Never Alone is a puzzle platformer from the developers Upper One Games, which is owned by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a non-profit organization (though Upper One is for-profit) made up of indigenous people from Alaska. The council met up with E-Line Media, an educational video game company, to pitch and refine the idea of making a video game that teaches of the traditional Inupiat inuit culture. The game does exactly that; and it’s done rather well, actually. As a cultural exposure tool and artistic storytelling device, the game excels. As a puzzle-platformer, however, there are some unfortunately underwhelming features.
Never Alone is unique in that there is a short documentary series entwined within the gameplay itself. Of course, the player could choose to forego watching the documentary mini-clips altogether, though they enhance the experience tremendously for any player with an eye for other cultures. The story works as a folktale passed through generations via verbal storytelling. The only narration comes in the form of an Inupiat man telling the story in his native language. Yup, that means subtitles. It is much like many other traditional tales you’ve heard through mythology in that it attempts to explain natural wonders through personification. Things such as wind, blizzards, northern lights, and animals are all given somewhat human characteristics, and are explained through the supernatural. The plot isn’t necessarily anything to write home about, but it is unique.
The main playable character of Never Alone is an Inupiat girl named Nuna. Nuna and her companion, an arctic fox, travel to investigate the source of the eternal blizzard, overcoming many challenges along the way. They meet a handful of characters, but none of them really have much impact other than one friendly owl man early in their travels. Being honest, the story in the game is quite short and has little actual content. Though it took around four hours of playtime to complete, it feels like the storytelling could have been completed in less than an hour without feeling rushed. This is more of a problem with gameplay and flow than with the plot, however, so I will touch on that in a bit.
The main selling point of this game for me was the artwork. The art was extremely satisfying, and I enjoyed looking at many of the sights that could be found. There was even beauty to be admired in the simple snowflake movement as wind changed directions. The wispy nature of the fox’s tail, and some other objects in the game were a nice touch. Overall, when there was something to see, it was pretty awesome. There’s little I can put together coherently regarding the artistic style, so I’ll throw in a few moving screenshots I took during my playthrough. I was pretty stoked considering this game had such a low budget and only a 12 person team.
Unfortunately, the controls and mechanics of a platformer are just as important as looking pretty, and that’s where Never Alone struggles. The game feels much like Limbo, but the mechanics are less polished. There were many times that I found myself extremely frustrated based on clunky movement and controls. Often while attempting to make a jump, instead of grabbing the ledge and pulling up, Nuna would simply make contact, and slide down into the abyss. Dozens of times I would have to redo portions of a scene that were extremely time-consuming just for the sake of being time-consuming. The overall pace of the game is slow to the point of mental exhaustion. At almost every jump, you must wait several seconds for the wind to be blowing the right way and a patrolling bad guy to not be patrolling at that place in that particular moment. After waiting nearly a minute to get through your first few jumps, if you’re anything like me, you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself and taking jumps prematurely. This, in turn, results in your death the majority of the time. If you ever get to the point in which you’re impatient, you will die and redo all the annoying slow stuff. The game is built to seamlessly switch between the fox and Nuna in order to accomplish movement, but there are many times where the AI character at the time makes a stupid move and gets one or both of you killed. This might be solved playing in co-op mode with a friend, but I didn’t have that luxury today.
Not only will you find yourself dying a bunch if you grow impatient while waiting around for no reason, but there are entire bits of gameplay between cutscenes that make absolutely no attempt to mechanically advance the story. You exit a cutscene, traverse a ton of barren land with a strong headwind, only relenting occasionally, and you jump over a bunch of crevasses. Once you’re finished running into the wind and jumping into holes a few times, another cutscene boots up. It legitimately feels like the developers made a concerted effort to extend the playtime of the game, but there was only about an hour and a half of worthy playtime to be had if they cut out much of the frustrating, repetitive, pointless garbage. The game is a cheapish indie title, there’s no point in forcing it to be something it doesn’t need to be, and Upper One Games did exactly that.
Realistically, I’ve been pretty harsh on the gameplay mechanics of the game. It wasn’t quite as bad as I make it sound, especially if you’re an extremely patient gamer. The overall look and feel of the game is soothing and satisfying, but it’s a little too drawn out and slow for my personal tastes. For a cultural, artistic indie title, Never Alone has many strengths, though its glaring weaknesses shone through at times. For anyone who is particularly interested in other cultures, I would recommend looking into this title. I personally played the game for free through the PlayStation Plus free game program in which it became free as of April 7th, 2015, but I truthfully couldn’t recommend buying it for the regular full price of $14.99 unless you had a truly specific interest in the inuit culture. As simply a puzzle platformer, overlooking any cultural significance, the game is rather bland. There are many other standout games around the $15 price point that I would choose over this. The game is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam with a release expected on Wii U later this year.
Very beautiful, though a little clunky
Movement and other mechanics
When it’s free unless interested in culture
For details on release dates and other related info, head to Never Alone’s game page.
** When is it worth the price? — In lieu of review scores, we opt to give our opinion on whether the game is worthy of it’s release day price, or if you should wait for a patch or a sale. **
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