Never Alone – Review

Title   Never Alone
Developer  Upper One Games
Publisher  E-Line Media
Platform  Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One (Reviewed)
Genre  Puzzle, Platformer
Release Date  November 18, 2014
Official Site

“It would be really nice to hear a story.”

According to Upper One Games, the creators of Never Alone, this is a common refrain amongst the Iñupiaq people when they gather together at the end of a day. Never Alone also goes by the name Kisima Ingitchuna and moonlights as a love story to the tribes that make their homes in the frozen tundras of Alaska. In fact, cultural advisors – elders and storytellers – were invited to help create Never Alone, and the end result is unmistakably flavoured by their unique perspectives. Alongside the traditional tale they have chosen to tell, you’re also treated a series of vignettes – called Cultural Insights – that tells the story of the people it is inspired by.

All of this is tied together by the Iñupiaq love of storytelling; one of the very first mini documentary clips that you unlock explains that listening to an elder tell one of their stories is an experience akin to watching a Hollywood blockbuster. They are a vital part of day-to-day life for the tribes, providing both history and entertainment in the few free hours in an Iñupiaq day.

Despite being narrated by an elder, Never Alone doesn’t quite capture that blockbuster feeling. It tells a traditional story, undoubtedly told and retold hundreds of times over the years, of a village blighted by a powerful blizzard. Unable to hunt, the village is slowly dying of starvation. One young girl, Nuna, decides to take matters into her own hands and strikes out into the unnatural snows to find their source. The beginnings of the tale are accompanied by scrimshaw style art, which is somehow grim, but still beautiful and clearly crafted with a great deal of respect.

The bulk however, is told through the levels of platforming accomplished by Nuna and her companion, an arctic fox. In order to reach the end of each chapter, each character has to chip in. Fox can jump farther than Nuna, but more importantly has the ability to cling to walls, allowing him to scamper a little further up and take an extra leap. What he can’t do is climb ropes or ladders, or make use of the bola that Nuna uses to break icy outcroppings and frozen walls. While one player is being controlled, AI takes over the other and while it’s mostly unobtrusive, it’s not perfect. To get the most out of the pair, you have to switch between them, which is easily accomplished by hitting the Y button. The emphasis isn’t on gimmicks however, as platforming is consistently solid throughout.

Much like the scrimshaw art, the world through which Nuna travels is lovely and dangerous. Everything that isn’t obscured by snow is crisply white, or grey. At times the misty dark, misty environments are evocative of indie classic Limbo, at others it is clearly its own arctic beast and the way that Nuna and Fox move through it is attractive in its own right.

Everything that the pair does is dictated by their environment. Nuna scuttles through the snow, but when it gets deeper she takes great hopping leaps so that she can travel without slowing down very much. When Fox leaps on to a wall, he scrabbles at it to keep himself in place, and when he wants to drop a rope down to Nuna, he sniffs and kicks at it as though he is trying to make sure it’s not hiding any dangers.

When the wind blows Nuna has to brace herself with only a few seconds notice of light wind and soft noise before the big gust comes. As she progresses further, the dangerous nature of the Iñupiaq home begins to be revealed organically. Where Nuna or Fox might have landed safely from a slide before, now a precise jump is required. Wind gusts frequently become more dangerous, driving back towards dangers already surpassed. Equally, they learn to make use of the environment. Wind that gusts towards a gap not yet crossed made might propel you across a space that looks too large.

Once in a while a chasm is too large to leap across. To the Iñupiaq however, Sila – the spirit of the Earth, sky and nature itself – has a soul and sends helpers to aid her people, like an owl man to help her find answers, or wispy shades of animals that allow her to use them as footholds. Key to this is Fox, who serves as a sort of focus for the spirits. With his help, they can be guided to specific places or actions, like carrying Nuna across a hole too large to jump, or a cliff higher than she can reach.

Though there is clearly a vast amount of respect for the story that is being told, it seems like every opportunity to reveal more about Iñupiaq is snapped at, which can make everything feel disjointed. The vignettes are perfectly pleasant to watch; they are well produced and can be absolutely fascinating, but they do wrench you out of the game every time you watch one. In a sense they fall victim to their own implementation; each clip is related to an action or area in the story, so when they become unlocked it makes sense to just watch them then and there, which is the major factor in the disrupted immersion. It’s possible to watch the lot of them at the end of the game, or even just the ones you unlocked in that chapter while the game loads the next. This would probably help, but the underlying problem is that there is little to tie two very separate stories together.

There is also a clear commitment to staying faithful to the legend as told by the Iñupiaq, which has a detrimental effect to the gameplay as things come to a climax. It’s not a massive issue, but it lends some frustration in what should be some of the most exciting moments in Never Alone, which are littered with cursing and gnashing teeth instead of adrenaline.

That frustration also brings into focus that something has been lost in translation. The last vignette focuses on the tale that has just been told, explaining that it is iconic and describing it as a masterpiece. Although it does a fantastic job as a base for experiencing facets of the Iñupiaq lifestyle, it’s tough to agree with this assessment. It’s pleasant enough, but there’s just something about it that doesn’t quite click. In fact, an argument could be made for a cultural gap that means that some of the emotional impact is lacking.

I was most disappointed by the length however, as I found the credits rolling after only a few hours play. After flicking back a couple of chapters to pick up the one Cultural Insight that I’d somehow missed – which was in the middle of the path, and I’m still confused about how I didn’t nab it first time through – I was done with Never Alone and it had only taken four hours, give or take a few minutes. Taking into account the twenty-four Cultural Insights that I had watched, each lasting ninety seconds or so, I had only wound up actually playing the game for a little over three hours. I can respect the fact that they had told the story they wanted to tell and left it there, but I was enjoying the experience and abruptly found myself completely out of content. It’s not a big gripe, but it was a shame.

When the credits did roll, they rolled on a pretty satisfying experience. I had really enjoyed learning about the Iñupiaq people and was certainly fascinated about the concept of Nuna and Fox’s travels, even if it wasn’t perfectly executed or balanced with the Cultural Insights. The more I played it, the more I found myself appreciating aspects of the Iñupiaq culture; their respect for nature and their deep spirituality, their lifestyle and ability to put the whole over the one. Before Never Alone I had never even heard of them, so in that sense it is a triumph. As a game, it isn’t the best, but it does get the job done. It is certainly easy on the eyes and although I had a few brief moments of frustration, overall it proved to be a solid platformer. It wasn’t long, but it clearly had a goal in mind and a story to tell, and in that I think it succeeds.

  • Provides an interesting insight into a culture I didn’t even know existed
  • Very easy on the eye - everything from animations to environments are good looking
  • Created in partnership with Iñupiaq elders and storytellers to create an authentic experience
  • Here’s one for the achievement hunters - it can be maxed out in a single playthrough of the story
  • Bottoms out at only a few hours played
  • including Cultural Insight videos
  • Disjointed between game and documentary style shorts
  • Mechanical changes inject frustration right when enjoyment should be highest

Upper One Games made Never Alone as an ode to the Iñupiaq, and in that light it is excellent. When it is stripped of the trappings of the Cultural Insight videos, some of that excellence is lost, but it remains a solid game. Generous with both insight into the Iñupiaq and achievements, it is only ever going to be good for a single playthrough of the story, but it does an excellent job of sharing the lifestyle of a remarkable through one of their own tales. It’s not perfect and it’s not long, but it succeeded in fulfilling its own goals.

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