Never Alone has no right to work as well as it does. Between stodgy controls and sharp difficultly spikes lays an unashamedly educational experience – a school anthropology class through which the game welcomes you to learn about the Alaskan Iñupiaq culture. Through stunning sound design, immersive graphics and a surreal charm that fills you with genuine empathy for the game’s two main protagonists, Never Alone turns out to be one of the most poignant titles I’ve played all year.
On the face of it, Never Alone is a run-of-the-mill puzzle platformer – albeit an attractive one. In reality though the game represents a unique collaboration between veteran developers Upper One Games, an education group called E-Line Media, and actual natives from Alaska. What appears to be a simple story of a young Iñupiaq girl called Nuna reveals itself to be an interactive folktale, interwoven with Iñupiaq symbols and cultural relics that come together to paint a rich tapestry of this anicent civilisation.
The game doesn’t leave you guessing at its wider cultural aspirations though. A series of interviews with native Alaskans are unlocked as you progress, fleshing out the background and inspiration to the enemies, items, environments and characters as you meet them in-game. I found the interviews fascinating, going into detail about everything from the use of the ‘Bola’ (a throwing weapon Nuna picks up early in the game) to native beliefs about the aurora spirits, who in the game swoop down to catch you.
Quite frankly it’s all highly-engaging stuff, and what I found most impressive is the way the interviews are weaved so organically into the game that it rarely took my out of the experience. At the end of each act I quickly fell into a rhythm of checking my video log so I could discover the inspiration behind the level I had just experienced. Thankfully, each interview is reasonably short and focused, meaning I was able to take onboard a good deal without ever feeling I was being lectured too, before diving back into the game.
So, as an interactive learning tool, we’re established Never Alone is highly effective. But what about the gameplay?
I think it’s fair to say Never Alone isn’t going to be giving Mario a run for it’s money. The game controls more in the vein of fellow puzzle platformer Limbo – namely slow, floaty and clumsy. I never really felt in full control of Nuna or her snow fox sidekick, who you can switch between controlling at any time. Death was a constant threat, and much of the time I never felt it was my fault. These unfair moments increase in frequency later on in the game, with platform-spawning spirits that seem to float away with little rhyme or reason, and a Metroid-style escape sequence that was so aggravating it took away any sense of tension.
The puzzles do enough to make them adequately fun, but they rarely go beyond the usual block-pushing mechanics. Something that does spice things up is having to switch between the unique abilities of Nuna and the snow fox to reach your goals. The snow fox is able to wall jump and call spirit-platforms, while Nuna can push blocks and use the bola to destroy blocks of ice. It works okay, but the concept is never explored in any real depth.
But that’s fine, because Never Alone isn’t about the moment-to-moment gameplay. If anything, the puzzles and platforming sections are just an excuse to stay in this world and drink in the sumptuously realised atmosphere. The sound design is gorgeous, filled with delicate touches like the crunching of snow underfoot, splash of water against ice platforms, and ambient blizzard wind that all come together to form a harsh, yet living, breathing world. The other-worldly tranquillity of the sound track is also excellent, occasionally giving way to the nefarious horns of the ‘manslayer’s’ theme, that genuinely conveys a great sense of terror. The graphics, while being nothing special on a technical level, dovetail harmoniously with the score, presenting sparse landscapes and a graphical filter that gets ever-more hazy as Nuna penetrates further and further into this mystical world.
More than anything though, it’s the touching relationship between Nuna and the snow fox which impresses most. The two lonely figures are silent for the most part, with the only characterisation coming from the odd sparse cutscene of the snow fox scampering around in the snow. Progressing through the world though brings you closer and closer to your companion, and when a shocking event happens towards the game’s final quarter, you come to realise how strong the bond has become.
Mechanically Never Alone is far from being perfect, and if it was judged purely on that basis there are other puzzle platformers I’d more highly recommend. Super Mario 3D World this is not. It’s the organic intertwining of gameplay, story and cultural exploration that really makes Never Alone unique, and there are few indie games I can think of which kept me so engaged, both on an emotional and intellectual level. While the educational element may put some of, I’d encourage you to take a punt on this highly individual title.
Reviewed On: WiiU
Developer: Upper One Games