Never Gone (Free) could have really been something. That’s my biggest takeaway from this game, after spending more time with it than I probably needed to for this review. Fundamentally, it’s a belt-scrolling beat-em-up along the lines of games like Double Dragon or Final Fight, but it brings in a lot of elements from stylish action games like Devil May Cry to spice things up. The main character’s moveset is ripped right out of Dante’s playbook, and the game also incorporates a lot of Devil May Cry‘s aesthetics. Never Gone also features some light RPG elements that allow you to develop your character and create new gear.
It’s all good on paper, but in practice, Never Gone has a few big flaws that drag everything else down. The combo system is deep and gives you lots of room to improvise, but the emphasis on style often gets in the way of gameplay considerations. The framerate is smooth, but there’s a stilted feeling to the animation and movement that makes everything feel like it’s not working as intended. Powering up and customizing your character is enjoyable, but in the long run, the enemies outpace you so badly you’ll more or less have to grind if you want to survive. It’s a game that demands skill, but no matter how good you get, it still feels like you’re being nudged towards the game’s IAP currency, and that feeling only gets stronger the more you play.
Still, it’s not all bad. The visual design of the game is quite nice, sort of a twist of Devil May Cry and Castlevania. Your character’s attacks look really cool, and the combos have a good flow to them. While you can hack and slash your way to victory in the first few levels, you’ll soon find that you’ll have to learn how to block and counter-attack if you want to survive. It’s nice to see a game of this type that demands something more than hammering away at the attack button. Although the game uses virtual buttons, it manages to pull a satisfying amount of sophistication out of a somewhat simple layout. You’ve got a virtual directional pad that you can use to walk around or modify your attacks, and buttons for attacking, jumping, and blocking. Double-tapping in a direction on the pad will start a dash, and attacking quickly after a successful block will do a special counter-attack. There are quite a few moves to learn, and you’ll open up more as you progress through the game and level up your character.
Levels are fairly short, made up of one or more smaller arenas where you’ll face a set group of enemies. Every few levels or so, you’ll encounter a tough boss battle, and if you haven’t gotten your act together by then, that will be as far as you go until you do. That preparation entails making sure you have the best gear you can afford to forge or buy, spending skill points judiciously, loading up on consumables like potions, being of the appropriate level, and of course, learning the patterns of the current slate of enemies to minimize damage before facing the boss. If you lose, you can choose to spend some of your valuable gems to continue, or you can give up and head back to the map screen with nothing to show for it. If you’ve used up any of your consumables in the effort, they’ll still be gone, though.
Clearing a stage will earn you some goodies, though exactly what you get is subject to a bit of randomization. You can mitigate it somewhat by spending some coins before going in, but those are also a sunk cost, so make sure you can actually beat the level before you do that. Loot could include new gear pieces, consumable items, materials for crafting, or schematics for new equipment. Keeping your gear up to date involves a little bit of luck, then, or failing that, a fair bit of repetition. That’s just as well, I suppose, because keeping your level high enough to give you a fighting chance seems to involve more grinding as you go on, too.
It seems pretty clear that Never Gone was originally designed as a free-to-play game. In addition to the random material drops and poorly-scaled leveling, you’ll also be able to spend your money to open up chests containing random items, gatcha-style. Lives remain as vestiges of a possible stamina system, but seem to have no actual purpose to them at the moment. There are some powerful gear sets that require an absurd number of gems, the game’s premium currency. There are ways to earn those in-game, but it would take ages to gather up enough for certain pieces. It’s probably best to approach Never Gone as a free-to-play game with the upfront purchase cost essentially giving you unlimited lives. The balancing is definitely tilted against the player beyond what you would expect from a usual paid game.
If you approach Never Gone from that angle, and you don’t mind a solid challenge, you’ll get hours of entertainment out of it. Sometimes clunky, choppy, semi-functional entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless. It’s unfortunate that I have to qualify all of that, because there are so many things that Never Gone does well, but the ways it doesn’t measure up are all important enough that they diminish the overall experience significantly. At the very least, the developer seems to be very responsive to player feedback, which is encouraging. In terms of its core mechanics, this is probably one of the better side-scrolling beat-em-ups I’ve played on iOS in a while, so the potential is there if the tech and balancing issues can be sorted out.