Many Japanese video game companies have been trying to expand outside of their traditional templates and attempt to appeal to a wider palette. Capcom has been outsourcing a lot of its IPs to western companies, while Square-Enix acquired Eidos Interactive. Even Konami got in the act with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow being developed by Mercury Steam, though their latest attempt at bring out a new IP is more in line with Suda 51's Shadows of the Damned. While developed by Rebellion, the British studio most famous for the Alien Vs. Predator games, Konami has placed Shinta Nojiri in charge of direction. For the uneducated out there, he's been a driving force behind several Metal Gear titles and even the director for Metal Gear: Ghost Babel and both Metal Gear Ac!d titles.
The creation from this venture is Neverdead, a title with some good ideas, distinct direction, a well-cooked mix of eastern and western sensibilities, but one that's also lacking in the final execution and general quality required to compete with top titles. 2011 was a bumper year for gaming, so anything less than excellent is going to struggle to catch the attention of the gaming audience. Neverdead might end up being one of those titles that's loved and hated in equal measure, like Metal Gear Ac!d, but even with that there are a few simple areas that could have been improved upon. At least it's all presented in a technically and artistically neat package that gives it a distinct flavour, and a nice mix of hard rock and heavy metal tracks... aside from a god-awful pop song at the end of the game...
The story is just one of the many aspects of Neverdead that are done really well, but don't manage to realise the underlying potential. Players take the role of Bryce Boltzman, who 500 years ago took on the Demon Lord, Astaroth, and upon losing was cursed with eternal life. Bryce now spends his days demon hunting for money and revenge, while lamenting the loss of his wife in that battle. Employed by an underground bureau and teamed with a private investigator named Arcadia, while tracking down demonic disturbances they run across a young girl who is in high demand from the demons. As it happens, she's the key to Bryce's pursuit for revenge.
The story itself, just like the convoluted Metal Gear, is heavily inspired by anime sensibilities but thankfully much more straight forward and nowhere near as prolonged; it's pretty much a B-grade action flick. So in terms of action, it's all quite well choreographed and sharp enough to be enjoyable. However, any attempts at character building, chemistry and in-depth themes all fall on their face. The contrast between modern day and past Bryce is distinct to the point of being unrecognisable, while Sangria is the front-runner for worst antagonist of the year and Sullivan needed a voice actor that wasn't so creepy. The connection and continuity between now and 500 years ago isn't really there, and there is no real feel that Bryce is a grizzled, tired and jaded immortal... as he spends most of his time cracking terrible one-liners and, in a typical cliche, spending his nights at the bar.
Now, playing an action game with an immortal protagonist seems a bit self-defeating, no? Still Bryce has a few neat capabilities that will shake things up. Excitingly, a third person shooter, the combat lets you carry both firearms and a sword, where you can dual wield arms and carry more than the staple of two weapons that are the norm. While the fire arms selection is quite standard, you're provided with a lot of ammo so you can spray to your heart's content, and the game does well to provide you with new toys, more ammo and abilities (found as collectibles) as you play. Still, some enemies are best tackled with guns, and others with the sword, so you have to stay on your toes. Furthermore, the sword is controlled in a surprisingly proficient manner by the right analog stick. Rebellion makes good use of their shooter experience and western designs to make the core gun and sword play quite solid.
Another impressive aspect to the combat is the scope for environmental damage. There are plenty of explosive and destructible objects that will assist with enemy annihilation, and are often subtly and cleverly placed for you to make use of, if you're quick witted enough. And throughout the adventure, there are some impressive action sequences that are based in varying environments. While you will never see the game over screen by dying from conventional damage, what being immortal and all, you're often hamstrung by a loss of limbs. You'll still be able to play when you've lost an arm or leg, but you'd do well to retrieve it with your battle roll so that you're up to full speed. However, your dismembered limbs will become useful later on in the game as you upgrade your abilities through the experience points earned. This includes turning your limbs into grenades or firing your weapons while dismembered.
At times you'll be reduced to just a rolling head. Obviously when this happens, you either have to regather the rest of your body or wait until your regeneration meter refills and you can start with a fresh body... or use it for the occasional puzzle. Still, there is a game over screen. Aside from the occasional environmental hazard, the main obstacles are the grandbabies. These spherical demonic spawns will come after your dismembered head will suck you up, if you're not quick enough to escape or fight them off. Once inside, your subjected to a rather banal quicktime event that if failed, means a game over. The worst part about this event is that it's terribly inconsistent in its assessment of success and failure. Sometimes you'll miss and escape, while others will hit but lead to a game over. The unfair nature of this makes it very frustrating.
The whole shtick of having your body dismembered as damage can be very frustrating too, especially with the dodgy hit-detection and inherent randomness over which limb will be lost. Rather than being the challenge that it was intended to be, it just becomes annoying after a while. Enemy variety is quite poor too, with about half a dozen minor cronies at most, while bosses from early in the game end up becoming sub-bosses later on. It feels like a real dearth of creative input. And the game design compounds this by failing in any proper inspiration. It really does devolve to you moving from room to room, where the path only opens up once you've defeated all the enemy waves.
As mentioned, there are some exciting action sequences and these have some good variety to them. Unfortunately, the memory of these is sullied through the repetition of rinse-repeat sequences of trudging through each enemy wave. Disappointingly, the developers didn't make use of the dismemberment abilities for more puzzles, as there are a couple in the game that leave you wanting more. Arcadia, Bryce's sidekick is a complete waste of space in terms of gameplay. She can hold her own in battle reasonably well, and you rarely have to look after her or really do anything with here. She seems to be purely there for the story as opposed to gameplay. Finally, there is a minor but disappointing lack of consistency in the controls, occasionally leaving you frustrated at a lack of response.
The single player will clock in around the eight to ten hour mark, but the game has some included multiplayer challenges that might help extend the game time for those who are curious. Onslaught and Arena Onslaught are plays on modes similar to Horde and Firefight. Search and Rescue has you evacuating civilians while fighting off demons, and rounds off the co-operative modes. The two competitive modes are Egg Hunt, which is similar to Capture the Flag but with the ability to carry multiple eggs and steal them, and Fragile Alliance, which is a checkpoint race with demon waves thrown in. These come off as a nice to have, rather than a necessity, even though it's early days, it's hard to see it being too populated across time.
Given the development pedigree, Neverdead could have been more than just a solid package. The mix of western and eastern development sensibilities shows that it has potential, but the overall game comes up short because it isn't able to excel in any one area. Most core ideas and establishments work and are solid, but haven't been taken far enough to make the game stand out of the crowd. Fans of B-grade action and anime-inspired stories will get a kick out of the title and it could tide them over while things are still quiet. And as long as they can stand listening to Sullivan...