There’s Not Much Reason to Live in NeverDead

In video games, death is anything but final. We've been playing games with some form of immortality or reincarnation for decades, whether that's gamesaves, extra men, whatever. NeverDead enforces the concept in gameplay itself. No matter what grisly mishap befalls your hero, he will not die.

The problem is NeverDead didn't inspire a matching will to live, from what I saw of it. The novel premise notwithstanding, a rather run-of-the-mill demon boss battle broke down into quite a chore as the hero, a modern-day demon hunter named Bryce, fought to regenerate his body, and was constantly broken apart by his foe's charge attack. At least with death, video game death anyway, you arrive at a natural starting-over point. There didn't seem to be any relief from this fight, something more interminable than it was epic.

It's an unfortunate way to drive home a point that immortality can be a curse, the theme of NeverDead's back story. In the game, coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this fall from Konami and Rebellion, the main character is half a millennium old thanks to an encounter with a serpent god 500 years ago. In the showdown, Bryce lost his wife, and was stabbed through the right eye by the demon's tail, bestowing him with the curse of everlasting life, though not freedom from its pain.

As such, Bryce may be electrocuted, beheaded, burned, stabbed and shot without any consequence. He will eventually regenerate whatever part went missing. I saw Bryce open faulty gates by grabbing their control boxes and electrocuting himself. Willingly lighting himself on fire, Bryce added a flame attack to his melee.

Bryce's head is the core part, wherever it goes is where you go. It's useful, for example, in tearing your own head off and flinging it over a gate or through a skylight to get around barriers. Assuming he's not under attack, Bryce's entire body will regenerate onto the head, and you're going about your business.

The only mortal threat I saw was something called a "grandbaby," a kind of demon puppy that, to a full-bodied Bryce is a nuisance, but when he's only a head, it can scarf up his noggin and that, actually, will result in a level restart. As a head-only, Bryce can roll around and even use a charge attack, provided he's unlocked it on a skill tree that lets him pull all kinds of stunts, from the self-dismemberment to explosive body parts, in which his own limbs act as grenades.

He packs a sword and twin pistols by default, and his dual wield means twin reticules (a hip-firing angle) that converge into one if the player aims down the sights. But in combat I didn't see Bryce's immortality or resilience manifested as any great advantage. He flung his arm at some larger demons, who went slobbering after it, and then blew them apart with a timed explosion. But in other battles, I saw much more of Bryce's rolling head and limbless torso inchworming away from danger as he struggled to evade foes to let his healing complete.

There will be a few instances in which one plays as Bryce when he was mortal, in flashback-type levels. And occasionally Bryce will be accompanied by a sidekick who is mortal, and that character's death will require a level restart. As if sensing the eye-rolling, director Shinta Nojiri quickly pointed out that not every mission will be an escort level. Perhaps, but it's not a good sign when the easiest way to balance out player immortality and offer a battle with some penalty or consequence is to serve up one of the most despised mission types in singleplayer gaming. NeverDead will not have a co-operative campaign mode, either.

Nojiri said the game can at times look comical, but it is meant to tell a serious story. "He knows there is no hope," Nojiri said, "and he hides his pain with jokes." In the game's trailer and the gameplay dialogue, Bryce came off as less of a tragic figure and more as one cut from the wisecracking antihero mold, in a manner that suggested he didn't want to talk about his circumstances but was secretly flattered when others did.

Multiplayer modes weren't given much discussion but they sounded like scored game types, which nullifies Bryce's immortality in such contests against other characters who will have their own special attributes.

NeverDead starts with a very novel concept, and it's integrated throughout the gameplay, but it's not something that is either an awe-inspiring video game power or, in the other direction, an anything-goes romp with zany visuals and slapstick outcomes. NeverDead's delivered the means to live forever in a video game. What it really needs is a compelling reason to live that long.