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NeverDead Playtest: “Get your head in the game, Bryce!”

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At first glance, NeverDead seems like an alternate-dimension Devil May Cry. You play as a cocky demon hunter who is supernaturally endowed and highly proficient with guns and swords.

 

However, Devil May Cry is structured in such a way that it highlights use of melee weapons, with the guns being supplementary, acting as punctuation for the extended sword combos. NeverDead, on the other hand, is a third person shooter, and by extension should be the opposite way, right? Perhaps more powerful guns and a sword that’s slow and only used when enemies are too close to shoot?

 

Nope. Bryce’s guns are pretty worthless.

 

Even Puppies, the weakest demons in the game (don’t worry, they don’t resemble real puppies), can take an entire clip from Bryce’s handguns to take down. By contrast, they can be cut in half with a single swing of Bryce’s sword. Couple that with the fact that NeverDead likes to toss tons of enemies at the player at a time and that some—like the blade-headed "Spoons"—can’t even be hurt with bullets, and you start wondering why you’re given the guns at all. There are some enemies who have weak points that can only be harmed with the guns, but they take so long to kill they accentuate the weakness of the guns more than anything.

 

On the other hand, in a strange twist, using the sword is pretty fun.

 

After switching from gun to sword mode by pressing triangle, the sword is swung by readying it with L1 moving the right analog stick from left to right, top to bottom, or diagonal to diagonal. Bryce’s sword is obscenely powerful compared to his guns, and can be swung quickly and recklessly with little regard for strategy. While technically slow and deliberate slashes yield more damage, the sword is swift and powerful enough that there’s no real reason to do so, especially because if enemies do attack while you’re hacking away at something, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be dismembered or decapitated.

 

Being dismembered and decapitated happens quite a bit, since Bryce’s immortality is the main mechanic of NeverDead.

 

Losing a single arm or a single leg is negligible as you can swing a sword and move around just as quickly with only one of each limb (and it’s not like the guns do enough damage that losing one of your two weapons briefly really matters). Lose both arms and/or legs and you’ll probably have to roll over a limb to pick it back up and re-enable sword use.

 

Being decapitated is another story. When I first approached a Spoon and saw Bryce’s head quickly divorced from the rest of his body, I laughed out loud, rolled his head back to his body, and reattached it. While this was amusing on the first Spoon, battles quickly escalate into chaos, meaning that Bryce gets decapitated every minute or two. As a head, your options are limited. You can jump, or you can do a Sonic the Hedgehog-style roll that will often launch Bryce’s head skyward for no particular reason. Bryce can also re-grow his limbs and torso in this state, but he either has to spend a bit of time as a head or find a certain item to fill an arbitrary gauge before he can do so. The animation for him growing his entire body out of his head is pretty cool though!

 

Often, the game has you decapitate Bryce to do little platforming puzzles. While these might seem like a welcome change of pace, Bryce is a "witty" protagonist. He has about five little one-liners he repeats every 15 seconds or so. While the first time, these quips were cute, I started worrying when he started repeating himself within two minutes as a head. By the end of my second platforming segment, I had Bryce’s various quips burned into my memory. Try to imagine these clever quotes in a gravelly voice:

"Get your head in the game, Bryce!"

"Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’!"

"I hope this doesn’t mess up my hair!"

"Whoa, serious motion sickness!"

 

While these don’t sound that bad on their own, again, realize that one of these is said every fifteen seconds while you’re trying to figure out where the game wants you to go. It got annoying to the point where I’d actually return to my body and try to figure out the puzzles from there, just so I didn’t have to hear Bryce talk.

 

While the game is built around the concept that Bryce can’t die… he actually can. Well, at least you can be sent to a "game over" screen.

 

There are these tiny little monsters called "Grandbabies" that will suck up your severed limbs and will explode if you shoot them (ironically, it’s safer to slash them with the sword, since it will knock them away before they explode). These creatures go straight for Bryce’s head if it’s separated from his torso, and if Bryce’s head is inhaled, he has to escape with a successfully timed button press. Fail to do so once, and its game over. Bryce will apparently be digested for thousands of years (I wonder why Bryce can’t just regrow his body inside the Grandbaby and break out…). Naturally, because the game can’t technically kill you, they sprinkle these guys liberally throughout every battle, particularly boss fights.

 

The presence of the Grandbabies wouldn’t be as annoying to me if it weren’t for the fact that the battles in the game are based on tedium and repetition. Since Bryce can’t die, Rebellion decided that every fight should have tons of enemies spawning from enemy generators called "Wombs." Wombs take a really long time to kill, give very little indication that they’re even taking damage, and will spit enemies at you as you try to kill them. While I’ve tried various tactical approaches
and different weapons, like everything else in the game, the most effective way to destroy a Womb seemed to be to stand in front of it and flail away with the sword… like every other enemy in the game.

 

Basically, the presence of the Wombs gave most of the battles a similar structure:

1. Cut down enemies until you realize that there’s probably a Womb in the giant room you’re fighting in.

2. Find the Womb and start slashing away at it, potentially slashing wide to damage any surrounding enemies.

3. Get decapitated by a random enemy during this process and roll your head back to your body. (Repeat if necessary, performing the proper escape if you’re eaten by a Grandbaby)

4. Finally kill the Womb only to have another one spawn on the other side of the room. Return to step one.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about NeverDead is how it occasionally grazes greatness. Once in a rare while, all of the strange mechanics coalesce into little bursts of beautiful, gleeful carnage. For instance, at one point I stood at the top of a staircase that was quickly being filled with enemies. I tore off my left, SMG-equipped arm and tossed it down the stairs. It was then picked up by a Puppy (according to the game’s universe, they love to play fetch with Bryce’s limbs) who carried it around as I pulled the trigger, somehow wiping out some of the other Puppies and Grandbabies on the staircase. Sadly, the glorious triumph of this moment was slightly tarnished by the fact that I still had a Womb to destroy and the stairs were quickly refilled with demons.

 

Environments are also ludicrously destructible. I’ve shot floors out from under Spoons, slashed concrete pillars down on top of Wombs, and knocked Grandbabies into exploding canisters to cause even more chaos. While it’s sometimes baffling what’s destructible and what’s not (I can’t shoot out some glass or cut down banners, but can cut through concrete pillars with ease), in general the destruction adds an air of randomness to combat and occasionally breaks the usual slog.

 

I desperately want to like NeverDead. The art direction is great, the world is colorful, and there are the rare moments of chaotic brilliance. Unfortunately, the combat and constant body-separation tend to get very repetitive and the firearms aren’t useful, which makes it feel a lot less fun than I’d hoped it would be.

 

Food for Thought:

1. Between the unconventional design of Bryce’s sword and the ability to cut freely through enemies and the environment, I wonder if producer, Shinta Nojiri, was in any way involved with the early version of Metal Gear Rising

 

2. Downloadable content for NeverDead gives Bryce more wisecracks than he already makes.

 

3. Among the titles considered for this writeup was: “NeverDead Playtest: Omae wa Mou…”

Kris