By Paul Hunter
Bryce Boltzmann is his own worst enemy. The immortal demon hunter hero in Konami's NeverDead possesses the unique ability to dismember himself and use his appendages as weapons or to solve puzzles as he progresses towards his goal of ridding the world of Astaroth, the King of Demons. This same ability is Bryce's greatest weakness, as the legion of demons that he encounters unavoidably lob off limbs, turning every battle into a frustrating dash to reassemble yourself. While the interesting dismemberment play mechanic had so much potential, it ends up making NeverDead feel like a never-ending, pus-filled fetch quest.
The vapid storyline that kicks-off Bryce's adventure is just as disengaging as the gameplay. An effeminate demon named Sangria who dresses in a horribly ugly Elizabethan garb and speaks with a falsetto, drawling voice, threatens Bryce and his wife who has the special ability to weaken demons. The inorganic and trite dialogue is punctuated with the worst kind of melodrama ("And now for the tried and true bad guy line...wait for it...I'll get you for this!") and dim-witted trash talk ("Yeah, yeah, keep your training bra on kid"). It doesn't help that the bulk of the backstory is revealed more than half-way through the game in a groan-inducing diatribe from the demonic lord Astaroth, who paradoxically looks much more intimidating than his discourse would imply.
Supporting Bryce on his demon hunt quest is agent Arcadia Maximille, a stereotypical voluptuous blonde beauty with an exaggerated and low-cut bustline. She's the supporting character we all dread, useless in battle and constantly being KO'ed by enemies and requiring you to locate her downed body for a button tap revival. The only real use for Arcadia is to temporary distract enemies, making her more of a decoy than an actual useful gun-totting partner. It doesn't help that Bryce constantly uses innuendos and derogatory nicknames (you'll hear him say "sweetcheeks" and "princess" ad nauseum) through out each conversation. As if to emphasize the one-dimensional nature of Arcadia, cutscenes involving her follow a predictable pattern of obvious cleavage shots and low angle camera pans showing off her runway model legs and sculpted derriere.
Combat in NeverDead initially shows promise. As an immortal, no matter how much damage Bryce takes he can never die. This presents an interesting gameplay conundrum since most action games live and die on the well establish lifebar meter. In NeverDead there's only three real ways to "die": have your head consumed by a particularly annoying rolling ball creature named a Grandbaby, fail to rescue downed supporting characters in time (not a death per se, but still requires reloading from the last checkpoint), and in one particular enemy encounter on a bridge Bryce bizarrely can fall off and perish (odd because in other parts of the game he can safely survive multi-story drops). Of them all, the Grandbaby death is the most pervasive throughout the game and easily the most annoying of the bunch. When sucked into the belly of the squishy, tentacled creature, the screen switches to a mini-game where you're required to tap a button to hit a moving target. If successful, the Grandbaby (which looks like a rejected Madball) will spit out Bryce's head with force.
In NeverDead you will never feel like a badass. With appendages flying every battle, Bryce feels like a decrepit, beleaguered imbecile. More often than not battles are as much about recovering your strewn limbs as they are actual combat. Since Bryce doesn't have a lifebar, practically every hit will blow off an arm or a leg and limit his range of attacks or mobility. For example, lose a leg and Bryce will hop about as if participating in a sack race. Knock off the other leg and Bryce will crawl around like an infant as he searches for his lost legs. Bryce is normally a dual-wielding gunslinger, however if you lose an arm he will lose the ability to shoot with one of his guns. Losing the other arm will result in Bryce being fundamentally useless since he can't kick or headbutt his way out of dire situations. The worst-case scenario, and it happens very often, is when Bryce gets decapitated and has to roll around as a head. In this situation he's able to perform a dash attack to escape sticky situations and locate his torso as quickly as possible.
Adding to Bryce's repertoire is a long sword called the Butterfly Blade which can be used for close-quarter combat. It's much more effective at eliminating enemies, so much so that his guns are pretty useless in comparison. Harkening back to the experimental days of analog controls, in order to perform a sword swing you're required to hold the left shoulder button and then flick the right analog stick. It's imprecise and clunky to say the least, and with a limited combo system, swinging quickly becomes monotonous. There are experience shards that can be collected and cashed-in for additional moves and enhanced abilities, but aside from the explosive limbs upgrade most of them don't fundamentally change the drab combat.
NeverDead's meandering adventure never seems to have a core focus. For reasons mostly unknown, Bryce visits a series of ill-thought locations that have appropriately boring names such as Sewers, Museum, Asylum or my personal favourite, Streets to Church. The enemies have equally mundane names such as puppies, spoons (seriously), and birdy. Not only does every room in each level feel identical to the last, each room follows the exact same pattern of having the exit blocked by Demon Seals, then forcing you to combat the same types of enemies you fought mere seconds ago. In fact there's only five main enemy types in the whole game, and while there are a few Mr. Potatohead type variations, the enemies feel like lazy colour-palette swaps we're used to seeing in Final Fantasy games.
The main theme song for NeverDead was produced by Megadeth and is actually quite good. The rest of the heavy metal inspired soundtrack is like a cacophony of bad 80s hairbands, and with such incessant repetition, will make you think about reaching for the mute button. Since the hamfisted music always initiates each combat sequence, and dies out once enemies are defeated, the most satisfying part about combat is elimination of the ear-splitting din after victory.
Early previews of NeverDead showed a lot of potential that was ultimately not realized in the final product. There's the odd moment of shine during the roughly ten hour adventure, but as a whole the game is utterly underwhelming. Our immortal protagonist, Bryce Boltzmann, is a repellent character who fails to draw you into his story in any meaningful way. With sloppy controls, the gameplay is antagonizing and a major deterrent to enjoying the game. NeverDead is the first game to ever make me loathe the idea of immortality.
NeverDead is out now for Xbox 360 and PS3.
[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]