"Has anyone seen a left arm?" Spend enough time with NeverDead hero Bryce Boltzmann and that is a question that will become all too familiar.
Born out of a interesting blend of Japanese and British action gaming, NeverDead attempts to take a new approach to dismemberment in games with an immortal hero who spends all to much time for his own liking as a head rolling around on the floor.
In a lot of ways Bryce Boltzmann is a fairly typical video game hero. He's immortal, he alternates dual-wielding guns with a rather large two-handed butterfly blade and spends most of his time - when he's not slaying demons - drinking, smoking and cracking wise to attempt to forget his tortured past. Bryce does differ from the rest in one crucial way though. He can dismemeber and reassemble his body at will.
This invites some interesting solutions to the game's problems. Need to reach a high platform without help of stairs or a ladder? Simply rip off Bryce's head and use his basketball skills to lob it up onto the platform and then regenerate his body. Have to get through a tight vent? Again, in a twisted interpretation of Samus Aran's ball form, you can again remove Bryce's head and roll it through the the vent.
Bryce can also remove his arms and keep shooting the guns in hand and, later on, he can even detonate his limbs with impressive effect especially when they have been consumed by an annoying demon. Alongside the ability for the hero to be dismembered the environments are all laden with destructible objects making the game a bit of a spectacle of destruction.
Built around Bryce is a story that's fairly standard games fair. Bryce carries on his endless battle with the demon world populated by an array of monsters that are clearly influenced by bizarrely elegant creatures of the Devil May Cry series although any similarities to Dante and Nero's adventures are purely aesthetic.
NeverDead takes a distinctly Western approach to gameplay and it's no surprise given that its the UK-based Aliens vs Predator studio Rebellion handling the development duties under the watchful eye of Konami's Shinta Nojiri. There are three main elements to the gameplay in NeverDead: dismemberment, a traditional third person action mechanic and a a buddy mechanic with Bryce's mortal partner Arcadia.
The third-person action gameplay is a bit of a hybrid of standard conventions and a bit of experimental control schemes. The shooting employs a standard control scheme mapping each hand to the respective triggers and it works fairly well even if the guns feel decidedly underpowered. The use of Bryce's large butterfly blade is a different matter though. Rebellion has decided to use the second analogue stick to control the melee combat providing more depth and finesse to the game's swordplay and taking a big gamble in the process. Silicon Knights tried this before with Too Human foregoing camera control for a fully analogue melee system. It didn't work and was one of the factors that contributed to the downfall of their epic.
The answer Rebellion has chosen to remedy this is to force players to toggle between camera control and sword control by locking on to individual targets with the left trigger. This does offer a better measure of control that Too Human lacked but the immediacy of the control is watered down by the need to make a double movement (back and forward in the direction you want Bryce to swing his sword) in order to perform an attack. Still, the sword packs a bigger punch than many of the guns which poses an interesting choice for NeverDead players.
In battle, enemies can fully dismember Bryce and there are even small enemies called Grandbabies that will attempt to swallow Bryce's absent limbs. If a Grandbaby swallows Bryce's head a QTE ensues where players have to line up two moving indicators to escape of face the only real equivalent NeverDead has for death - an eternity in a demon's stomach. If he's missing an arm or a leg he can still move around and attack and a simple combat roll over the errant limb to reattach it. One lucky shot from an enemy can either fully dismember Bryce's body or behead him. When this happens Bryce must roll his head around and collect his missing body or wait until his regeneration meter is full so he can re-grow his body.
One other frustrating thing that occurs is when the destructible environments and the dismemberment collide. Should Bryce's body become trapped under a pile of rubble it makes it very difficult to actually reattach his missing body making regeneration the only option.
Small frustrations in the game mechanics aside NeverDead does actually grow on you as the storyline develops. As well as continuing the modern-day storyline it gives small glimpses of the events long ago that led to Bryce becoming immortal. NeverDead also demonstrates a sense of humour in its character design with some bizarre and colourful demons which take themselves far less seriously than the Devil May Cry monsters that inspired them. One other thing that cannot be faulted is NeverDead's visuals. They are crisp, clean and colourful and certainly let you know that you're playing NeverDead and not any other of the myriad of generic third-person action games.
NeverDead is a bit of an enigma. With all the different niggles in the game it feels like it should be a bad game but there's something that is very endearing about it. Rebellion there are a lot of brave design decisions that may not always come off perfectly but this imbues the game with a charm all of its own. This will never be the best or the most polished game of 2012 but the spirit in which Rebellion as approached NeverDead has made it a title that deserves a chance. In that respect it's a bit like its main character - bits may fall off NeverDead from time to time but it will still get you to the end no matter what.