Thursday, February 2, 2012

NeverDead - Much Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts

The background color of the box art here clearly indicates the quality of the product.

When I first saw a trailer for NeverDead, it looked like it might be a fun and unique title. With a unique premise and a song written by Megadeth specifically for it, I couldn't help but be curious. Once I got my hands on it however, I ended up playing a game that not only failed to live up to my expectations, but also a product that feels like not enough effort went into it to balance the mess that it truly is.

First, the story. 500 years ago, Bryce Boltzmann faced the demon king Astaroth. After failing in his task, he is cursed with immortality and a demonic eye. In the current age, he ends up working as a demon hunter for a living, doing so for money and sport. When demons invade a city, he teams up with private investigator Arcadia of the organization NADA to remove the threat. Along the way, many clues hint at the possible revival of Astaroth, with the fate of the world in the balance. As it turns out, the resulting plot is very cliche and manages to cover a lot of the basic tropes of this genre to the point where I was able to guess the plot twists based solely on who was important enough to get a name. When the twists actually do come up, it doesn't really come as much of a surprise and I felt completely underwhelmed.

The characters are also as flawed as the story, but not in any enjoyable sense. Since Bryce is immortal, I never once felt worried about him no matter how many bits of his past are revealed. While he is supposed to be a wise-cracking demon, he comes off as more of a failed mixture of Duke Nukem, Marcus Fenix and Dante; Compared to them, his pool of one-liners is very small, extremely repetitive and groan inducing, his attempts at being serious make him look more like an a-hole, and weapons end up not being creative enough or exciting (more on that later). To balance out his immortality, they have him protecting his mortal assistant Arcadia, though she feels a lot like the love interest in a story that eventually starts to care for his life despite how she first feels about him. Otherwise, the villains come off more as cardboard and feel thinly developed. What doesn't help is the generic script and only somewhat passable voice acting.

Throughout the game, Bryce will come across a range of guns and swords to use in combat. Unfortunately, these weapons fail for their own reasons. To begin, the guns are all of the generic ones that gaming veterans will no doubt be familiar with by now. We've got the bare basics, from the pistol and submachine gun to the grenade launcher and shotgun. While they do operate fine on their own, the game insists on having you dual-wielding the whole time. This may not sound like a big problem, since games like The Darkness and BioShock made it fun, but this game seems to like making the reticles separate while in motion, meaning that I had to stand perfectly still and wait a couple of seconds to get the kind of shot I actually wanted. The process proved frustrating, especially considering one bigger flaw: you can't lock onto enemies with the guns.

Sure, you can zoom in and aim that way, but Bryce moves a lot slower than preferred in that time considering what goes on in each area. You could say that the destructible environments would justify the lack of an ability to lock on  to aim, but if the sword can do this with ease, why not allow the guns to do this as well? On that note, I found the swordplay to be much more reliable in combat despite needing to lock on and slash with the right stick, mainly because most of the time I could actually tell that what I was doing had any real effect on the enemies in front of me. While you can't switch between swords like you can the guns, although that process is slow and painful, collecting new swords at least makes it stronger and I was able to feel some satisfaction from that.

While the environments are all beautifully detailed, they are also incredibly small and cramped, which sounds like a winning combination when the game throws a vast multitude of enemies at you. The demons, while impressively detailed, all have absolutely unimaginative names that hardly match their appearance. When you've got demon types named Puppy, Spoon, Panda Bear and Hippo, maybe it's time to get more creative. While clearing rooms of enemies to advance isn't something new or anything to get worked up over, I once again mention Devil May Cry, this game manages to make it annoying. Most of the time enemies spawn from wombs that you have to kill, meaning that there can be a potentially infinite number of enemies unless you stop it from generating one to three enemies every so often, which is a pain to do when multiple wombs are in an area to help make the levels feel more claustrophobic than necessary. What doesn't help at all is how often they love to evoke the game's main mechanic: the inability to die.

Yes, instead of dying, Bryce's limbs can be decapitated from damage or holding certain buttons. This game mechanic is the big pitch for the game and sounds like it could be used to help solve puzzles or make the game more challenging since you have to retrieve your limbs by combat rolling past them. Unfortunately it adds another layer of frustration since your decapitated limbs fly off way too far, sometimes to the other side of the room. A secondary mechanic that should have relieved this is the ability to regenerate limbs on the spot once you've lost them, though it's pretty flawed too. This mechanic is determined by a gauge, the speed of filling determined by how many limbs are attached. It refills too slowly in the most dire situations however, and even when you do regenerate completely you'd  better be prepared to suffer through this all over again. These mechanics when combined with the inability to die and sheer size of enemy waves more often than not turn the game into less of a fun experience and more into something of an exercise in frustration.

Now, when you kill enemies you gain experience points, or XP. XP, rather than leveling up, is used as the game's currency for buying skills that Bryce can use. Buying skills isn't a bad thing really, like in Devil May Cry when Dante's new powers become dormant until you use them. Here however, skills require slots, some of which take up more than others. Not only was this part of the system annoying, but also what some of the skills do; some come in handier than others, though one of them is not letting the gun reticles separate! When I found the right combination of skills I was able to squeeze some sense of enjoyment out of the game, but not enough to overcome other frustrations.

As I had mentioned earlier, Arcadia is Bryce's mortal companion who can die and serves as one of the only two ways to ever fail a mission (the other being when your lone head is sucked up by a Grandbaby enemy and you fail at timing something from a sports simulation game properly). When she is about to die, Bryce has the ability to heal her by holding down a button near her body, and this is much easier said than done. A lot of the time when this kicked in I was completely decapitated and waiting for my body to regenerate, only to have my head cut off repeatedly and almost fail to make it to her in time. While struggling with getting to her, she'll also repeatedly say lines about how dying is annoying, which was simultaneously confusing as well as an accurate barometer of how I felt at the time while playing.

The game's music, aside from the one song I wanted to hear, is also very forgettable even if there are a couple of good guitar riffs here and there. The variety it tries to introduce is also off-putting at times and just sounds plain goofy. I also noticed that the sound mixing was off, since at several points I couldn't hear what the characters were saying and thus failed to notice some instructions on what to do next even with subtitles on. While I know the player can remix the sound levels of the game, I don't believe they should have to in order to get the best experience.

I realize that I have gone this far without discussing the boss battles of the game. Most of them are piss easy, including the first major boss related to the story, executing strategies that are pathetically easy to get around thanks to them telegraphing their moves. The penultimate boss however, much like the final section of the game, is easily one of the most annoying thanks in part to his moveset and how hard it is to get a bead on him, causing me to fall back on using two guns I had planned on saving for other purposes. This battle however has nothing on my experience with the final boss. The very last boss in the game was so frustratingly hard and broken, while also involving and exploiting every flaw of the game, that I ended up going temporarily insane with rage and then subsequently breaking down into tears over it. As a result, I ended up immediately exchanging this game for SoulCalibur V, which incidentally enough came out on the same day.

It is very hard for me to recommend NeverDead to anyone except those who really want something unique if incredibly flawed. If it were up to me though, I would tell you not to touch this game with a 50-foot pole. The worst thing about this game for me personally however is that Megadeth, my favorite band, now has their name permanently attached to such a sub-par production. I almost feel as if this game wouldn't have gotten as much attention or sold as much if not for this fact, although I need to point out that the big song they wrote for it is barely present at all.

If you're like me and Megadeth is a big motivation for playing, then just avoid spending $60 on this game and instead buy the album, Thirteen (stylized TH1RT3EN), that has the theme song on it and loop it forever. The song alone is shorter but light years more enjoyable than the game it was written for.

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