The video game industry has, for a long time, been pretty bad about representing any culture outside of the heterosexual male (mostly Caucasian) experience. Women, people of color, and the LGBT community and cultures have largely been relegated to the sidelines, and when a game comes along to feature a character from one of these communities, it’s hard not to take notice. Never Alone comes from Upper One Games, who worked alongside Cook Inlet Tribal Council – an organization that works with native groups in Alaska – and places an indigenous tribal tale at the center of it’s game. It’s an effort that should be applauded, if only because it’s such a unique and fun story that feels appropriately respectful of it’s source material. Unfortunately, most of the fun is drained from the gameplay experience due to floaty controls and several frustrating technical issues.
Never Alone follows a young Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her arctic fox friend on a journey that spans several icy environments as she searches for answers as to why her village was destroyed. The tale is told via a narrator in what I can only assume is the native language to the Eskimo people, and is broken up by beautifully animated sequences that bridge the story between playable levels. Hands down, when considering reasons to play Never Alone, the story and presentation are the game’s strongest assets. The art style appropriately lends itself to expressing the story-telling of the native peoples of Alaska, as does the sound direction and voice acting. It’s a wonderful experience in every regard to that aspect.
Unfortunately, Never Alone doesn’t successfully accompany the narrative with strong or interesting gameplay. It plays like a 2D side-scroller while heavily leaning on puzzle solving to keep things interesting. There’s also a significant amount of traditional platforming that is hampered by incredibly inaccurate and floaty controls that often led to me over- or under-jumping my target and falling off of ledges. Many of the puzzles rely upon the use of the Bola, a weapon of sorts that is thrown a bit like a boomerang. You’re often asked to toss it to break icicles or to summon one of the many animal spirits, but the problem is that you’re asked to be extremely accurate with your throws, and doing so is nigh impossible due to the inaccuracy of using the right stick to toss the Bola here or there (flick it one way to charge your throw, then the other to toss it). It was frustrating enough that there were times where I was certain I was trying to solve the puzzle incorrectly even though I was doing the right thing. There seemed to be no possible way that my throw could ever be made the way it seemed to need to.
Never Alone requires you to switch between the two characters in order to solve many of the game’s puzzles. It can lead to some interesting moments, as the fox is capable of jumping higher, sneaking into some tighter areas, and summoning the aforementioned animal spirits which provide you with platforms to reach higher places when playing as Nuna. The AI leaves a lot to be desired at points, with the AI-controlled character getting stuck on edges or not following the player-controlled character. Luckily, Never Alone also gives the option for local co-op, wherein one player controls the fox and another controls Nuna. It’s completely unnecessary to the experience, but it is nice to have that option when the AI can be so frustrating to work with.
I ran into a few technical bugs that, while not generally gamebreaking, were annoying nonetheless. For example, on several occasions the game would switch to co-op mode, despite only having a single controller turned on. This required me to pause and turn the game back to single-player in the menu options. There is the possibility that this feature turned on because I might’ve bumped my mouse (while using an Xbox 360 controller), but even that is an oversight (most games just transition the controlling option to mouse and keyboard). Another time, I had thrown the Bola at a specific place to summon an animal spirit. Nothing appeared and I had to restart from the previous checkpoint in order to fix it. The next time, it worked just as it should have.
Never Alone serves much better as an anthropological museum piece than a video game. It’s a perfect illustration of a game with a developer who wanted to tell a story and then made a game but the story ought to serve the gameplay, and not the other way around. Sometimes this is a controversial necessity (for the record, I love games like The Walking Dead: The Game and Gone Home). I almost wonder if Never Alone would have been better served with a more minimalist approach to gameplay, but as simple and easy to understand as the core game is, it falters in the way that it plays.