The trouble with good ideas is that unless they’re backed up by further good ideas, they might as well be bad ideas in the end. NeverDead is built on at least a couple of really good ideas, but before they even get the chance to shine, some bad ideas sneak up behind them, pull down their pants, shout ‘Check this out!’ then run away, leaving the good ideas looking rather stupid and embarrassed to be there.
The first good idea is to make the non-fatal dismemberment of the main character a key feature. It’s a good idea because it should be funny and because it ought to open up some unique gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, NeverDead only occasionally succeeds in the first regard and almost totally fails in the second.
So, while on a purely aesthetic level it’s funny to see NeverDead’s protagonist, Bryce, literally going to pieces, the more you play the game the more apparent it becomes that the dismemberment system is actually little more than a really annoying, tedious, convoluted substitute for a health bar.
While Bryce, an immortal demon hunter, cannot ‘die’ per se, his head can be swallowed by a ‘grandbaby’ demon, which will then attempt in vain to digest it for all eternity. This constitutes a Game Over moment and therefore also constitutes, for all gaming intents and purposes, dying.
Grandbabies are an ever-present menace and the dismemberment of at least something almost always occurs whenever you take damage, so you spend more time trying to put your body back together before grandbabies start eating bits of it than you do going on the offensive. It stops being funny pretty quickly.
The worst idea of the lot is the ‘last chance’ mechanic you get every time you end up inside a grandbaby. Superimposed over a shot of Bryce’s head inside the grandbaby’s belly you get a slider with two markers going back and forth across it. If you can press a button just as the two markers align, then you escape. Miss and it’s back to the last checkpoint. It’s hard to think of a less exciting, less skill-based, more tedious way to make a last stand.
Action in NeverDead is an unpredictable, anarchic business, and when you do end up inside a grandbaby you’re usually well within your rights to blame bad luck, so when you ‘die’ it always feels like it’s because of one mistimed button push. Failing in games needn’t, and arguably shouldn’t, be a bad thing – it should inspire you to have another go. In NeverDead, it does not.
If only NeverDead had something akin to the controlled chaos of a Platinum Games release, or even of an emergent FPS like BioShock or Rage, then it might have worked. But it just throws exaggerated physics and zany game mechanics at you and shouts ‘Wahey!’ in the hope that it can make you have fun through sheer force of will, like an incompetent holiday rep in game form.
But, even on a bad holiday, it’s possible to set aside your frustrations and disappointments and find some fun for yourself, and this is true of NeverDead as well. There’s an upside to its chaotic nature, and the frantic combat can sometimes be quite fun and reasonably satisfying. The central game mechanics consist of very basic shooting and slashing, but with so much environmental destruction and dismemberment going off all around you’d have to be pretty stubborn to completely refuse to enjoy yourself.
Any active attempt NeverDead makes to integrate dismemberment into its gameplay falls pretty flat though. You’ll quite often have to pull your head off in order to pass through a small gap or reach a high platform, but it’s always totally prescriptive and really no different to any other bit in any other game where you have to send a small thing (a tentacle, a drone, et cetera) ahead in order to clear the way for everyone else.
You’re encouraged to use limb dismemberment in combat as well – supposedly some enemies will ‘fetch’ your arms and a dismembered arm can still shoot a weapon – but there are few, if any situations in which this appears to be a good idea. Even if you weren’t risking losing a limb to a grandbaby, and even if it were easier to see what your arm is actually doing once it has parted ways with your shoulder, it would always be much quicker and simpler to just hit things with your sword.
Speaking of simple, the other way to ‘die’ in NeverDead is for your boss and partner, Arcadia, to die. She seems a pretty savvy, strong, independent woman type during cut-scenes, but as soon as any gameplay segment starts she suddenly becomes as thick as two short fleshy stumps. There simply aren’t words politically correct enough to describe how stupid she is without causing some sort of offence, so let’s just say we’re talking about the kind of girl who’ll stand stock-still in the path of a speeding train (you can’t even attempt to tell her not to) and won’t shoot a grandbaby with your one remaining arm in its mouth even if it’s right in front of her and there are no other threats in the vicinity. So you have to get your arm back by hopping after the grandbaby and trying to headbutt it, which is undignified, quite frankly.
NeverDead’s only other saving grace, aside from being fun by accident sometimes, is that its overall presentation is fairly decent. The animation is clunky and below par, but the art direction is quite good, in a lowbrow, pulp comic book kind of a way. The script is trite, and music and voice acting both well below par, but you still couldn’t accuse it of being a technical shambles. Design wise, though, it’s formulaic, tedious and messy.