Developed by E-Line Media and Upper One Games, Never Alone isn’t a game as such. I mean, it is a game in the sense that you, the player, play some role in the progression of the story’s events by facing challenges as they come, but Never Alone (also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) is, at least in my mind, more akin to a documentary which uses the creative comfort of a video game as a framing device for its inherent message. Upon first launching the game, my initial reaction was to compare it to Ubisoft’s recent homage to the events that began one hundred years past, Valiant Hearts, however after an hour or so in the games modest two-three hour runtime, I came to see that that was not the best approach to come at it with.
While Valiant Hearts drew from recollection through family members and recovered letters from over the years to frame it’s fictional, though perfectly legitimate narrative, Never Alone takes folklore and the nature of the indigenous Inuit people from an allegory previously created by one of their own. Robert Cleveland, aka Nasruk, created the story found within Never Alone that serves both as a tale with which the Iñupiaq share with one another as well as a tour of the sensibilities, culture and outlook for those who know little of them.
The story is that of a young girl named Nuna who finds herself caught in a blizzard, the blizzard being only one of the many perilous aspects of Alaskan tundra life. She soon finds herself in the company of an arctic fox, known simply as fox, and the two aid one another using their contrasting skill sets to ensure she arrives safely back at her village. Upon her return her village she discovers that it has been all but destroyed by the blizzard and a scary man is ransacking what remains in search of something specific. I don’t want to spoil the story as I consider it a passionate, emotional and deeply intelligently written little story, and the best experience for that, as far as I’m concerned, is first hand. As Nuna and Fox, you will brave many hazards and challenges, in many situations unlocking or discovering cultural insights, which will offer a 1-3 minute video of genuine Inuit people explaining or reminiscing on their lifestyle, ethics and beliefs.
So, gameplay. OK, I’m not going to lie, the gameplay is… not perfect. Naturally, at its core it’s about cooperation. If you play alone, you’ll switch between Nuna and Fox, however, the option is available to play with a friend and, from my experience playing alone, it’s strongly recommended to take that opportunity. The partner AI is not very smart, often times missing jumps, getting themselves killed and resetting to the last checkpoint as the demise of one results in the hinderance of the other. The game is called ‘Never Alone’ after all. This can largely be put down to the fact that you hesitated and the partner AI couldn’t read the fact that you did so. Not a big deal in the early stages, but as the game progresses the situation for such snap decisions become less and less of a certainty. Outside of the cooperative side of it all, it’s essentially a platformer. Fox is small and nimble, able to get into tight spaces, climb high walls and wall jump; while Nuna is strong, able to push crates and also carries a bola for attracting spirits or smashing ice that blocks their path. I’m impressed with the amount of variety they’ve managed to squeeze from the limited assets, but later puzzles could have been presented a little clearer than they were.
The highlight of Never Alone, however, is in its design. Characters are stylized, often with exaggerated features; big kind eyes or gnarled angry teeth. The scenery is varied while maintaining the relevant arctic theme, and Nuna and Fox look fantastic together as they scramble in the snow, entrenching themselves as the harsh tundra winds make another pass. When the game wants cinematic, it goes for it and does surprisingly well as Nuna dives from an iceberg that shatters less than a second after she has leaped from it, or as she launches herself from an exploding platform, Fox watching on from ahead hoping she makes it.
Never Alone is a great little example of medium crossover and what is quickly becoming known as ‘the art game’. It taught me something I didn’t realise I knew extremely little about, and it did so while being beautiful and, in spite of all of that, it’s a fun game too.
A review copy of Never Alone for PlayStation 4 was provided by the E-Line Media and Upper One Games PR team.