It's not often I get to use the words "exquisite," "lovely," and "delightful" when describing a video game, but here we are, and those are the words.
I'd also like to add "poignant" and "thought-provoking" too, because Never Alone truly is. I'll be using plenty more hyperbole as I discuss this ostensibly simple platformer, because it's made an impact on me that few other games have of late. I really feel deeply about it. It's also bloody frustrating at times, but I can forgive that, as I'll explain.
Never Alone is the result of a collaboration between educational concern E-Line Media, and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a non-profit organization that works with indigenous groups living in Alaska's urban areas. The resulting emergent developer, Upper One Games is comprised of 12 industry veterans, and it's the first ever to be owned by an indigenous Native American group. Together, the groups worked on creating Never Alone, the first of what's hoped to be a series of titles that explore the stories of native culture as gaming entertainment.
Also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, Never Alone tells a tale – or should that be a fable – of Nuna, a young Iñupiaq girl whose village is starving because of a particularly protracted blizzard. To try to save her people, she ventures forth into the storm to try to find the source of the blizzard, so she can bring an end to it.
And thus begins a legendary eight-chapter adventure where she, an arctic fox, and a host of spirit animals work together to reach their goal and, more importantly, find human meaning in the world – the reason that this fable is told. Additionally, as the tale unfolds, micro-documentaries are unlocked. These explain the game's subject matter in a short, efficient, and very well executed way, adding richness and greater context to the overall picture.
Narrated in native Iñupiaq, and articulated through scrimshaw-like cut scenes, the player's trek into the unknown is filled with hazards and obstacles. Feeling similar in style to the likes of Ico and Limbo, Never Alone essentially gives the player two characters to control – or enables two players to control each character independently. Both have slightly different jumping skillsets, and by using Nuna and the fox together, the player(s) can negotiate barriers that neither character would be able to conquer individually.
The action is purely platform, and it's a game of wits and skill as the fable's pair of intrepid heroes plod slowly into the headwind, across bare, barren snowy landscapes that are a triumph of minimalist restraint. The use of lighting and color is exceptionally delicate, and the game sits on that odd line between being slightly stylized, yet photorealistic. Ultimately, it looks gorgeous.
Barriers present themselves in the form of simple puzzles. The fox might need to scramble up a wall, so that a rope can be lowered to Nuna. Or perhaps both might need to work together to goad a polar bear into charging at them, only for them to leap out of the way at the last moment so that the bear crashes into an ice wall and breaks it, enabling the pair to make an escape. Maybe a series of pinpoint jumps need to be made by one character to lower a floating spirit animal so the other can climb onto its back. It's simple stuff in terms of design, but it's also classic platforming.
Generally speaking, the game is very well put together. However, there are some points along the journey that seem to spike the difficulty level, and require jumps that are perhaps a little too unforgiving. The AI can also occasionally glitch in solo mode. These flaws are frustrating, and essentially create a wedge in the relationship between player and game. However, Never Alone deserves perseverance, and assuming you have the patience and some canny platforming skills, you'll overcome them, and those temporary feelings of frustration will inevitably yield to the deeper feelings you have with the protagonists and their lot.
Never Alone works well as both a single-player and a two-player game, but I think it's best enjoyed with a pair of participants. Here, it's easier for players to brainstorm potential solutions to problems, and the game's occasionally frustrating challenges are more forgivingly endured when you're working with another person to best them.
Whichever way you play it, though, Never Alone is a beautiful game with a pair of exceptionally endearing characters who really get under your skin. Add in the wonderfully-narrated cutscenes and its stylized visualizations, and you have a game that feels both deep and meaningful. Yes, it might be a simple platform game, but Never Alone transcends what it is, and even though it does have some bumps along its journey, delivers a compelling, involving, and intriguing experience that leaves a lasting impression.
I don’t think I've felt this emotionally connected to a game since Journey – and that was one of my favorite experiences of the last generation. This too stands tall. It delivers a message and makes you think. A video game that does that is a rare and special beast – and deserves to be treasured.
Stylized, yet photo-realistic, Never Alone looks absolutely outstanding.
Nicely gauged effects help deepen the atmosphere and make the game feel very cold.
The scrimshaw-style cutscenes and mini-documentaries help richen Never Alone's tale.
Although it has some difficult spots, Never Alone will keep you busy for most of an afternoon - and some of the evening, depending on your skills and patience.
Despite some occasionally frustrating difficulty spikes, Never Alone tells a fascinating, evocative tale that leaves a deep impression. A terrific platform game, despite its flaws.