Never Alone is one of the most fascinating platformers I’ve ever played. With a storyline plucked straight from the mouths of Alaskan Inuits and narrated in their native tongue (with subtitles), you can almost imagine sitting in a house made of driftwood and sod with a steaming hot cup of something delicious clasped tightly in your hands listening to a husky-voiced village elder retell a tale that has been passed down generations.
Never Alone is certainly charming in this respect and has a totally unique concept in terms of its aims and end goal. Developed in collaboration with Upper One Games and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a non-profit organisation for the preservation of the indigenous people, the project came about as an initiative to “entice the younger generation to stay rooted to their origins,” as well as a way to get the wider audience engaged in indigenous folklore. In that respect, it works extremely well by providing both entertainment and education in one engaging package that paves the way impressively for more ‘World Games’ based on other cultures.
With proceeds from the game helping to fund future educational endeavours for the organisation, Never Alone is clearly a labour of love for all those involved. Indeed, the passion for the subject matter shows throughout its eight stylish chapters which capture the spirit of its people with characters, artwork and folklore creating both a visually and mentally engaging indie title that takes players on an intriguing journey.
The storyline follows a young village girl called Nuna as she heads off through Artic tundras, villages, ice floes and forests in order to track down the source of a blizzard which has made hunting impossible for her family. With the survival of the village at stake, the tale soon develops into a story about survival and courage as Nuna stumbles upon an Artic fox who can summon and command friendly spirits to help them along their troubled journey. As the adventure unfolds, players discover owls that unlock cultural insights and (with a tap of the DualShock 4 pad) can watch videos that shed more light on the themes experienced in game. It’s absolutely captivating to watch and listen to these short documentaries on subjects such as the Northern Lights, Little People and the origins of the Bola, a popular Inuit weapon used for hunting.
These themes also appear throughout the game with Nuna encountering moments that are inspired by the stories from the Inuits, such as riding on the back of spirits to progress through levels, encountering the mysterious owl man and adopting the harsh winds and forest lakes to her advantage, using her tenacity, strength and trust in animal spirits to help save her village and find the source of the storm.
Never Alone is a puzzle-platformer that is meant to be played co-operatively (local only) with two players, one taking control of Nuna and the other the Artic fox as they work together to solve environment-based puzzles. Though the game can be played solo too, with players able to switch between the two characters at any time, the erratic nature of the A.I. can make it a chore, with your companion often failing to keep up with you and sometimes being more of a burden than a help. Consequently, it’s recommended (and far more enjoyable) to have another person in control as you work together as a team to navigate the harsh environments.
Indeed, the harsh weather plays a major part in the game, with ice cracking underneath your feet causing moments of panic and fierce blizzards forcing players to use the ‘Brace’ move to hit the canvas so they don’t get pushed back and fall to their death. While having to stop and start whenever a strong gale comes your way can upset the flow of the game, it’s a mechanic that comes in handy later on in the game when the shifting wind patterns give players the momentum to leap over larger gaps.
While Nuna can jump, push objects and throw her bola to crack ice or help summon spirits, the Artic fox can climb up walls, slip through small gaps, drop rope for Nuna to climb and move spirits around the screen to help his sidekick progress. The spirits in the game are essentially platforms that take the form of animals that the fox can move around by raising and lowering them, or shifting them around the screen to allow Nuna to hop on board to reach the next area.
Inevitably, misjudging jumps and dieing a lot while attempting to leap from one platform to the next is frequent, but the use of generous checkpoints takes some of that frustration away, making progress largely a matter of trial-and-error. That’s not to say it’s always a breeze to sail through though; players often need to synchronise the movement of both characters perfectly in order to progress. This comes into fruition particularly during chase scenes where a polar bear (or something else) is in pursuit and use of the bola and the Artic fox’s spirit-moving skills are needed to be used in tandem, as well as moments where the fox needs to move platforms and Nuna has to move in between them with perfect timing to avoid certain obstacles.
With the likes of lakes, coastal villages and dense forests, Never Alone offers eight chapters that offer something a little different in terms of challenge with locations coming to life to deliver new ways of traversing the environment, including underwater scenes, riding the Northern Lights and hitching a lift on a moving tree. There’s some decent ideas here that tie in nicely with the Inuit theme, and fun to be had working together as a team to accomplish some fairly easy puzzles, but there’s also some frustrations along the way. It shouldn’t, for example, take two hours to work out the exact positioning and timing to make what should be a simple jump; a scenario which occurred in the final level — that’s not fun, or a puzzle; that’s just plain annoying. In fact, death happens far too often, and usually because the wind blows you off a platform, or you misjudge a jump that requires a pin-point amount of precision.
Though the introduction of wind as an aid (and an obstruction) is certainly a clever idea that keeps players on their toes, it isn’t quite enough to set the gameplay apart from other games in the genre that have much more depth; the likes of crate-pushing (cage pushing, in this case) to overcome obstacles serve to remind you that it does lack ideas and originality in this department.
Where Never Alone does ooze with originality is with its stylish graphics which take players on a visual journey with characters and environments inspired by Alaska Native art. Throw into the mix an immersive tale, authentic narration in the mother tongue and the sound of the environment creaking, blowing and crashing around you, and you can’t fail to be swept away by Never Alone’s atmosphere. The way it portrays Inuit culture with such a level of respect and understanding could only have been gained from working on the project so closely with them, and it really does show.
Though the erratic behaviour of the A.I. companion can be frustrating in solo mode, and unnecessary deaths could have been prevented with a bit more polish to the level design and animation, Never Alone offers a unique experience that is made all the more rich by its video documentaries and authenticity of its folklore tale. Setting a benchmark for further ‘World Games’ that embrace unique cultures, Never Alone uses the power of video games to offer an engaging insight into the perspective of Alaska Natives and does so with passion and style. With this in mind, it’s easy to forgive some of its flaws and congratulate the developer for creating something new.