Take one undead demon hunter, a sarcastic sidekick, and a world full of vicious, slobbering monsters. Put them together and you get NeverDead, the latest game directed by Shinta Nojiri, the guy behind Metal Gear Acid. But, while on paper it looks good - a full-throttle, shoot and slash-a-thon with an original twist - you get the feeling that somewhere along the line everyone realised that the game was a bit crap and decided to move on.
However, when the Megadeth soundtrack kicks in, and the demon slaughter starts, you know NeverDead is not messing around. Over the top Japanese style violence, pretty characters, and eye rolling dialogue. Front and centre is Bryce Boltzmann. Five hundred years ago the Demon King Astaroth took Bryce’s eye, killed his wife and left him immortal. Now Boltzmann drinks too much and works for the National Anti-Demon Agency. His days consist of being hung-over and dealing out bloody vengeance.
Which leads us nicely into the game’s hook. Bryce is dead. Being dead, he has a bit of an advantage over your usual demon hunter. When he gets into trouble - and in Bryce’s case, this usually means being surrounded by demons who are in the process of tearing him apart - he can’t die (again). So minus an arm, a leg, or his whole body, Bryce is still in the fight. Legs can still kick, arms can still fire guns, and in the middle of it all, his head can still roll around on the floor laughing.
Now I still think of the episode of The Young Ones, where Vivian gets his head knocked off and he ends up kicking it down the railway track, as the pinnacle of television. So, I may be biased. But, as awesome ideas go, this might be the awesomest. One moment you’re switching between your guns and sword, like Devil May Cry, the next you’re a head on the floor trying to get back to your torso, legs and arms which have been blown off and tossed into the garden outside.
If it sounds like fun, it is. At least in the beginning. Basically, Bryce consists of six pieces. Head, torso, legs and arms. Taking a hit might lop off both arms or a leg, leaving him hopping on one foot or unable to hold his sword. Or, a good hit might see him in scattered in six pieces. When this happens you take control of Bryce’s head. If you get to an arm, it sticks to the side of your head, flapping around until you find enough pieces to get back on your feet and back in the fight.
But, if you don’t pull it together fast enough, and the demons will eat your head. Then, barring one quick little timing challenge to get spat out, it’s eternity as a head in a demon’s digestive tract, and back to your last save.
Add to this some puzzles where you have to "die" so your rolling head can get around locked doors, a few boss fights that are suitably more challenging and tactical then the typical gameplay, and some buddy movie banter between Bryce and his blonde hottie handler / partner Arcadia, and you get a game that sounds much better than it is.
The main problem is the way it plays. While there are plenty of guns around, they are all completely useless. Your sword, on the other hand, is pretty devastating. With it you can take out demons, stone pillars and buildings. That’s right, if a demon is causing trouble, you can collapse a wall or ceiling on it. Good stuff. But, it means the internal logic of the game falls down when you have to roll your head through an air vent to get past a locked door. One moment Bryce brings down a building on a demon hoard, the next he is foiled by the pure invincible genius of a closed door with a reinforced glass window. Damn you deadbolts, damn you to hell (screaming, while shaking fist in humiliating defeat)!
Also, the game stops being fun rather quickly. While there are a lot of demons, the same ones turn up all the time. This means you spend a lot of time slashing away at the same old monsters, over and over again. To do this you hold down the trigger and then slash up and down, or side to side with the right stick. However, when you’re surrounded, which is a lot of the time, there is little rhyme or reason to it. It’s a stick slashing equivalent to the button masher.
Add to this the way bits of Bryce simply fall off, even when you feel like the fight is going well, and some very frustrating collision and detection problems that just kill the game dead. Often you find yourself rolling around, half in the floor and half in your own torso, wondering what you have to do to make Bryce stand up and start fighting again. I mean, these are annoying problems at the best of times, but when surrounded by demons wanting to eat your head they are about as welcome as John Key at Waitangi.
So while the cut scenes look good, and Megadeth really gets the adrenaline pumping, the gameplay is too repetitive and buggy. Add to this some fairly obvious puzzles, limited online co-op, a pretty clichéd story, and it seems like there was the one interesting idea at the beginning and the rest was game design by the numbers. Zombie, shooter, breakable environment, hot girl. Check, check, check, and check. Although I’m as big a fan of decapitation as the next person (as well as zombies, shooters, breakable environments and hot girls), in NeverDead it just isn’t executed well enough to do such a great idea justice.