Never Alone Review
Video games have long attempted to transcend the confines of its designed purpose, to simply entertain its audience with its gameplay. Now that may seem a very strange statement to make but it’s valid, many games now attempt to form a connection with its audience that goes beyond the basic loop of the player ‘clearing level challenges’, there’s still absolutely nothing wrong with that approach however. But what if a game could for example teach the player about an historical event, how to build things and express creativity, even expose the player to the traditions of a culture. This is what a group of recent games can be perceived to have accomplished, Ubisoft’s ‘Valiant Hearts’, Mojang’s ‘Minecraft’ and now Upper One Games’ ‘Never Alone’.
That’s where the comparisons end however, Never Alone is nowhere near the quality of the others mentioned with regards to the overall experience. As an educational tool it may be assured and well-constructed, but as a game it’s tedious and wholly uninspired, thanks to its inelegant platforming and repetitive set-pieces.
Billed as an atmospheric puzzle platformer focusing on the culture and lore of the Iñupiat people of Alaska, Never Alone has the player take the role as a young girl named Nuna who must set out into the frozen Alaskan wilderness to discover the source of a powerful blizzard that threatens the existence of her village. The narrative is presented in the form of a campfire story from a village elder featuring some particularly lovely traditional art, illustrating the mystique of the locations and enemies that are entrenched within their culture. The story is cute and whimsical; the intimate presentation gives the impression of the audience learning of an ancient story previously exclusive to the local people.
The highlight of Never Alone is the documentary segments that unlock as you progress through the game, comprising of heartfelt interviews with Iñupiaq elders and gorgeous footage taken from the real-world locations the game takes its cues from. These mini-documentaries, 24 in total, are expertly-produced and do an excellent job of giving the player a cultural context to a level scenario. The respect paid to these cultural traditions and their translation into level locales and mechanics is something to be commended.
Never Alone plays like the standard sidescrolling platformer you’ve surely played at whatever point, Nuna can run, jump, push boxes and swing along ropes to reach higher ledges. There are a few major problems though, firstly as you may have guessed already Never Alone doesn’t attempt to do anything different within the genre, and the result is dull platforming action. Actually, that’s a little bit of a lie, because it’s not merely dull, it’s very frustrating as well. You see, the feeling of movement in any platformer is key, and in Never Alone’s case it feels slow and unwieldy to traverse the environments, the consequence is an inelegant often infuriating platforming experience.
Never Alone is also designed as a co-op experience but since I’ve got no friends (that wanted to play Never Alone) I had to endure the journey on my own. The A.I. companion is a little arctic fox who complements Nuna’s abilities by being able to jump higher and summon ancient spirits. In solo play, the player switches between the two, while co-op lets an actual human being control either Nuna or Fox, which I expect would be a far better way to experience the game.
It looks lovely though, the stark Alaskan wilderness contains an unmistakable purifying beauty to it, and a few sequences involving the Northern Lights prove to be entrancing. Moreover, the animations for Nuna and the Fox are charming throughout, whether they’re scampering over ledges or swinging across gaping chasms. The presentation certainly captures the clear beauty of the frozen wilderness but also its underlying perils too, albeit cloaked in local mythology.
Never Alone is overall a very tedious platformer that’s partially saved by the fabulous documentaries that supplement the main game, the tribe and their folklores are treated with the utmost respect and you feel an appreciation for what you’ve learned about this culture as your time with the game comes to an end.
Nonetheless, it remains difficult to ignore how the game stumbles with regards to its basic gameplay mechanics.
+ Respectful, well-made documentaries
+ Striking presentation
– Tedious level design
– Dull platforming
– Repetitive set-piece moments