Something about Never Alone drew me to it when it was originally released in November, 2014. For one, the art style of the game was striking to me. Simple, yet beaufiul, with haunting qualities. The setting was something that I was not familar with. Not just the desolate, frozen Arctic, but the story that was being told. Never Alone is a tale that is inspired by the history of the Inupiat, Alaska Native persons. You play as a young Inupiat girl named Nuna, who, along with a trusty arctic fox, is on a quest to save her villages from the ravages of two forces of nature: a brutal, blinding blizzard, and an evil being set out to destroy everything in his path. The game is indicative of life: some joy, some pain, and the need to keep going no matter what obstacles are in your path. In April 2015 Never Alone was a PlayStation Plus offering. Last week I decided to give it a chance.
Warning: some of the following might be spoiler-ish, but for the most part I avoid that when I can.
Never Alone (also known as Kisima Ingitchuna) is a side-scrolling plafformer. The game will have you jumpling, climbing, and sliding the snowy, landscape. The game offers a local co-op mode, with a friend taking over the role of the artic fox. If you tend to game solo like me, you can switch between Nuna and the fox. In Never Alone, fittingly, cooperation is vital. The two of you need each other to make through the game. There are some relatively simple puzzle mechanics, like moving crates onto see-saw-like platforms to allow you to reach higher places.
For the most part, the enemy you deal with most in the game is Mother Nature, most notably the high winds of the blizzard, which affects your jumping abilities and forward motion. Later in the game it is imperative to know how to use that wind to your advantage. There are some icy slopes, crushing ice blocks and treacherous falls. A menacing polar bear makes a couple of appearances, but besides the Big Bad and a towering figure at the end of the game, it is largely Nuna and the fox against the Arctic. Nuna does find a bolo, a weapon used mainly to destroy icy obstacles in your path or utilize the fallen ice to reach other areas.
On the PS4, the game runs very smoothly. Nuna looks very much like a youthful child in the snow, with energetic leaps and bounds, and the hood of her coat flapping with the wind. The artic fox felt graceful and responsive. The mechanics are solid. You can get to ledges and move things around with few issues. The only issues I ran upon were in switching from one character to the next. For the most part, I could do it without problems, but when things got hectic towards the end of the game there were spots where it took some dexterity to move characters around while swapping and navagating through wind and ice and moving platforms. That could just be from my big hands fumbling with the controller. Hey, it happens.
What made this game stand apart from others is the importance of cultural education. I appreciate more diversity in storytellng and the characters we inhabit. If, like me, you have no awareness of the Inupiat or their way of life from past to present, Never Alone gives you a history lesson from beginning to end. When you discover and touch a white owl that occasionally appears, it unlocks a brief video about an aspect of Inupiat history with interviews and photos. I found them incredibly fascinating and they enriched the game experience. While you can watch them at any time and in any order once unlocked, they are meant to be watched as you discover them because they tie into something that you are experiencing in-game. After watching them, it makes sense not to have a series of enemies coming at you. Killing creatures without purpose is antithetical to their way of live. Creatures are respected, and if they are killed they are to be utilized for their resources. I leave most of them for you to explore, but I laughed when I found out what Inupiat folklore has to say about Auroras and why children are terrified of them. Of course, the depiction of them in the game might creep you out as well.
Never Alone was developed in a collaboration between Upper One Games (developer), E-Line Media (publisher), and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. As a result, the game carries an authenticity and shows respect for the culture and folklore of the Inupiat and the indigenous peoples of Alaska. The game is charming, harrowing, and elightening all at once. It will take a few hours at the most to get through the game and unlock the educational segments. A DLC add-on, entitled Foxtales, adds some additional story and gameplay. I do not own it or have played it but it is available. If you are looking for something a little different than the usual fare, give Never Alone a try. I am glad that I did.
Header and closing image via the Never Alone official site and Steam page. All others were captured using the PS4's share function.