Never Alone (PS4) Review
- Superbly realised visuals that lends a bleakness to the folklore story
- Rich insight into a culture many of us know nothing about
- A well told and executed story
- Wonderful sound design
Not So Much?
- Controls not up to the task when things heat up in later stages
- Very simple, easy game, that holds little replay value
- AI not the most reliable - best played with a human
I can’t recommend Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) highly enough to anyone willing to immerse themselves in the world and culture on offer. For me it simply is one of the stand-out titles of 2014.
There are some games that will just catch your eye and, from nothing more than a fleeting glace you know it’s got something special.
That’s how I felt when I first started seeing early screens and footage from the then little know indie title Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna in Iñupiatian). This was whole heartedly confirmed when I managed to lay hands on it back at EGX this year.
Never Alone is the collaborative work between developers Upper One Games and the Iñupiat, an Alaskan native people. The beguiling folklore story has been handed down through generations and is told with the aid of almost 40 Alaskan Native elders, storytellers and community members. The depth and authenticity this offers stirs a deep sense of intrigue only compounded by then videos that accompany the games progression. The story has us follow Nuna as she tries to locate the source of a vicious blizzard that is slowly destroying her village. Inspired by the folk story/legend of Kunuuksaayuka this is a story rich in lore.
You play the part of Nuna, a young Iñupiat girl and Fox, a young arctic fox that’s not all it appears. The game takes the form of a platform puzzler with you slowly progressing through the levels by overcoming physical obstacles. You undertake these obstacles using each of the characters strengths. For instance Nuna can’t jump as far as Fox but she can pull heavy loads and move crates for climbing. She also acquires a bola, not for combat, but to help break ice etc. Fox is agile and can scrabble up sheer walls and make larger leaps – he can also reveal spirit platforms a short way in to the game. The mechanics are simple, the level designs rudimentary but the cohesive nature of their teamwork is more than enough to keep you engaged in what you’re actually doing.
Controls are simple enough with movement being handled with the left stick and Nuna’s bolla being controlled with the right stick. Jumping, action and switch characters are all assigned a face button. The game has a mostly sedate pace, offering an almost meditative vibe as you trudge your way through the raging blizzard and snow storms.
I want to get my more negative observations out of the way here, because they’re slight but pertinent and then I can get down to telling you just how special Never Alone is.
Firstly, and most importantly, playing this solo can be a frustrating affair at times – especially towards the later parts of the game. The second player AI is reasonable for the most part but I must have had a dozen or more restarts during the 3 hour play through where the AI just plunged the character I wasn’t controlling off a ledge or something similar. There are also later stages where timing is demanding and the precision just isn’t there in the control scheme. This is a title that has plodded along at a sedentary pace for 2 ½ hours and its game mechanics just can’t support the change of pace. There is also a lack of replayability with you gaining most, if not all, of the unlocks on your first run.
I’m glad we got that out of the way, because I need to tell you just how important a game Never Alone is.
Drawing on the experiences of such a hugely storied culture gives you access to something missing from so much of Western culture in these modern days. So much of our lives these days are obsessed with looking forward, looking to acquire, that we often forget to look back. To embrace our own cultures and pass along their rich stories.
The Iñupiat people don’t seem to have this problem. This is evidenced in the short video sequences you unlock as you progress through the game. Each of these 24 snippets forms an intriguing and informative look at the Iñupiat people and their culture. Each video fills in the background to the story they are telling you in the game whilst offering relevant insights in to aspects of the Alaskan culture. It’s a strange hybrid of videogame and documentary that doesn’t feel like edutainment you ever experienced before. Initially jarring (so much so my wife thought I’d stopped playing a game and was watching a documentary) stepping out of the environment to watch the videos soon felt natural. As if the game was merely an interactive flipbook that formed another part of the overall delivery of the culture of these interesting people.
The look of the game helps to set the tone and reverence of the piece just perfectly. Lots of soft focus and wonderfully realised snow scenes with plenty of tribal architecture. Some memorable characters and two incredibly well animated central characters. The muted tones mixed with whites and greys lend a cold, bleak edge to everything, yet the enthusiastic run for both Nuna and Fox gives you hope to carry on. General srt design is superb, yet often subdued/obfuscated by the blizzard and soft general focus. Strip those away and you’d still be left with a solid and beautifully designed world.
Music is minimal, likely on purpose, but what is there sets the tone perfectly and underpins certain key moments. It’s the wonderfully constructed soundscape of the environment that really seals the tone of the world they’ve created for this story to unfold in. The narration of the story throughout the levels has been recorded in the Iñupiat native tongue and read by an elder – and it’s a master stroke that just pulls you in that much more, enveloping you in this rich language.
Never Alone is, at heart, a reasonable co-operative platform puzzle game. Strip away the folklore story, the charming Iñupiat people and wonderfully reflective presentation and the core mechanics of the are a little contrived, broken at times but wholly OK.
Yet you can’t underestimate the powerful effect and evocative nature of the look and feel of the game. The co-operation with the Iñupiat people and the telling of a wonderfully unique story offers a feeling like you’ve been allowed in to experience the richness such a storied culture has to offer. Like you’ve drawn up around the fire and they’re telling you first hand a story that been handed down for generations.
There are issues with the AI and frustrations over the controls but a large amount of this can be alleviated if you play with a second person – as such it’d be the way I’d recommend playing it to maybe avoid some of those moments when the AI gets tired of living.
At around 3’ish hours the game manages to pack a lot of punch and storytelling in to those few hours. The way you are presented the story of Nuna and Fox is unique and works incredibly well. It’s a game you’ll want to take your time to enjoy, to educated yourself and then reflect upon. The Never Alone title has poignancy by game end.
Whether Never Alone spurs some sort of Docu-game uprising I’m uncertain but I’d be more than happy to play something similar if it’s given half the love and attention as this has been. I’m genuinely excited by the mere fact this style of game has been made and made so well when a cheap thrown together slice of multimedia edutainment would have ticked enough boxes to scrape by.
I can’t recommend Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) highly enough to anyone willing to immerse themselves in the world and culture on offer. Some people won’t get it and just button through the videos. Yet for me it simply is one of the stand-out titles of 2014.