Every game needs a hook, and when I learned of NeverDead’s, I just had to give it a try. Protagonist Bryce Boltzmann is a demon hunter who has been cursed with immortality for the last 500 years. As a result, things that would signal a Game Over in other games are barely a roadblock to Bryce’s progress. The dude can literally tear either of his arms off and throw it at enemies, subsequently signaling it to fire a gun or just plain explode like a grenade. It’s okay – he’ll just grow a new one. Bryce also yanks his head off and tosses it through basketball hoops, which doesn’t hurt enemies but can solve a simple puzzle or two. Yes, this game is a bit nuts.
NeverDead basically plays like a Japanese action game (Bayonetta, etc.) mixed with a dark, British sense of humor. Bryce has two main forms of attack: his sword and his guns. Players swing the sword using the right analog stick. This allows for a fair degree of freedom in the sword’s arc, but it lacks a robust combo system typical of the genre. The sword is generally the most effective method of dealing damage, especially since some demons are immune to bullets. Still, at any time our hero can switch to his dual-wielded guns in order to take on flying threats or explosive enemies. Guns initially lack stopping power, only becoming really effective late in the game. We’ll get to that momentarily.
Bryce may be an immortal, but he’s a lot more fragile than you might think. Just about any contact from an enemy causes him to literally fall apart. 99% of blows will sever one or more appendages. When his happens, you’ll need to run or hop over to the fallen limb and then roll to reattach it. You can also regrow any missing parts once the timed regeneration meter fills up or after grabbing a certain item. The limb loss mechanic may have sounded good on paper, but in practice it’s mostly annoying. Having to stop, drop, and roll every time you take a glancing blow plays hell with the pace of the combat. You get used to it after a while, but I fear many players will get discouraged early on, before they really understand the combat system.
Even more troublesome, severe blows knock Bryce’s head right off. While sometimes it’s necessary to self-decapitate in order to move through tight places (the hero’s head can roll around and jump like a Metroid morph ball), Bryce’s head form is extremely vulnerable during combat. Regular enemies pay it no mind, but tiny demons called Granbabies exist solely to chase after your limbs and eat them. If they swallow Bryce’s head, a short timing based minigame commences. Pass and you’re spit out, free to roll back to your torso. Fail (which will surely happen now and then) and it’s Game Over, as Bryce supposedly spends eternity trapped in the Granbaby’s stomach. Granbabies tend to respawn infinitely while other enemies are around, and killing them doesn’t even provide XP for some reason, so you’re bound to hate them with a passion.
So the protagonist’s tendency to fall apart detracts from the game more than it adds, and yet I still had a blast slicing and shooting hellspawn to kingdom come. That’s mostly due to the excellent upgrade system. At any time after the first mission, you can spend XP gained from killing enemies on a variety of abilities for Bryce. More abilities unlock for purchase as the game’s 8 lengthy story missions are cleared. These abilities include enhancements for Bryce’s sword, guns, running and jumping, XP modifiers, and lots more. You have a limited number of ability slots, so choosing the right ones for your play-style and the situation at hand is paramount.
NeverDead’s story won’t win any awards, but it’s a nice, compact narrative, even near the end when Hell literally breaks loose on Earth. The banter between Bryce and his human partner Arcadia can be quite amusing; he sure takes her barbs in stride. We also learn bits and pieces of Bryce’s backstory, mostly involving his goofily-named wife Cypher, as the game goes on. The FMV looks great and the voice actors (especially Bryce) turn in fine performances, with the exception of the guy playing Bryce’s boss, who sounds like Donald Sutherland on valium.
A few more notes about Story mode: the visually fantastic and grotesque boss demons are a ton of fun to fight - the last boss perhaps less so, due to an annoying (but dodgeable) attack that separates all of your limbs at once. Escorting Arcadia can be a chore due to her brain-dead AI. The subway section is especially bothersome, as the hapless idiot stands right in the path of trains, necessitating constant revivals. The levels exhibit a ton of variety, and best of all, are extremely destructible. I loved running around hacking everything to bits with Bryce’s sword.
Since Bryce usually has an AI partner, Story mode would have worked perfectly in co-op. Alas, co-op is restricted to a separate multiplayer mode for up to four online players. Before hopping into a lobby, you can select from four characters (more coming via DLC), each with two different skins. Two of them, Alex, and Arcadia, play significantly differently from Bryce. Alex is a fellow immortal demon hunter who keeps throwing knifes jabbed all over his body and spouts inanities while fighting. Arcadia fights with guns and keeps her body together in one piece when hit. But when she gets knocked down, another player has to revive her or she’ll be out for the count.
Multiplayer consists of 13 on-disc missions, each with a Normal and Hardcore version to boost playtime. Five of the 13 missions are competitive. They can be fun in theory, but a game with a small online community like this is really only suited for co-op. Thankfully the remaining 8 co-op missions are actually pretty awesome. They encompass three mission types: Arena Onslaught (defeat waves of enemies in an enclosed arena), Search and Rescue (escort civilians to safety), and Onslaught (clear enemies out of a large level). Even on Normal these missions can be quite challenging, so proper teammwork can mean the difference between victory and becoming a demon's stew.
Experience earned online transfers over to single-player and vice versa. Each mode has separate ability loadouts, so you don’t have to toggle them constantly when switching back and forth. My only complaint with the online experience system is the XP payouts are so low. You’ll probably earn XP 10 times faster in single-player, which just isn’t right. Developer Rebellion should really boost the XP payouts to encourage people to grind online rather than offline.
That’s the real problem with NeverDead’s multiplayer: so few people are playing it only two weeks after launch. As a result, it can take a while to find a game or get someone to join your lobby. Had Rebellion only included split-screen play, this would have been a perfect couch co-op game. Hopefully future price drops and word of mouth will encourage more players to pick it up and hop online.
NeverDead can take some getting used to thanks to the aggravating nature of the protagonist exploding every time a bad guy sneezes on him… And Bryce may be immortal, but his time-worn, scarred visage won't likely entice random store-goers to pick up the game. Still, even if a few of the game’s ideas fizzle rather than sizzle, you have to admire the developers for their creativity. Rebellion has crafted a kick-ass action game with personality to spare. How many other games let you take your head off and clean it in a washing machine? Approach NeverDead with some patience and a sense of humor and you'll likely come out a-head.
Editor's Note: The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of NeverDead was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game. The review copy was provided by the publisher.