NeverDead hands-on preview: Immortality has its advantages

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In NeverDead, you can rip off your own head and then roll around, attacking enemies as you go. If you know nothing else about the game, that alone is enough.

Developer Rebellion Developments definitely pulled out the wacky for its PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 title, due in 2012. You play Bryce Boltzman, an ancient demon hunter who was cursed with immortality long ago by a demon king. After stewing for 500 years — conveniently bringing us into the present day — the time has finally arrived for Bryce to make with some payback.

I went hands-on with an early section of the game at Konami’s Gamers Day in New York City earlier this week. Bryce and his companion, Arcadia, begin the demo outside a natural history museum as a pack of spherical demon puppy-things are converging on their position. You can immediately start unloading with your dual-wielded pistol-SMG combo, popping each of the approaching enemies like gore-filled balloons.

Larger enemies resembling four-legged, blood-and-bone-colored spiders with blades for heads (yup, that’s what they look like) appear later, giving players an opportunity to try out Bryce’s other main attack. The spider-things are immune to bullets, so you’ll need to get up-close-and-personal with Bryce’s Butterfly Sword to take them out. The controls get a little funky when you pull the blade out, with the left trigger serving now to “activate” sword controls and the right analog stick controlling how you swing it. Combos basically boil down to performing variations on side-to-side and up-and-down combos, but the added sense of tactility makes for some fun play.

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Bryce’s attacks can also be modified, by bringing him into contact with one element or another. Fire and electricity were the two examples present in the demo, though it’s not clear if there are others. It seems that these modifiers serve a greater purpose than dealing additional damage, with certain puzzles involving their use. Bryce will also collect experience points and level up his abilities throughout the game, though none of these features were present in the demo.

Once the nasty critters outside the museum are dealt with, Bryce and Arcadia are still left with a closed and locked gate to deal with. It’s here that Bryce’s immortality — and total lack of hesitance about dismembering himself — comes into play. Pressing and holding a button causes Bryce to rip off his own head, which can then be thrown using an aiming reticle that appears.

Other body parts can be ripped off as well, and used for various purposes, even as grenades. In another example (described, not seen), Bryce is able to rip off one of his gun arms and throw it somewhere. He’ll still have control of his trigger finger, which, as you might imagine, could prove to be useful. Of course, losing those parts will cut down on Bryce’s capabilities in the expected ways — slower with one leg, can only shoot one gun with one arm — until he can recollect them.

Once freed of the body and thrown, the rest of Bryce drops lifelessly to the ground as players take direct control of the rolling head. In this case, the head needs to be tossed into the fountain in order to set off a chain of events that lead our duo into the museum. Bryce can also be reduced to nothing more than a rolling head when he takes too much damage, and this is when he’s at his weakest.

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The demon hunter might not be able to die, but his head can be sucked up by a special, head-seeking enemy called a Grandbaby. These things bear a faint resemblance to the round demon-pups I fought initially, only they’re much less of a threat to full-grown Bryce. Disembodied Bryce, on the other hand, is susceptible to the Grandbabies and their vacuum-like mouths. Being sucked up by one is the equivalent of dying. They’re like mini-Sarlacc pits. Bryce’s head might not die inside them, but it will be slowly digested over the course of 1,000 years.

Bryce’s companion, Arcadia, did a good job of holding her own during the demo. Konami isn’t saying anything right now about what he role in the story is, but she helps you out. It sounds like Bryce may run into a few others — and that players might even spend some time controlling someone other than Bryce — but all of that information currently lives in the “yet to be revealed” category.

It’s still early days for NeverDead, but the playable bits I got to look at earlier this week definitely promised a fun time. There are a few mechanical issues to be worked out — the aiming feels just a bit too loose, for example — but there’s plenty of time to hammer kinks like that out before the 2012 release.

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