NEW VOICE IN GAMING MISSES THE MARK
Never Alone came to fruition through collaboration between Upper One Games and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. It’s actually the first indigenous-owned developer/publisher in the U.S, interestingly enough. In partnering up with representatives from the Inupiat tribe, an actual tribe dwelling in Alaska, Never Alone was born.
The game places you in the role of an Inupiat girl named Nuna. An endless blizzard has stricken the Alaskan land and courageous Nuna takes it upon herself to unearth the source of the storm. On her journey, she’s accompanied by a white arctic fox whom you can also take control of.
Similarly to games like Trine, the game has you alternate between whom you are in control of. Nuna has the ability to move heavier objects, while the fox can wall jump, hoist himself onto higher platforms, and is much more agile. Whenever you control one, A.I. takes control of the other. It’s a simple gameplay design but it’s one that doesn’t always gel and can cause some frustration. I found myself constantly dying in the latter half of Never Alone. Sometimes that had to do with me playing the game impatiently. However, the awkwardness of switching between characters during faster paced sequences is also at fault. There were times where I would just take control of the fox, who is much more capable, and just let Nuna do her thing. But doing this made the game feel too easy, so I would force myself to swap characters, frustrations aside, in order to get some level of challenge out of the experience.
There are times when the game introduces verticality and I found playing it far more rewarding whenever it did so. You have the option to play the game in Co-op mode and I imagine it would be a far more pleasant experience.
Graphically, the game is visually commendable for a new studio. I like the cute design of Nuna and the fox. I also really dug the visual design of the various spirits who help you along the way. But I could have gone for more variation in the environments. I fully understand that the game is set in Alaska so visually not much should change. But I became bored of the setting during my relatively short playthrough (two hours). Couple that with the fact that, throughout the majority of the game, it’s you controlling characters who typically just run from left to right and jump onto platforms and it all becomes somewhat monotone. There’s not enough clever puzzle design to alleviate that simplicity.
The story touches on contemporary issues such as climate change, but its themes feel too familiar. Not to lessen the importance of what is being said. The cautious tale is definitely something to be taken seriously and to hear stories firsthand from people living in the region, about how it is directly affecting the planet is something worthy of being repeated. It’s just nothing I haven’t heard or seen previously.
I was hoping there would be a strong connection between Nuna and her fox and there is one moment where they try to tug at your emotions, but the game doesn’t spend enough time with the characters for that moment to fully work. What does work is the climax where you discover the source of the blizzard. The commentary on the reality that people are ignorant to the things that don’t directly affect them is effective.
Something I got a kick out of were the short, documentary videos that you unlock throughout the game. These videos are titled “Cultural Insights” and explore the different storytelling techniques and historical artifacts that Never Alone’s story borrows from.
Whenever I would unlock a new “insight”, I would immediately watch it. Doing so is literally two buttons presses away. But I found that doing this took me out of the narrative the game was trying to tell, so I decided to focus on playing the game. I had the same issue with Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts where I preoccupied myself with finding the hidden collectables instead of engrossing myself in the game’s narrative. I didn’t want to make that same mistake. Even though these videos were my favorite part of the package, I’d suggest holding off viewing them until you’re done with the main story. You won’t have to wait long, as I mentioned before, the game should only take you about two hours to finish.
The Verdict: 6.5 out of 10
I love the idea of new voices being instilled into a medium I love. But aesthetically, Never Alone just doesn’t offer much in terms of challenge, gameplay design, and more importantly, storytelling. I’m glad I experienced it because I did appreciate learning about the Inupiat. I fully understand that Upper One Games is trying to reach a different audience (the gaming community) and using genuine voices in trying to achieve that. But ultimately, I would rather watch a film or read a book on the subject.
Never Alone just doesn’t accomplish what it aspires to. I hope Upper One Games finds their place in the medium. They offer a unique voice that the industry is definitely missing.
Jason Patrick is an Associate Writer at MONG. He just bought a Chromebook, so you’ll be seeing a lot more of him. If you’d like, follow him on Twitter.