Never Alone (PC) Review

By Jordan Hurst 15.01.2016

Review for Never Alone  on PC

Puzzle-platformers always seem to attract the most forward-thinking developers. The genre is as stuffed with clones as any other, but the available canvas space provided by its simplicity usually ensures that even the clones have something to say. Take Never Alone (or its untranslated title, Kisima Ingitchuna), for example. It should be a fairly unremarkable - or even flawed - game, but it's so wholly infused with its stated goal of exposing players to the Iñupiat culture and mythology that it becomes something genuinely worthy of attention. After the PS4 and Wii U versions, Cubed takes another look at Upper One Games' creation.

The concept of guiding an Iñupiaq girl and her arctic fox companion through an unusually intense blizzard is an inspired fit for indie development. For starters, the omnipresent snow naturally obscures graphical details that might be expected on a bigger production, and allows the developer to concentrate on its core artistic vision, while keeping the cast justifiably minimal. Furthermore, focusing the entire adventure on the Iñupiat culture (including their language), removes the need for expensive multilingual voice acting while lending the product an air of authenticity.

Rooting the story in real-world mythology could also be seen as a narrative crutch, but it's much less successful. Its primary stumbling point is that rather than telling a single tale, it attempts an Okami-style convergence of several unrelated events and entities. Without the open structure of the later one], however, all it can do is string these pieces together without any connection or closure. As a whole, the plot ends incredibly abruptly, but the most egregious misuse of the source material is the Manslayer, a major antagonist with no relevance to the central conflict, who seems to have been included solely to avoid painting Alaska itself as the antagonist, which would be antithetical to the game's message of living in harmony with others and nature.

This theme is where the mythological grounding and its execution shine the brightest. Nuna (the protagonist) and the fox are broadly written, but rather than a fault of lazy writing, this makes them instantly relatable on some universal level. The "Cultural Insights" feature is what really drives the point home. They're essentially documentary snippets disguised as collectibles, featuring interviews with members of the Iñupiat community discussing their culture and beliefs. The genius of this feature is twofold. First, it overrides gamers' instinctive phobia of edutainment games by pitting it against their 100% completion compulsions, and, second, the insights provided are vital to the experience. Each clip is always related to something that has just happened in-game, therefore, watching them strengthens the understanding of the game's world and the real world simultaneously.

Screenshot for Never Alone  on PC

The theme of unity also gives Never Alone the one-of-a-kind distinction of a cooperative mode that enhances its story and not just its gameplay. Apart from running and jumping, the two protagonists have completely different abilities, with the fox being able to wall-jump and manipulate spirit helpers, while Nuna can target obstacles with a set of bolas and interact with more physical objects. All of these are necessary for progression, and, therefore, while the overall balance of power is slightly tipped towards the fox, each one's contribution still feels significant. If the idea of playing this alone doesn't sound too strange, single-player is almost as worthwhile, since the partner AI is competent enough to handle simple traversal on its own, leaving the more engaging puzzle-solving in the one holding the gamepad.

The gameplay is reasonably well-designed, although not always well-executed. In particular, it's very good at restricting the use of immersion-breaking instructions, and instead relies on intuitive visual design. After a slow start in which the primary interaction is occasionally bracing against a gust of wind, the gameplay settles into a comfortable middle section with a nice mix of puzzles and cinematic platforming. None of it is especially difficult; it's rare to have to think through a "puzzle" for more than a few seconds. In this case, however, that's to the game's benefit, as additional challenge would limit the audience of its enlightening message.

It's for this reason that the last quarter of the running time is such a blemish on the experience. The potentially intense climax is ruined by the lumbering controls, which were equally present earlier, but never mixed with such tricky platforming. Many of these control issues - especially the deliberate pace of each action - are likely the result of favouring fluid animation over usability. However, others have no such excuse. The indistinct hit detection often leaves characters flailing across walls and into their doom, while the movement ranges of the fox's spirit helpers are frustratingly inconsistent.

Screenshot for Never Alone  on PC

Cubed3 Rating

6/10
Rated 6 out of 10

Good

Documentaries aren't known for being the most exciting experiences in the world, and, therefore, it should come as no surprise that a documentary-esque "game" is only mildly engaging. That being said, compared to the mental illness emulation of Depression Quest, or the political surrealism of The Cat and the Coup, Never Alone is a highly accessible version of the form. It's genuinely educational, and while its gameplay and narrative are merely passable, they're sewn into the factual exposition so well, that it feels exclusively as a video game should and never like a classroom.

Developer

Upper One Games

Publisher

Upper One Games

Genre

2D Platformer

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  6/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

Comments

There are no replies to this review yet. Why not be the first?
Guest 19.01.2016#1

I thought the gameplay was meh and so was the documentary. Together they make something that felt unique. The end of the game is just tedium though. Nintendo need to make another endless ocean

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