Immortality has its drawbacks. Yes, you do get to live a life free from the health concerns that haunt mortal beings, but the rolling snowball of past regret can incapacitate you in your day-to-day living. Outstanding gifts rarely exist without some drawback, and that frustrating dichotomy is exhibited in NeverDead. Like Bryce, its perpetually living protagonist, NeverDead has abundant strengths. A number of unique elements urge you to continue playing to see how this demon-hunting tale concludes. But the pieces fail to fit together, which results in a rocky adventure in which exciting highs are frequently interrupted by maddening lows. Uneven as it may be, if you can brave the agonizing setbacks, NeverDead delivers enough riveting successes to keep you invested.
Five centuries ago, a man named Bryce Boltzman was born. Through a variety of supernatural events, he was transformed from an ordinary man into an immortal demon hunter. When you live so long that all of the people you love have passed away, finding motivation to carry on is the most difficult challenge of all. Bryce hides his overwhelming bitterness with repetitive jokes that lack the acerbic wit or incisive criticism to make him an enjoyable character. His mortal partner, Arcadia Maximille, is devoid of personality. So though these two characters spend most of the game together, an engaging bond fails to develop. In fact, Arcadia's purpose is unclear. Because she can die, it makes little sense that she tags along with Bryce in his demon-hunting missions, and she frequently needs to be rescued since she's susceptible to the monsters’ snarling attacks. It's an odd pairing, and though there are brief flashes of heartfelt emotion, most of the time the heroes exist as either passive participants or minor annoyances.
The action is able to compensate for the poor cast, at least when it's running on all cylinders. On a superficial level, NeverDead is a typical third-person shooter. Though there aren't any cover elements (nor is there a need for them), the moment-to-moment action is fairly predictable. You have an arsenal of standard guns--pistols, automatics, and the like--and mow down enemies in a variety of predictable locales with equally predictable level design. Corridors lead into courtyards where fights erupt, and the flow continues in this manner until the ending credits roll. Aiming at your foes while running around arenas works well enough, though it's hardly noteworthy. As a pure shooter, NeverDead is functional though nowhere near as exciting as its more prestigious peers. Thankfully, there's much more to this game than tired tropes.
As the title of the game implies, Bryce cannot be killed. However, though neither pain nor death causes him fear, he can still be put out of commission by his abundant enemies. Attacks cause his arms, legs, and even head to pop cleanly from his body, and in your dismembered form, you have to scour the playing field to reassemble those pieces. Obviously, your actions are affected by what part of your body is removed. If, for instance, you lose your left leg to a ravaging puppy, Bryce mutters about his absent appendage while hopping around one-legged. Losing an arm is handled in an even more interesting way. Once disarmed, you can no longer aim your reticle at those attacking you, but because you still have control over your fingers, you can spray bullets wildly from wherever your arm is currently located. This is particularly useful if an enemy is gnawing on your fleshy forearm.
If you sustain enough damage, or the enemy lands a clean shot at your neck, you wind up as just a head rolling around. In this form, you can perform a speed roll to travel quickly, but you're pretty much helpless against demonic spawn. You need to quickly locate your torso so you can reattach yourself (assuming you maneuver to your neck stump, which is rather tricky during a chaotic fight) and then round up your legs and arms. If you wait a few moments or nab a power-up, you can regenerate instantly. However, if you fail to find the rest of your body, you can be hit with an abrupt Game Over. There are only two fail states in NeverDead. As a head, you can be eaten by a creature, and if you're too slow to perform a simple minigame, you end up in its belly forever. Otherwise, the only way you can fail is if your partner falls in battle and you don't resurrect her quickly enough. Neither of these situations happens often, so you don't have to worry much about passing into the afterlife.
Implementing challenge in a game without death is no easy feat, and it's when developer Rebellion tries to ramp up the difficulty that things take a turn for the worse. Reassembling your body after being dismembered can be a frustration because enemies are apt to repeatedly attack your prone form before you have time to move out of the way. Watching helplessly as your head gets battered around levels is a serious problem, especially when you have to perform a time-sensitive action. Navigation is also clunky. You can destroy the environment to hurt enemies, which serves as an inventive and satisfying strategy. However, battlegrounds get so cluttered with physics-enabled junk that getting around, either by walking on your legs or rolling as a head, is extremely finicky. This is compounded by a petulant camera that sticks on every object and wall you come across. Although you rarely fall in battle, fights often become tedious affairs because simple actions are hampered in so many ways that they fail to coalesce into satisfying action.
This issue of NeverDead’s sporadic difficulty is most evident during the boss fights. Just about every one of the giant baddies you face off against has its own special problem. A multi-limbed boss you battle early in the game is a serious struggle, even though you most likely won't die. The museum in which you do battle is chock-full of so many broken pillars, exhibits, and other odds and ends that simply moving around is an inconvenience. Heck, you won't even be able to see properly half the time. When you get close to the boss (which is inevitable considering how often you get stuck) he spits out a green fog that reverses your controls. Can you say never fun?
In a late-game battle, you have to strike the boss up close in order to deal enough damage. You must hit him when he is vulnerable, but these moments aren't always obvious due to unclear audio and visual clues. If you fail to deliver in that short time frame, he regains his health. All of it. And that's not even talking about the sluggish platforming in another boss fight. Vanquishing these foes carries with it relief rather than satisfaction, and though a couple of them are enjoyable, most just leave a sour taste in your mouth.
NeverDead introduces many novel elements that simply do not work properly for one reason or another. For instance, although shooting guns works well enough, you have a sword that's preferable. Cutting down foes with your blade is one of the most exciting parts of this game. By holding the shoulder button, you gain full control over the sword's movement with the right stick, so you can unleash horizontal slashes, vertical slices, and diagonal cuts with ease.
The sword is ultimately more powerful than the standard guns, but this is balanced by the danger you put yourself in when attacking up close. However, plentiful explosive barrels serve as a deterrent to using your fancy sword. It's easy to miss these red dangers in the heat of battle (they often reside behind other objects, hidden from view), and you find yourself blown sky-high when you accidentally hit one. The upgrade system has the same combination of strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, you can imbue your gun, sword, or movement with added perks, but there are so few ability slots that you can use only a handful of the dozens available.
It's a shame that you don't get to make use of a good variety of abilities at once, because the unlockable perks enliven the action. Because you have such limited spots to work with, you have to focus on one attribute to boost while ignoring other aspects. If you're partial to the sword, you can boost its power and range while adding a special charge attack, but equipping these means you have to ignore upgrading your firearms. Or you could make Bryce more mobile, which comes in handy when you're running away from enemies because neither of your weapons has been supercharged.
Despite the limitations, it's still fun to mess around with the various tools you unlock. Two of them are particularly useful. One triggers slow motion when danger is closing in, which is a life saver in the tougher encounters. The other lets you use your arm as an explosive device. You can rip off your arm and toss it around the battlefield. Horrible hounds chase after your flopping appendages in a sick game of fetch, and once one of them has your arm in its mouth, kablamo! You can finish off a pack of these wretched beasts in mere seconds.
Dismembering yourself can serve as an impromptu attack, or you might need to use that talent to solve puzzles. In between battles, you're left alone in levels with oodles of collectibles hidden in every nook and cranny. Nabbing these items gives you much-needed experience points, but, more importantly, it's just fun to discover where they reside. You may have to pull off your head and toss it in an air duct or find a hidden trapdoor so you can access out-of-the-way spots belowground. There are a few puzzles sprinkled between the action segments that you have to solve to progress, but most of them are ancillary diversions for those who enjoy exploring every inch of the environment. Because the puzzles are optional, the focus is on the action segments, which is one of NeverDead's strengths. However, there isn't enough variety to keep you invested the whole way through. Aside from a brief free-falling segment, you take part in the same basic combat repeatedly, without any novel ideas to inject some diversity.
The strengths and weaknesses carry over to the online-only multiplayer mode. There are a series of competitive and cooperative challenges available that add a communal spike to the normally solo proceedings. Instead of focusing on just killing each other in the head-to-head modes, you have to complete objectives, which is a smart idea since one-on-one encounters are over quickly and don't require much strategy to prevail. So instead, you round up eggs or race to checkpoints, all while battling baddies and trying to slow your human opponents down. The cooperative matches have horde modes, where you fend off waves of attackers, but they don't add anything novel to separate them from similar modes in other games. There is also a mode where you must rescue civilians, which is extremely hard if you try to travel without friendly chums with you. Ultimately, the multiplayer adds replay value, though it lacks the imaginative spark to be captivating.
When the story finally wraps up, you're treated to a cliff-hanger that would segue nicely into a sequel. Normally, such a perfunctory ending would be frustrating because you want a strong resolution to the events you just played through. However, in the case of NeverDead, it only reminds you of the untapped potential that is the most striking element of this game. The ideas that separate this from other shooters are a lot of fun, but the edges are so rough that it can be difficult to enjoy these pieces. A second game could be used to iron out the kinks. But that's an idea that's not worth dwelling on. NeverDead doesn't have a sequel, and may never get one, so what you're left with is a game bursting with ideas that it struggles to showcase. There are certainly enjoyable elements for those yearning for an experience different from the norm, but be prepared for many rocky moments along the way.