Never Alone aims to recreate an old folk tale as an action packed game. However, it’s hampered by some unfortunate bugs and design choices throughout.
The emotional platformer genre certainly seems to be a popular testing ground for a first time developer, with titles like Limbo and Braid creating stunning starting points for careers. Considering the success of those two titles, there’s now a slew of first time platformers that all vie for the heartstring pulling crown. Never Alone joins the crowd, and the unique selling point is that it’s the first game to be developed with the Iñupiat, a native Alaskan people.
You take control of two characters – Nuna, an Iñupiat girl who wants to find out what an earth is with all these blizzards that just won’t stop; and Fox, an adorable little Arctic creature who can crawl under things and might just have some magical powers. You can switch between them on the fly, or get a buddy to hop on the next controller and take control. You’ll need both of them to get through some slippery platforming puzzles, and both have different abilities you will need to use to progress – Nuna has her Bola to swing at things, Fox can kick down ropes.
The movement seems fairly conventional to begin with, but the controls seemed to fight me on a regular basis – Usually because of a priority on showing me an animation of a character going ‘Whoa!’ near a ledge. Often, you’ll need to brace yourself against the wind by pushing down on a button, so you don’t get blown backwards. The game asks you to make a number of tricky jumps and then brace against the wind very quickly – If you happen to land on a ledge, the animation will play, the button won’t be registered and you’ll be blown off into the Arctic Ocean. It’s particularly frustrating as you feel you’re not a fault – You hit the buttons at the right time, but your character doesn’t respond in kind. Similar to Assassin’s Creed, you intend to run off in one direction, but your character turns around and jumps off a building instead.
Sadly, that’s not the only quirk I encountered with my time with the game. When playing single player, your follower can often end up making a silly move that throws them to their demise – You narrowly miss being caught by a playful spirit who wants to play football with your head, but as your little fox was slower, he’s swept off his feet and you have to start from your last checkpoint. Those checkpoints could be more forgiving, but I wonder if it was because I had to keep restarting through no fault of my own that I feel that way.
The final moments of the game, which intends to be a set piece of God Of War proportions, saw my character fly off the screen or fall through objects multiple times, to my verbal annoyance.
It’s certainly disappointing, as there’s a glimmer of hope throughout Never Alone. The story is never as emotional as you want it to be. The gameplay and controls are never as tight as you feel they ought to be. Graphically, the game has some of that ‘Unity Sheen’ you come to expect with the indie engine of choice, but there’s a lot of beautiful artwork and style that, again, is let down by some odd ragdolling of characters here and there. The spirits that show up throughout the game are the real standouts – They match the traditional Scrimshaw artwork that the more narrative cutscenes are made of, and while it’s similar to a papercraft style you might see in something like Puppeteer, it’s the one visual element that is particularly striking. The music and sound design is certainly functional, but beyond the backing to a particularly sombre scene, the only thing that stood out was how jarring Nuna’s cry of shock if Fox were to die is.
You’re encouraged to watch the included ‘Cultural Insights’ throughout the game, but I would recommend that you watch them in a row once you’ve unlocked them all. These are short documentary segments that include interviews and expand upon the ideas that and dotted throughout the game, and they are simply a joy to watch. They are beautifully shot, with a loving selection of archive footage that have stories, tales and insight into the Iñupiat people, and explain their way of life and what beliefs they grew up with. These were genuinely touching, and it made the actual game experience all the more saddening – Nothing in the game managed to take the themes mentioned within these videos and execute that in a game in a meaningful way.
Never Alone is a valiant attempt to bring a folk tale to life. While glitches and troublesome controls can certainly be patched, the content within the game itself feels a little reliant on jumping puzzles when it could have made you care further about the story. The length is also a troubling factor for the price – it’s comparable to Gone Home, but this feels somewhat less satisfying. I very much enjoyed the documentary elements, but would have preferred to see a whole movie based on that then slog through a thoroughly mediocre title.