NeverDead Hands-On Preview -- Gimme a Hand, Will ya?By Jake Gaskill - Posted Dec 01, 2011
I will give it to Konami. There is something inherently appealing about a 500-year-old demon hunter who not only can’t die but who has the ability to reassemble himself should he find his head and appendages torn from his body as a playable lead character. But as I realized during a recent hands-on preview session with the forthcoming gothic, third-person, action title NeverDead, similar to the feeling I had during this past E3, this intriguing concept might just end up being the game’s undoing; at least based on what we’ve played of the game thusfar.
For our most recent look at NeverDead, we were given the chance to play through an early portion of the game that I’m guessing is the opening level as it is structured like a typical tutorial level with plenty of instructions on how to play and even more perfectly crafted scenarios in which to put those abilities to the test. But before we get to the specifics of the level, it’s important to explain the primary mechanics of the game, because they are deeply entwined with the game’s narrative and are by far NeverDead’s most unique feature. Sadly, this also happens to be the biggest cause for concern.
See, the main character, Bryce, is invincible--a blessing/curse he received hundreds of years prior to the events of the game--but he has a serious problem keeping his limbs attached to his body. As such, combat revolves around disposing of enemies via classic high-powered weaponry (i.e. machine guns, shotguns, grenade launchers, etc.) or a deadly broadsword while also keeping track of your body parts as they get have a tendency of being ripped off in battle. At his worst, Bryce can be reduced to simply his head, which you’ll have to roll around until you gather up your other appendages. To do this, you hit dive (circle button on the PS3) whenever you’re on top of one. It seems easy enough, however at this point, the dive-to-collect mechanic isn’t as responsive as it should be, leading to a lot of unwanted frustrations, especially when you are battling multiple enemies (i.e. most of the time) and you keep getting blown apart just after reassembling yourself.
PREVIEW: NeverDead E3 2011 Hand-On Preview -- Trying to Put the Bloody Pieces Together
Since Bryce can’t die, the only way for the game to actually end--aside from allowing your AI-controlled partner, Arcadia, to die, since she is a mere human--is for his head to be captured by otherwise innocuous baddies called Grand Babies, which are basically balls with tentacles that roll around just waiting to inhale your head. Should your head be ingested (and theoretically stuck there for all of eternity), you are presented with a button-timing mini-game that, if done correctly, will cause the Grand Baby to regurgitate your head. Sorry if you ate before reading this.
What’s especially concerning about the dismemberment mechanic is that it means most of your time appears to be spent at half strength (lose an arm and you’ll deal half damage) or scrambling to reassemble yourself, the latter of which can be quite tedious, especially when you’re just a head, which you are quite a bit; and I was playing the opening, so presumably the tamest, portion of the game. It’s funny to watch a head roll around with a flopping arm attached to it four or five times, but even after the short time I had with the game, I found it became old rather fast.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Bryce’s limblessness is how it factors into exploration and puzzle solving. For instance, during one section that was demoed for us, there was a collectible located on a fractured ledge on the second floor of a building, and the only path to it was a sliver of concrete against the wall. Since the path was far too narrow for Bryce to maneuver, he pulled off his head, tossed it on the ground, and rolled his way across to the item. This trick can also be used to access areas that a full body could not reach, since Bryce can use regeneration potions to sprout a whole body out of his head with a simple click of a button. It’s a neat trick, and I actually found it be a much more intriguing use of the dismemberment mechanic than that seen in the combat.
Dismemberment aside, most of my time with the campaign portion of the game was spent unloading on horrifying creatures with pistols and machine guns and hacking others in half with my sword as I fought my way through the lush, vegetation-rich courtyard setting of the opening level. When I wasn’t blasting enemies directly, I was shooting stone pillars and walls since environmental destruction plays a major part in the combat. The destruction itself looks decent enough, but it also creates some frustrations as you’ll watch an enemy soak up four or five clips worth of bullets before dying while the same enemy will die instantly if hit by a single piece of drywall. There’s still plenty of time for this kind of balancing issue to be ironed before release, but it’s worth noting seeing as how much emphasis the game puts on using the environment as a weapon.
In addition to his weapons, Bryce also has access to over 60 abilities out of which he is able to equip a set amount that increases as you progress. These are basically perks, and include everything from increases ammo damage to melee strength to being able to tear off your limbs and use them as explosives. Having so many options to choose from means each player will be able to modify their gameplay experience to fit their particular playstyle. All of the features in the game that we’ve seen so far, the abilities hold the most potential in terms of making NeverDead more than simply “that game where you roll around as a head.”
The section portion of our hands-on time was spent with NeverDead’s competitive co-op mode. There is no story for co-op, only challenges that play out like a sort of roaming hoard mode that is based on time rather than waves. Each of the four players accumulates points during the matches, so while you aren’t trying to kill other players like in traditional deathmatch scenarios, there’s still a clear air of competition to the co-op. There are three immortal characters (two of which are Bryce; one young, one old), and Arcadia, the mortal human, to choose from in co-op. The same rules apply to the characters in multiplayer as they do in the campaign (i.e. kill things and try not to have your head swallowed if you’re immortal, hope someone revives you before you die if you’re Arcadia).
The first match we played made a very painful point within the first two minutes of the 15 minute match. As is apt to happen, the round started with us being swarmed by enemies. In the chaos, my body exploded and my parts went a-flyin’, and my head found its way underneath a giant, demonic armadillo of sorts. Since I wasn’t able to move, I was a sitting duck’s head for a nearby Grand Baby, who quickly devoured my head. Since the X button is how you hop and maneuver your head, I had been tapping it frantically to free my head, but since I couldn’t exactly see that the Grand Baby was inhaling my head, I wasn’t expecting to shift to the mini-game, so I accidentally tapped X, lost the mini-game, and was forced to watch for 13 minutes as other players finished the match.
As before, there’s still time for this kind of thing to be addressed, but what made this scenario extra concerning was the fact that players are able to collect regeneration potions and share them yet they aren’t able to use one to revive a fallen teammate. Nor are other players able to kill the Grand Baby and free the head, allowing the downed player to rejoin the fight. I suppose this is meant to appeal to the hardcore players, but I hope it’s something that is addressed in some way in the final game since I can see it turning off a lot of players.
It’s clear that Konami is pulling for NeverDead to be something unlike any other game on the market when it’s released next year. It has the gothic tone and bizarre absurdity of a Suda51 game with some inarguably original gameplay mechanics, but it remains to be seen if NeverDead will be able to find its footing and bring its unique pieces together to form a cohesive whole in the end.