NeverDead is the kind of game that really only could’ve existed in one specific period of time. Not because of its technical innovations or limitations, nor because of its novel ideas or unique gameplay mechanics. Rather, NeverDead is the type of game that, despite presenting a fascinating premise and the smidgens of intriguing ideas, ultimately opts to rest on its laurels in favor of the familiar, the arbitrary, and the occasionally vestigial. It starts off as fresh and exciting before grinding you down to nothing more than a blank nub.

But how did we get here? How and why did something like NeverDead end up this way? Better yet, what even is NeverDead, to begin with?

A NeverDead Primer

Bryce Boltzmann and Arcadia standing together in NeverDead.

Directed by Shinta Nojiri and developed by Rebellion Developments, NeverDead was released in 2012 and follows the adventures of Bryce Boltzmann, a demon hunter cursed with immortality by the demon king Astaroth. 500 years later, Boltzmann finds himself living life to the extreme — the “alcoholic” type of extreme, at least. Dejected, demoralized, and utterly sardonic, Boltzmann still harbors a deep hatred of Astaroth and the grotesque power bestowed upon him: the ability to regenerate lost limbs.

With his handler, Arcadia, and a snooty pop star by the name of Nikki Summerfield in tow, Boltzmann is subsequently tasked with stopping a treacherous demonic invasion one blown-off limb at a time. What follows is the kind of typical third-person action game you’d find in the early 2010s, albeit with some fascinating deviations from the standard formula.

Being a demon hunter, Boltzmann is armed to the teeth with a plethora of varied guns as well as his Butterfly Sword, leaving you to switch between the two modes of attack with a dedicated button. Boltzmann carries a gun in each hand at all times, meaning you can either double up on a single type or carry two different types at once. The Butterfly Sword, meanwhile, switches things up substantially. When you lock onto an enemy, you can swing the Butterfly Sword based on what direction you flick the right thumbstick in. Fascinatingly, while this type of melee combat was mostly relegated to games like Jet Li: Rise to Honor and Death by Degrees in the previous console generation, a significantly improved version of this mechanic would appear in Konami’s very own Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance only a year later.

Another interesting addition to the bog-standard formula is the surprising emphasis on environmental destruction. Being an action game, it’s only natural for things to blow up and debris to go flying during every intense battle. Here, however, the environment is arguably your best weapon. Collapsing pillars or ceilings, explosives, and crumbling supports can all be manipulated to inflict heavy damage or instantly destroy your foes. It’s an absolutely viable option if you’re getting bored of either mindlessly slashing or shooting things, something you’ll quickly turn to until you’re begrudgingly forced to return to your other options. Just be aware that you’re as vulnerable to being crushed by scattered masonry as your enemies.

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Speaking of which, NeverDead‘s biggest selling point is also host to its most defined mechanic. Boltzmann’s health isn’t tied to a health bar or a gradual red tint filling the screen. Instead, his “health” is represented by how many functioning limbs are attached to his body. Your head, arms, and legs are all subject to be torn apart by your enemies, either one-by-one or all at once in some instances, with their absence directly affecting Boltzmann’s abilities. Lose an arm? You’re down a gun. Lose both legs? You’re forced to move via a snail’s pace crawl. Lose everything? You’re now just a rolling head, forcing you to either reconnect yourself to your torso or wait long enough to regenerate your limbs.

Being reduced to a head is also the most dangerous state to be in. While you’re still technically immune to damage, a group of small, roaming enemies has the ability to swallow Boltzmann’s head whole, leaving it to be slowly digested for the rest of eternity. It’s quite a grisly end, meaning that you should reconnect to the rest of your body as soon as possible. That said, you’ll still die at arbitrary points if you jump off a cliff or otherwise do something you’re not supposed to.

Being able to lop off limbs without so much as a grimace also opens the door for a handful of interesting puzzle opportunities. Boltzmann can tear off his own head and toss it into areas that are otherwise inaccessible. He can lop off his own arms in order to distract potential foes. He can even complete electrical circuits using his own body to open doors and turn on machinery. This even comes into play throughout the game’s story, where Boltzmann’s body is often blown into bits like one of those vintage crash test dummy toys. There’s a perfect opportunity here to not only wring out creative scenarios from Boltzmann’s morbid ailment but to add to the game’s overall schlocky tone.

It does so a few times. And then it doesn’t really do it at all.

NeverDead Is (Almost Always) Dull

Bryce Boltzmann fighting a demon with two guns in NeverDead.

NeverDead has a few tricks up its sleeves, and once those tricks are revealed, there really isn’t anything left to discover. Unique enemy encounters give way to isolated arenas that blend together into a stagnant mush, relying on simply throwing out dozens of the same enemies you’ve been fighting for hours prior until you destroy a dedicated “spawner” that doesn’t really react to most of your attacks. Boss enemies are reused several times, seemingly to stretch what little there is left of the game like they were a plentiful commodity.

Speaking of commodities, the “skill” system is a bizarre inclusion that really doesn’t add or detract from the overall experience. By defeating enemies and collecting either red or yellow floating objects, whose importance is regulated solely to the act of collecting them, you’re granted experience points to put towards a variety of skills. Starting out with ten slots for skills total, you’re able to give yourself additional damage, make Boltzmann run faster, or occasionally incorporate some new abilities into your arsenal. For instance, a pair of skills grants your bullets the power of electricity or fire should you be. . . well, electrified or set ablaze. For every one of these unique implementations, though, there are three or four skills that simply raise a flat number, making them more efficient to take as you tackle more dangerous hordes of enemies. After all, why take a skill that only works in certain situations versus something that’ll always work, all the time, with no special caveats?

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If there’s anything that can be praised about NeverDead, its presentation is certainly remarkable. Though its environments are otherwise standard, its character designs are, at the very least, interesting to look at. You won’t find traditional demons here; rather, you’ll find strange amalgamations of flesh and bone, creatures that seemingly exist for the sole purpose of inflicting pain onto others. One enemy type you’ll fight frequently can only be described as a “sword on legs,” whereas others form an aggressive take on rabid dogs or rampaging bulls. Sangria, a bizarre, seemingly-obese-but-also-ripped frog-creature thing, was a particularly memorable example that still sticks out in my memory.

The game’s soundtrack also deserves a mention. Inexplicably, the prolific thrash metal band Megadeth was contracted to compose music for NeverDead, not only producing the title track but also a customized soundtrack that plays throughout. Combined with compositions from Mark Rutherford, who would later provide the score for Rebellion Developments’ Sniper Elite series, it creates a surprising soundscape that makes the accompanying dullness slightly less numbing.

NeverDead’s Dumbfounding Development

The demon Sangria standing in a strange cave in NeverDead.

In an interview with Metro’s GameCentral, director Shinta Nojiri spoke earnestly about several key elements of NeverDead. Specifically, towards the end of the interview, the topic of “globalization” in terms of game development and the meshing of different cultures came up. When asked about the reasoning behind collaborating with Rebellion Developments, specifically why and how such a collaboration was taking place, he had this to say:

“. . . it was necessary to make a title with a Western developer, to provide a title designed for the Western market, and Rebellion were a perfect match . . . the NeverDead proiect was handled by Japanese staffs, so we could control the product in terms of key detail.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that this sole passage is arguably responsible for how NeverDead ultimately turned out.

Don’t get us wrong; Shinta Nojiri is far from talentless, and his own history with Konami is proof of this. Aside from assisting acclaimed director Hideo Kojima on the Metal Gear Solid series, Nojiri’s biggest credits include directing both of the accompanying Metal Gear Acid spinoff titles on the PlayStation Portable. Seeing as how Metal Gear Acid implemented a card game system into what was originally a stealth-action series, it’s fair to say that he’s more than willing to think out of the box. This is especially true with how often NeverDead‘s dismemberment mechanics came up in interviews. He took complete ownership of the idea on several occasions, including an additional interview with Gamereactor.

It’s not so much that NeverDead is broken on the technical side or that it just needs some tweaks here and there to become something more enjoyable. What we have here is something that, conceptually, just doesn’t live up to its own potential — conflicting ideas that were seemingly compromised on instead of being used to their fullest potential.

Why have both guns and a dedicated melee weapon that has its own separate control scheme? Why are puzzles involving your detached limbs and combat arenas thoroughly disconnected from each other before the former outright disappears? Why introduce the ability to willingly tear off your own appendages when they don’t serve a purpose outside of finding arbitrary collectibles and occasionally opening doors?

NeverDead being “designed for the Western market” feels like an answer to these queries. In a generation seemingly infamous for trend-chasing and a perceived lack of variety, why not just join the pack and shoot things all the time instead of doing something creatively risky? After all, it’s what all the biggest games in the Western market are doing.

A piece by Mitch Dyer on IGN, titled “The Westernization of Japanese Games,” was released the very same year as NeverDead, prefacing the game’s release by mere weeks. In it, Dyer takes a look at a handful of successes and failures regarding Japanese games that took a more “Westernized” approach, citing examples like Suda 51’s Shadows of the Damned and Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4 as an example of the latter and former, respectively. He suggests that having the correct “balance” of influences is an important key to success, comparing the two titles and their respective blends of American and Japanese sensibilities in a way that heavily favors Metal Gear Solid 4.

You could argue that NeverDead falls into the same category as Shadows of the Damned, a game whose differing design sensibilities and unique ideas, unfortunately, coalesce into an end product tailored for an audience that couldn’t resonate with it. The choice of developer could’ve played a role in this as well.

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We’re not suggesting that Rebellion Developments circa 2012 were necessarily bad. That very same year, Sniper Elite V2 would catapult Rebellion Developments into a comfortable niche they continue to embrace more than a decade later. It’s just that, when you look at their output from a few years prior, you find some. . . irregularities. Ports of existing games to either outdated or mobile hardware made up most of their output, which all debuted to either mixed or negative results. Titles like Call of Duty: World at War – Final Fronts and the PlayStation Portable version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix especially come to mind. Their attempts at original properties fared much worse, with games like the now-infamous Rogue Warrior and Shellshock 2: Blood Trails, both released in 2009, being ripped to shreds by contemporary and retrospective critics alike.

While we may never know what initially forged this working relationship between Konami and Rebellion Developments, it’s important to remember that this wasn’t just an isolated incident. Projects like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Blades of Time, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow saw Konami turning to European and American studios for their development, with some studios even touting their ability to produce lower-budget titles efficiently. Given the risk involved with a new property, turning to Rebellion Developments makes a bit more sense.

NeverDead Is Never Forgotten

Alex looking menacing in NeverDead.

Where does all of this leave NeverDead, then? Is it something you ought to go out of your way to play, or is it just another piece of the medium’s history that succumbed to whatever ills plagued it?

If there’s a silver lining to be found, it’s that NeverDead did reflect a point in time when experimental ideas were given a bit more leeway from larger studios. It’s nowhere near the level you’ll find nowadays, given that the landscape for both game development and its associated distribution has changed substantially. But it’s there. In a year dominated by numerous sequels, along with the wider advent of episodic games and retro rereleases, NeverDead crafts something memorable out of a game that would otherwise be tossed into the pile of mediocrity.

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It’s not great, mind you. I had fun initially, and it slowly trickled away into nothing. But I’ll remember it.

With how many games exist now, some potentially spanning hundreds of hours in length, the ability to linger in the back of the mind is a rare thing. While physics-based destruction and gore being played for laughs isn’t anything new nowadays, never before have I seen it utilized in such a promising way — even if it didn’t really stick the landing. I’ll remember NeverDead, even if I didn’t like it towards the end. Frankly, that’s something to commend.

NeverDead is available on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. As of writing, no PC port is currently available.

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