In one of the more unique collaborations in video games, E-line Media, Upper One Games, and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council have teamed up to bring gamers a traditional Iñupiaq story in an effort to entertain and promote more interest in Native Alaskan folklore. Never Alone serves as a great means to preserve and pass on a cultural story through a growing medium. That said, if the game isn’t fun to play, then the story is never told.
Fortunately, the game play in Never Alone is solid. Players guide Nuna and Fox through a raging blizzard by tackling puzzle based platforming. Each has their own abilities, Nuna can throw a bolas and Fox can wall jump for example, and the usage of these abilities is smoothly built upon as you progress. The game makes sure to properly prepare players for challenges before they’re presented for the most part. If there are parts where a player finds the difficulty has increased a bit too quickly, the checkpointing is extremely generous which helps a great deal to cut down on frustration and keep players in the game.
Never Alone can be played alone or with a co-op partner, which I highly recommend. It’s not that the AI is particularly bad or anything, the game was perfectly completable solo, but it’s nowhere near as good as a human. There were very few occasions where the AI threw itself to its death, but even with the quick return to action it’s still frustrating if the AI costs you at one of the few locations where the checkpointing is a little less generous than usual. The deliberate pace means more planning and foresight is needed when embarking on the single player campaign, as later sections can become more taxing when Fox is constantly blown away while controlling Nuna in single player, which can lead to death.
Since the game is a puzzle platformer the characters don’t need to be as fast or as highly mobile. Nuna and Fox aren’t quite as enjoyable to control as say Mario, but their controls work well enough for what they need to do. A calm approach, keen eye, and good timing is everything in Never Alone. The game has its own pace and if you try to go too fast or too slow, you’ll just kill yourself time after time.
We already know what sets Never Alone apart though: The story and art are unlike anything players have encountered elsewhere in video games. The myth of Kunuuksaayuka has been turned into a fairly faithful adaptation while adding the interaction missing from all other forms of media. While fairly short, the story is straightforward and gives players a view into the Iñupiaq way of life. Additionally, the game is sprinkled with unlockable “cultural insights,” small segments consisting of interviews and stories. These miniature documentaries are rewards for exploration and can be viewed in game or from the main menu. Literally rewarding players with an increased awareness of Iñupiaq culture is a nice little touch.
Never Alone looks beautiful. The beauty certainly isn’t coming from raw graphical power or photo-realism, but the art direction and stylistic choices made by the developers. Story segments are told in an animated form of Iñupiaq scrimshaw. The game’s 3D graphics are charming and feature the cutest fox in gaming history bar-none, while the helping spirits are brought to life in 2D as white outlines of stylized wildlife. From trees, to birds, and even giant insects, helping spirits manifest themselves in interesting ways when their presence is revealed to Nuna by Fox. This meshing of 3D and 2D comes together nicely to gives Never Alone its great presentation.
The game isn’t without flaw though. That’s painfully obvious every time the AI character throws itself into the freezing water and forces players to resume from the last checkpoint. There’s just a handful of bugs to keep an eye out, including the occasional AI slip up. Add insult to injury if the checkpoint respawns you over a collapsed platform and you fall to your death, as it sometimes does, extending the penalty for the AI’s mistake. Aside from that, complaints are minor.Fox can become stuck if he gets to close to a destructible object, occasionally remaining stuck for a short period even after the object is destroyed. An unintentionally macabre bug may also occur that’s either horrifying or hilarious depending on the viewer’s disposition: Upon death, Fox’s model will sometimes begin to judder in a manner that resembles horrible death spasms or a poorly done dance. It doesn’t affect game play, but it does wreck the mood a little.
Disclosure: We received a complimentary copy for the purposes of this review, which was conducted on the PC.