NeverDead review

NeverDead review

NeverDead review

You can read this review in full in our print edition.

Our March issue, which is on sale now, features reviews of all the most important releases, together with in-depth Post Script articles, including Final Fantasy XIII-2, WipeOut 2048 and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

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After the thirdperson cover shooter revolution – which left roadie runs and crouching behind walls reigning supreme – it’s both refreshing and jarring to dive into NeverDead’s world of old-fashioned open-air mayhem. The running and gunning might be scrappy and anachronistic, but it’s a game brimming with oddball ideas, and moving too fast to care about its rough edges. Designed by Metal Gear Acid and Konami veteran Shinta Nojiri at UK-based developer Rebellion, it largely ignores contemporary genre norms in favour of its unique conceit: the main character, gruff demon hunter Bryce, can’t die. He can, however, be torn limb from limb by his hellish foes.

This byproduct of immortality is central to combat. Lose an arm and you can keep firing with the other as the stray limb goes zipping around the room. Better yet, intentionally throw an arm away and watch enemies chase it like dogs after a bone. If you want your missing limbs back, dive-roll into them and they’ll handily reattach to Bryce’s body, ready to be used once more. Puzzles are few and far between, but they usually require you to pop Bryce’s head off and roll it into hard-to-reach areas (you can also regenerate Bryce’s body when a meter fills back up). These are just a few examples of NeverDead’s lively experimentation around a potentially macabre theme. It’s a game that revels in quirky, silly thrills, an antidote for those now jaded by the onslaught of sci-fi epics that take themselves – and their mythologies – a little bit too seriously.

If the joys of everlasting life seem like they would soon pall, however, Rebellion is aware of the need to add a level of threat that stops NeverDead from simply being a shooter with a constantly enabled God mode. So if Bryce gets his head swallowed up by the Grandbaby enemy type, it’s game over; and you’ll also be banished back to the last checkpoint if your sidekick/minder Arcadia dies. The Grandbabies – little white giggling balls of rolling evil – are at your heels every step of the way, adding more urgency as you scramble to fit Bryce back together again. And if you do find yourself gulped down by one of these Kirby-esque foes, you’ll be given one last shot at life via a brief QTE.

The XP you earn and collect along the way can be used to purchase new abilities at any time, although you’re given a limited number of slots to populate with skills that, for example, can turn limbs into grenades or initiate a state of slow motion when you’re about to be hit. The slot limit is intended to add a layer of strategic thinking to all the shooting and diving, but simply forces you to manically shuffle abilities around to suit the situation. Abilities such as aim lock for targeting airborne enemies are vital, and when combined with the drip feed of weapons (all capable of being dual-wielded), add depth to what is otherwise a shallow game loop. Progression is all about clearing areas of demonic nasties before eventually taking on one of the game’s colourful, extravagant bosses. Unusual as some of the monsters are (the fluorescent ‘Hippo’ is a recurring highlight), there’s a distinct sense that Nojiri has bitten off more than the game engine can chew, resulting in framerate lurches and the AI bungling around, chasing its own tail. Bugs are a frequent nuisance, too, with some dodgy collision detection that can partly be attributed to the sheer amount of onscreen activity. The action includes not just foes, but environments that can be blown to bits by your attacks, sending walls, pillars and all sorts of detailed debris crumbling onto enemies. It’s often all too much to take in, and the AI’s tendency to smash up the place (intentionally or not) can lead to some frustratingly chaotic battles.

Then there’s the closing act. While it ups the ante in scale as you battle through a city in ruins towards an über-demon’s lair, it stumbles in its balancing. Suddenly, NeverDead shifts from casual shooter to unforgiving taskmaster, asking you to juggle an assault of all enemy types, a rush of bosses, and, not least of all, the trick of trying to keep Bryce in one piece.

Despite its flaws, NeverDead keeps your attention as the bizarre plot flits between flashbacks to Bryce’s origin and his present-day job as a demon hunter. The origin strand of NeverDead’s story is more affecting and well-plotted than you’d expect from a game with such a schlocky vibe, too. The flashbacks to Bryce’s early, pre-immortality years reveal a clean-cut hero on a mission to vanquish the evil demon king Astaroth. Having offed Bryce’s partner, Astaroth forces our hero to wallow in mourning for eternity, hence his inability to welcome death with open arms. It sounds trite, but it resonates strongly as you witness present-day Bryce, all snark and sneer, contrasted with his former valiant, hopeful self.

The otherworldly invaders plaguing the city inevitably tie the past and present narratives together and there’s a healthy amount of comedy in the script that’s sadly let down by low-brow sexism (reinforced by a cutscene camera with a penchant for cleavage and low-angle shots of women’s behinds). The overall tone is somewhere between 2000AD (Rebellion nods to Judge Dredd through in-game magazines and posters) and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Though it never quite reaches the quality – in script or style – of either, Nojiri has introduced a grizzled protagonist who stands out regardless of familiar subject matter.

NeverDead may have issues, then, but it should be commended for innovating in a genre muddied by wannabes without the confidence to experiment with the shooter’s ever-cloned DNA. In the end, NeverDead’s heart is in the right place: committed to entertaining you, no matter the cost – even if it means losing your head a few too many times along the way.

Tested on Xbox 360.