Remember that bit in The Iron Man where the Iron Man chucks himself off a cliff? Maybe he falls, actually – I haven't read it in a while. Anyway, the Iron Man topples off this cliff – because he's sad, because he's a metaphor for the Cold War, or because life is so lonely and pointless that toppling off cliffs is the only smart thing to do – and when he hits the ground he smashes into hundreds of pieces.
Then, the pieces start gathering themselves back together. An eyeball connects to a hand, the hand scurries over to a leg, to a torso, another leg, an arm. It's tragic and moving and all a little bit melancholy. That's what I thought about when I first saw NeverDead. NeverDead is that scene, writ large, and played for laughs.
I'd heard about NeverDead a few months back, but had gotten it into my head that it was some kind of zombie survival game. That's, um, not correct. In fact, now that I've spent a bit of time with a preview build, I can tell you that NeverDead's nothing like that whatsoever. Instead, what it is like is a slapstick shooter in which you can tear your own body apart for fun and profit. You can hop around on one foot, filling enemies with hot lead. You can wield a brutal butterfly blade even if you're down to your last arm. You can bounce your disembodied skull around like a basketball with some teeth wedged into it. Let's get this out of the way right now: I'm going to pre-order this game.
The justification for all of this insanity is simple. Bryce is a demon hunter who's been cursed with immortality. You can tear him to pieces, but you can't kill him – and eventually, he'll just put himself back together and then kill you. Or vice versa. Maybe he'll kill you and then put himself back together. Either way, don't bother getting home contents insurance.
This is brilliant stuff, but it's a tricky prospect for video games. They traditionally like to come with things like jeopardy and fail states – and death, after all, is the ultimate fail state (okay, maybe that's Michigan.) To get around that problem, the game's designers have introduced Arcadia. Arcadia's a fellow demon hunter, and something of a pouty little madam if you ask me, but she's not immortal. Keep her alive and you can slay all the demons you want. Lose her, and it's game over.
Escort missions! We all hate those. NeverDead may well duck that particular bullet though, because Arcadia's pretty good at looking after herself, taking out enemies, piling on real damage, and being obligingly quick to heal if she does suffer a bit of a battering. Beyond that, NeverDead's other ace in the hole is that, well, it's a game in which you can rip all your limbs off, so even if Arcadia does turn out to be a nightmare to hang out with there's still that curiosity factor.
You can lose limbs by taking damage, or you can tear them off yourself, in sequences, say, when you have to interact with a simple puzzle, by doing something like dunking your skull in a water fountain in order to propel it into a distant building where there are more demons to hunt. You can then regrow your body if an appropriate meter on your HUD is topped up enough, or you can roll around gradually collecting the parts of your old one. You don't even have to do it in the right order. As a mere head, you have a simple charge-up-and-then-ram attack, but you can leave the torso out of things and just blaze a trail towards your arms if you want to shoot stuff again quickly. It's an amazing moment: a head rolling around on the floor with a couple of arms attached, blasting at demons. Or you can go for an arm and a leg and a head, or a leg and a head, or a handful – sorry – of other permutations.
This is a game where you rarely leave the house fully dressed, if you catch my drift. You'll hop through gunfights – the animation captures a great sense of grouchy good humour – and even bounce around doing melee damage as a mere limbless torso. Your duel-wielded guns each have a separate triggers and separate reticules – in the demo I got to play I was packing an SMG and a revolver – and when that gets boring, you can draw out your sword and opt for a little Zelda-style trigger-targeting while you flail around slashing baddies with the right stick. Sounds mental? Try doing it on one leg, eh?
Destructible environments are the last part of the puzzle. The level I hacked through saw Arcadia and Bryce causing chaos in a glossy inner-city museum, bringing dinosaur skeletons and even entire chunks of the ceiling down onto enemies if they ran out of bullets - and doing as much damage to themselves as to the baddies in the process. The demons tend to be a faintly comical bunch - there's one that looks like a pig wearing its skull on the outside, another that resembles a tumorous football with a massive gob, and a sickle-headed quadruped who can only fall to the sword – and they're all plenty of fun to shoot. That's if you can draw a bead before Arcadia's finished them off, or before you've accidentally done them in yourself with a chunk of the scenery. Meanwhile, pop-ups that I couldn't help but ignore in the heat of the slaughter hinted at things like XP systems and the ability to upgrade your kit. There's even a multiplayer component that's yet to be revealed. (It's probably head-to-head.)
NeverDead's unlikely lineage may go some way to explaining why it's such an unrelentingly bizarre game. The project is being directed by Shinta Nojiri, the designer responsible for, amongst other things, Metal Gear Solid 4's brilliant Prague level, and he's come over to the UK, I believe, to work with Rebellion as part of a kind of skills exchange program. It's a good deal; Rebellion gets to learn about the lively balance of thematic quirk and mechanical rigour that the best Japanese action games have, while Nojiri learns how to get a really good rap performance out of Mickey Rourke.
Either way, I suspect we're the real winners. I'm going to go out on a limb here (sorry) and say that I think the world needs a game like NeverDead: a quippy, modern-day demon-slaying dismemberment opera to get us through these tough economic times that Lord Sugar likes to talk about on The Apprentice.
It's a way out from release at the moment, there's a question of how long the developers can keep the action feeling fresh, and it's rough when it comes to collision detection and camera stuff, but between its swords, its guns, and its fondness for letting you bounce your own skull around, NeverDead already shows a rare streak of characterful Phantom of the Paradise brilliance. Keep an eye out for this one, then (sorry): I'm genuinely counting the days until it's released.