, some of which hide pretty clever attack patterns, but it all comes down to slicing and dicing and unloading countless pounds of lead into each and every one. It wouldn’t be so bad if nearly every stage didn’t devolve into a 50-on-two contest between hordes of demons and the game’s dual protagonists.
You’ll be hard-up to explain any purpose Bryce has for a partner in NeverDead. An agent for a forgettable, demon-hunting government organization, Arcadia is the first person you see in the game as she’s attacked by a puppy. The relationship between her and Bryce is often hinted at but never fully explored. On the surface she’s a by-the-books agent and he’s a rogue demon hunter just looking for his next paycheck to pay for another round of drinks. Actually, that’s probably about it.
There’s never sufficient meaningful interaction between the two characters for you to develop any attachment to their relationship. When Arcadia is attacked as you make it through the game, you’re tasked with healing her with a press of the square button. And that’s all she does. She gets hurt — that’s her thing. Sure, Arcadia’ll shoot a demon or two for you, but at the end of the day she’s the reason you’re finding alternate routes through areas and solving puzzles to put out fires and unlock doors. Gameplay-wise, she’s a burden. As far as the story goes, she’s pretty disposable. Well, except for the one scene where she pretty much tells you the entire story so it wouldn’t have to be incorporated into any other part of the game.
But you can totally look up her skirt if you’re into that sort of thing (Don’t judge: One of the trophies is awarded only if you explore Arcadia’s entire apartment and the woman gets in the way all the time.) It’s not like Rebellion Developments really makes a secret of wanting you to ogle Arcadia. There are plenty of cutscenes that are either introduced by a close-up of her derriere or where the last thing you see is her bust moving directly toward the camera. For a woman who hunts demons professionally, she also gets grossed-out pretty easily and frequently. It’s only a matter of time until she’s the subject of a feminist gamer rant on patriarchy in the industry.
Remember how I said Bryce’s wife was killed by a demon king 500 years ago? You wouldn’t be able to tell by the way he carries himself throughout the game. It’s almost as if he’s dealt with that particular loss over the half-millenium he’s been alive. Now it’s all about shooting demons and drinking brewskies. Where, then, is the motivation on my part to trudge through every stage and prevent Astaroth’s resurrection? There isn’t any.
As for the game’s multiplayer, you basically co-op a handful of stages with friends or strangers online. Not much more to it than that. At the end of the day, NeverDead is a game without a purpose. Its characters give the player no motivation to hang around and the gameplay holds hints of promise that it wastes with sub-par controls and infuriating enemy encounters. There are a few bright spots, namely in spectacular set-piece boss fights, but it’s much too little to recommend this game when there are other titles willing to deliver more satisfying sequences without the weight of poor experiences as bookends.