The 'Shroom:Issue LX/Crocodile Style Reviews
|Platform(s)||PlayStation 3, Xbox 360|
The beginning of the year is always an awkward time for developers, what with the end of the previous one usually going out on a huge militaristic bang with all the big triple-A Christmas releases placating the average gamer's animalistic urge to murder for another year. Add to that the burden of being an opening act for everything to come in the following eleven months and you have exactly why virtually bugger-all had been released until late February, but at the very least what has been released certainly reflects the paranoia of the year. So far we've had two zombie apocalypses, three glorifications of relentless murder, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 which stands in a cynicism league of its own just for its utterly retarded name. And now we have NeverDead, which I hesitate to call the worst game ever made, but that's certainly not for its lack of trying! But Megadeth do the opening theme song, a fact Rebellion are so bloody proud of that they felt it necessary to paste the song over all their pre-release trailers and call attention to it on the box art blurb presumably to cover up all the layers upon layers of shit they didn't want the populace to know about, so they at least got that bit right.
NeverDead is another entry in a long line of shooters that were passed out in their dorm when the "how to be fun and actually work" lecture was taking place. It's set in a grey dystopia in which demons hold parties in public service buildings and scenery explodes whenever so much as a jacket zipper brushes past them; you play as the ludicrously named Bryce Boltzmann, a grumpy demon hunter whose strong endeavours to be labelled the biggest wanker in the known universe puts him at vicious odds with the stiff competition that is the rest of the game's cast. A struggle against the demon king Astaroth five-hundred years ago that is left completely to the game's own pre-rendered enjoyment has left Bryce "cursed" with immortality and Mel Gibson's face after having an egg jammed in his skull. Bryce works alongside a stereotypically sassy Special Forces agent with a skirt matched in length only by her brain-damaging wit named Arcadia, because he wants to get revenge on the demons for whacking his wife and turning his face into a hot cross bun all those centuries ago. Eventually they meet a self-entitled pop diva who is reminiscent of Ashley from Resident Evil 4 but with at least one thousand sticks crammed up her ass, who needs to be protected because she turns out to be a "medium" with the ability to bring demons into the human plane of existence, although why she was completely unaware of this power until just now is one of those things that thinking too hard about will cause certain parts of your brain to shut down.
Bryce's immortality establishes the main draw of the game as he is unable to die by any conventional means – hence the title – which might sound a little counterproductive to that whole "challenge" concept video games are supposed to have, but they deign to solve that by having his limbs and head tear off when so much as a single drop of demon drool touches his shoes, a feature that only grows more and more aggravating each time it happens. And it will happen a lot because Bryce's bones and tendons are apparently made out of breadsticks and polystyrene. He can recollect his limbs by somersaulting into them – because that's always my preferred way of picking things up – or by manually regenerating them when his magic demon eye has fully charged, which would be all well and good if not for the fact that the enemies are so fast and Bryce such a ponce that more often than not he'll recover a limb only for another enemy to propel his head ten feet into the air immediately after. Now I can honestly see a great deal of potential in the concept of limb removal within the confines of, say, a puzzle or stealth game, but this is an obnoxious and repetitive action game so obsessed with its tough guy image that it has no time for such practical uses of its talent, so it feels like giving praise to a Tasmanian devil for using its sharp teeth and claws to attack defenceless rocks. It doesn't help that every bloody room has at least two monster spawners that take forever to destroy, so all those mutant dogs you just crushed under a building will be replaced by twice as many of the twitchy little shits. You can still roll around the stage as a head in Morph Ball-styled gameplay complete with dodgy boosting functionality – further lending credence to my belief that Bryce's head is filled with firecrackers which would explain why it always rockets into the sky with the slightest provocation – which I'm guessing was a ploy to win our hearts over by reminding us of Metroid Prime, an actually good game, perhaps to avoid acknowledging that the controls for their own masterpiece are more broken than a house made of nougat.
In all fairness NeverDead deserves a bit of credit for a few nice ideas, it's just that it has no idea how to execute them. It throws away the tedium of cover-based combat and instead tries to replicate the horde-based gameplay of traditional, much better first-person shooters, but it's handicapped by the third-person perspective and incredibly restrictive camera which makes manual aiming feel like you're throwing playing darts at a flock of speeding eagles while drunk, which I can only guess is because Bryce's arms are reinforced with jello. There is an auto-aim upgrade, but it considers a bullet-immune blade-necked spider creature one basketball court away a bigger threat than the fat clubbed-tail bastard right in front of you about to hack your arms and legs off, not helped by the levels being so cluttered and dark that you'll probably trip over a cardboard box while backpedalling and become easy pickings. All weapons in the game can be dual-wielded, an idea I think could make for some interesting combinations if not for the fact that there's a grand total of five guns in the game, four of which are loaded with Brussels sprouts and the last one being completely impractical, made all the more troublesome by the unintuitive weapon switch system which forces you to scroll through each weapon one at a time like you're sorting through your iPhone contacts in the middle of a moshpit rather than just opening a menu overlay for greater convenience. I'm starting to question if gun combat was deliberately made frustrating as aside from certain bosses there's absolutely no reason to use anything but the sword, since it's good for ploughing through the legions of baddies that will inevitably crowd around you like clingy house pets. Although you swing with the right analog stick which feels really awkward and unnatural, and half the enemies blow up when defeated, so maybe the entirety of combat was made frustrating to coax you into turning the game off, but silly me not picking up the hint there! And I know I shouldn't question the logic of a game in which activating a switch with the sword is recommended over simply pulling it with hands like a normal person, but when Bryce regenerates his body he also automatically gains his weapons and clothes back; how the fuck does that work? Is being able to store sub-machine guns and fabric in his cheeks another perk of his curse? because that sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.
But just because you can't die from the real action doesn't mean there aren't still other ways to get a game over, incredibly stupid ways they may be! The most common death scenario is having your disembodied head consumed by little sentient dumplings that appear in every section of every stage and constantly respawn no matter how many times you kill them; they can only be escaped if you line up two scrolling bars in an utterly baffling attempt to balance out the gameplay, but it's really finicky about what counts as lined up, and towards the end of the game the bars move by so fast that you'd have to have meditated on an isolated mountain top for twelve years to be able to keep up with them. There are also the support NPCs the game forces you to escort through various parts of the game, but they just could not give less of a shit about self-preservation since their survival strategy involves staying as far away as possible from the unkillable man with the giant sword trying to babysit them; that and they rarely ever run away from attacking enemies, never target the monster spawners that are always in every goddamned room, and have a terrible habit of walking under the one strip of building you've toppled over to crush a marching band of demons. Whenever they're overpowered or simply trip over their high heels, they screech into the microphone at full volume and express mild irritation that they lack the constitution or mere motivation to pick themselves up, which masterfully reflects my own reaction. Failure to come to their aid in time has them give up all hope in humanity and suddenly drop dead, although whether you're able to reach them in time tends to be a crapshoot based on the amount of debris cluttering up the room and whether or not you're in one piece at the time, to say nothing of the segment with the speeding trains which felt like assisting an overconfident three-toed sloth through a monster truck rally. No one wants to get a game over for something that isn't their fault, especially not from characters whose every last utterance already fills the player with enough misanthropic rage to power an entire North Korean concentration camp.
But I've ranted on enough about the gameplay, so let's look at other areas that give me meningitis. Ah, I think the art direction will work, because there is none; if there was, then the concept artists sneaking Max Ernst doodles into their submissions to troll the character artists is the only logical explanation. I feel it deserves special mention for vomiting out some of the worst character designs I've ever seen in a video game, which is saying a bloody lot when the entire JRPG genre still exists (buuurn). The "Quad Jaw" creature was the most ridiculous, having the body of a purple beetle with an octopus' mouth on its underbelly, and three heads covered in spider webs that resemble a tiger, a rabbit and a crocodile sitting atop necks resembling tree trunks, an inhumane concoction that even Doctor Moreau would find offensive. Bryce himself looks like a shaving accident gone horribly wrong also bearing hair so stiff he must need fucking sculptors to shave it, and Astaroth has what appears to be blue paint dripping from his mouth (which probably makes him the "special" kid of the demon world), a bird's nest for a body, and two skinned snakes for arms. It really does reach far beyond plain ridiculous; here I thought Ghirahim was insulting but if there were a competition held for most offensively gay video game characters ever made then the semi-recurrent demon boss of NeverDead would not only win the gold trophy and all the runner up medals, but he'd also take home all the consolation prizes, a lifetime supply of designer cupcakes, and probably a couple of underaged boys as well for good measure.
The story is all over the shop too, reading out like it was written inside fifteen minutes by an exasperated intern suspecting the director of banging his wife. They mention the more powerful demons being immune to weapons in our plane such as swords and guns which is the reason the heroes need a medium to make them vulnerable, but while Bryce gets a free ass-kicking ticket with the common enemies because he's special for no other reason than the game refusing to cooperate with the writers if a half-assed explanation wasn't given, how the fuck is Arcadia – a mere mortal with no prior connection to the demons – able to harm them? The writers don't seem to have a full understanding of emotional weight and impact, seeing as how the treachery of a fellow demon hunter who looks like he was on the bad end of a botched knife throwing act is treated as somewhat of a big deal despite the anorexic bastard only appearing for all of one minute prior to that with a huge neon sign saying "I am totally going to literally stab you in the back soon!" And if Bryce's blood behaves as an all-purpose restorative drug, then why in God's name does he only ever give a dose of it to Arcadia once in the entire fucking game? How many game overs and mortal genocide fantasies could I have been spared if she had just kept a couple jars of that shit on-hand instead of calling for help every single goddamned time the wind blew in her face?
I played NeverDead on-and-off because playing it dedicatedly would've been like shoving hot iron prods up my nostrils, and yet I still finished the entire story campaign within three days. When you get past all the shit, you find that the game is just boring; there are nine linear levels padded out to at least forty minutes each, with roughly half an hour worth of ideas to show for it. Gameplay feels more like a formulaic grind than any genuine test of skill; enter a room, run past all of Lovecraft's rejects so you can reach the giant armoured vaginas constantly respawning the twerps, slowly drag your fat load to your needy colleagues because a gun-toting harpy just shot all your limbs off in four different directions, then repeat about a hundred times. I thought Bryce would be made mortal for the final battle, stripping away the only thing that kept him safe for so long as an epic final showdown that's won on his own merits and not just because he was the guy blessed with a shiny eyeball, but that would imply a degree of genuine sophistication or effort on the part of a production team that likely spent the majority of the development process bashing their heads against their desks and injecting copious amounts of turpentine into their systems. The addition of online multiplayer just seems like a desperate attempt to maintain replay value, a bid that couldn't even fool the fans since I was only able to find about four active lobbies over the week I played, which in all honesty was the most uplifting part of this entire experience.
The biggest insult to any gamer is when they've invested more effort into beating a game than the development team did actually making it, which makes NeverDead the biggest middle finger a developer could possibly give. There are a few interesting ideas, but that's hardly enough to salvage the game when even those mechanics were constructed from horse shit. It's just one of those games that no matter what you do, it never really feels like you've accomplished anything of worth. I mean Astaroth doesn't even die in the end, he just sinks back into his burning grotto dragging Bryce down with him; for all the shits I gave, everyone may as well have just shot each other with squirt guns at the local rubbish dump, and that at least wouldn't have cost me $90. Then it just jumps into the credits roll as an incredibly out of place dance pop number closes off a game that up until now was built entirely on monotonous heavy metal and high-powered electronic, which would be like going to a Rammstein concert and the closing act being Kesha. Do you really want to be heavy metal, NeverDead? Then go jump in an iron maiden, and then maybe we can both feel like we've achieved something beautiful.