Never Alone Review
As has now become the norm, the last quarter of 2014 has seen an absolute deluge of AAA gaming titles across all platforms, with gamers overwhelmingly spoilt for choice. It also means that games without the support of a huge marketing budget, particularly those of the independent variety, will unfortunately be lost in the shuffle and risk going unnoticed. So does Never Alone have what it takes to garner some recognition amongst all of the blockbusters, or will it fall into the digital obscurity? The answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as one might think.
Never Alone (also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) , developed by Upper One Games, is a platforming/puzzle game that tells the story of Nuna, a young Iñupiat girl (an Alaskan Native) and her arctic fox companion, as she sets out to find the source of a series of blizzards that have ravaged her village, rendering them unable to hunt for food and leaving them on the brink of starvation. These stories are adaptations of a number of different tales from Iñupiaq culture and are the main focus of the game.
As you begin to make your way through the game, you’ll soon begin to realise just how important these stories are to Never Alone and how much thought and care has been put into them, as Upper One Games have used this title as somewhat of a Trojan horse in order to educate players in the ways of the Iñupiat. The story is narrated by one of the Iñupiat elders in his native tongue (complete with subtitles) and is coupled with beautiful cut scenes that replicate an art technique called ‘Scrimshaw’, which involves carving images into bones or ivory.
As you further progress through the main game, players will unlock what the game calls ‘Cultural Insights’, a series of short documentary style films that are arguably the most important aspect to Never Alone. Players will be given glimpses on the Iñupiat way of life including their use of the scrimshaw techniques and the part that stories have in their lives, their subsistence lifestyle and how they use hunting to not just feed an individual family but the entire community, as well as the effects that climate change is having on their surroundings. I found these insights to be truly fascinating and informative and they provided a real motivation to continue playing through.
With its Alaskan backdrop, the visual style of Never Alone manages to be both simple yet eerily stunning all at the same time. As you trek your way through each of the games eight chapters, the games beautifully rendered visuals will give players a real sense of their arctic surroundings. The characters are also extremely well animated and go a long way to help portraying a real sense of emotion, particularly if something should happen to either Nuna or her arctic fox friend. A sparse musical score and sound effects perfectly accompanies the games simplistic visuals.
Whilst its narrative is compelling and its visuals and audio are fantastic, unfortunately the same cannot be said about Never Alone’s game play elements as this where the game really begins to falter. With its platforming aspects akin to the likes of the Trine series, players will take control of both Nuna and her fox and switch between them on the fly, in order to make use of their individual abilities to be able to complete the games many puzzles. Nuna is able to push and pull blocks around the level and also has access to a ‘bola’ tool that can be thrown at objects or to break through ice, whilst the fox can nimbly move about the stage, scale walls to gain access to ledges and unfurl ropes that will allow Nuna to follow. The fox also has the ability to see and communicate with animal spirits that are found throughout the levels, which then in turn act as platforms.
While the puzzles generally range from fairly straight forward to mind numbingly difficult, it’s your partner’s AI that will end up proving to be player’s main source of frustration in Never Alone. There were quite a few moments where I had successfully navigated my way through a myriad of puzzles and be ready for the next section, only for my partner to either fall to their death or not quite making that split second jump, which then stops you in your tracks and forces you to start over again from the previous checkpoint. While not being able to continue on solo without your partner can be infuriating to the point of wanting to break your controller, it does reinforce the main point that Nuna and her fox need each other to be able to persevere and survive. These issues can be somewhat alleviated by the games co-op mode, but for those that may not have access to a second player, it will definitely be a problem
In closing, Never Alone is an extremely difficult game in which to provide a final score. Despite its glaring game play problems, the educational information that it contains and the unique way that it goes about delivering this message is something that needs to be experienced by as many people as possible and at the end of the day, the good far outweighs the bad. In an era where first person shooters and games with violent undertones are king, Upper One Games deserve full credit for not only taking risk on a game so inherently different to anything else currently out on the market, but for also setting a new standard for educational style software, hopefully something that more developers will begin to follow.
About: Mark Cassar
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