Neverend

Review

posted 11/23/2006 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
Platforms: PC
A name like Neverend inspires a nostalgic step back into the childhood classic film The Neverending Story; its cast of unforgettable characters (Falkor the Luck Dragon, the Rock Biter) its daydream-fertile settings (the Swamp of Sadness, the Ivory Tower), and its epic end-of-the-fantasy-world-as-we-know-it impetus. And no D&D-inspired film has ever come close to swirling up an antagonist force as endlessly devouring as The Nothing.  (Bonus points if Stephen King's The Langoliers at least came to mind.)
 
Neverend slides you into the snugly-fitted leather trousers of Agavaen (pronounced something like "Azkaban") our fallen fairy-turned-thief-turned-vigilante protagonist. Unfortunately, in the land of Neverend, unforgettable characters and settings are eschewed for bargain-bin fantasy leftovers, hyuk-hyuk acting, and a female lead that's less assertive and empowered, and more whiny and whimsical.
 
With no honor among thieves, the script opens with a weakly-penned blot of dramatic irony while we witness a treasure trove of loot being swiped from a band of thieves (an inside job) and, the next morning, Agavaen being recklessly accused of the theft's occurrence. She, girlish and charmingly enough, persuades one of the remaining not-so-Merry-Men to show the distraught rogue captain the business end of their long swords. Of course, Agavaen could just as likely make fun of the would-be cooperative thug and lose an ally in the mutinous showdown with the captain. 
 
This is the prologue to the "fork in the road" gameplay that feebly nods its head in this choose-your-own-adventure title. But with the "good" and "bad" choices not daring to straddle any ambiguous moral territory, the "right" and "wrong" answers are transparent in appearance and porous in application.
 
But at least the ball is rolling with our fallen fairy's series of unfortunate events. Her wings apparently clipped at a fairy defrocking ceremony, Agavaen embarks on zig-zagging marathons through trackless deciduous forests, ravine-steep canyons, and baffling town layouts.
 
Peppered over the map are scripted and random encounters with "memorable" foes like Hulking Man and Wolf. Agavaen tackles Sominex-drenched conversations with witty parry-and-thrust dialogue like "What are you doing?" and "So, what's going on over here?" Indeed, what else would you ask two characters named "Woodcutter," one of which is voiced over with a shameless Beavis impersonation? Much like the woodcutters, I find myself rather stumped.
 
Amidst her growing RPG-standard ability scores (with the faculty to go with swords, sorcery, or a little bit of both), our hapless heroine sidetracks on a myriad of ABC errant-boy missions laced with paltry rewards, few of which seek to enliven the past, present, or future of Neverend's people and places.
 
Further discouraging open-ended exploration is the game's inability to recognize whether a story branch is relevant to Agavaen or not, considering her position in the game's timeline. Without provocation, townspeople hand over random objects and information completely out of context -- and not in a conspiratorial "Psst, I've got something you'll need soon" kind of way.
 
The weak-spined sense of adventure does, however, drag itself across some picturesque landscaping from time to time. It's a brow-wrinkling mix of pixilated, photorealistic, and enlarged-to-show-texture backdrops and static environs, with Agavaen negotiating its Coyote Ugly good looks with semi-competence. The camera is due its daily dose of Ritalin, with the 2-D camera in love with dashing around every corner of the compass, and the 3-D Final Fantasy conflicts running the cameraman off into the bushes as least once per battle.
 
With these battles comes a blindfolded sense of balance.  Random encounters plunk you in the pit with a creature too far up the food chain, putting you on the losing side of a one-shot-one-kill encounter, rewarding you with a "You Lose" banner to sum up your time in Neverend (please come again). There's not even any guesswork involved as the exponential number of enemy hit points clearly spells out defeat before the final blow is landed. The counterpoint is that, even as the enemies scale up in difficulty to match your level (a la Oblivion), you'll still be shoving a boot down a regular wolf's throat long after you've graduated to thwarting anemic-looking werewolves (how's that for a change of pace?)
 
The only other change of pace granted Agavaen comes from fighting an endless and game-stopping series of crash-to-desktop bugs. Coming from a game that's grasping at straws, that's the final straw.
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