It’s not often that playing a video game turns into a history lesson. Sure, there are titles such as Civilization and Age of Empires out there, but I would certainly never go to either of them in order to explain a moment of historical significance. I’m not going to count “edutainment” games either, as that nickname usually refers to titles that are educational, but generally not fun to play.
Enter Never Alone, the debut effort from Upper One Games. Based around indigenous Alaskan stories, it was commissioned by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in order to educate audiences about the Iñupiat. Rather than let their culture fall to the wayside, the Iñupiat have embraced the modern age of technology in order to tell their tale.
As one would expect, Never Alone tells the story of Nuna, a young Iñupiaq girl who is on a quest to find the source of a never-ending blizzard that has been plaguing her village. Together with her pet fox, the duo will have to face down several formidable foes, including a rampaging polar bear and the ghostly Sky People.
While the plot isn’t the most original affair, that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. In fact, the unique bond between Nuna and her fox is one of the best relationships seen in gaming this year. Perhaps this has to do with my own feelings as a pet owner, but Never Alone does an excellent job of conveying the relationship a pet has with their owner. It also helps that despite being a tale as old as time, it’s told rather well through excellent narration and simple, but effective cutscenes.
Described as a “puzzle-platformer,” the game has players navigating the snow covered world with Nuna and her fox. Each character has its own unique trait, though, that makes the journey possible. Nuna wields a mystical bola, which can be used to not only stun the foes you come across, but to also destroy specified sections of ice. Conversely, the fox has the ability to call upon ancient spirits in order to reach new areas and escape from danger.
While Never Alone rarely provides a challenge, the platforming and controls can be frustrating at times. Learning to time jumps with the wind is something I had trouble getting down, mostly because it tends to change directions with little warning. So, I would go from jumping into the wind and flying over targets, to jumping against the wind and barely making it anywhere. Using the bola also tends to be a frustrating task, since controlling it has been mapped exclusively to the right analog stick. Pulling the stick back cocks the weapon and pushing it forward throws it, which sounds simple enough. But since aiming it is also handled by the stick, I often found my throws missing their intended target.
If you’re interested in braving the frosty tundra of Never Alone, I would also suggest finding a friend to accompany you. Not only is it easier to accomplish your mission with a partner — as you don’t have to constantly switch between the two protagonists — but it also spares you the trouble of having to deal with the questionable A.I. Your computer friend, regardless of which character it controls, has the baffling tendency to throw itself off ledges at random moments. Sometimes this means that they mistime a jump, but other times they will just walk into the frigid Alaskan waters on their own accord.
The platforming in Never Alone is hampered by some unfortunate technical issues that pop up from time to time. During my adventure, I noticed some graphical clipping, as well as the occasional falling through the environment issue. It’s unfortunate that these odd issues popped up, because outside of them, the title runs rather well. The frame rate is never an issue, which usually doesn’t need to be pointed out, but with so many current-gen titles suffering from frame rate problems, it’s worth talking about.
I did, however, appreciate the style of the game. While not a technical marvel, the character and environment designs are top notch. The relationship between Nuna and her fox is also further developed through the various animations accompanying both characters. They are ridiculously charming together and you learn to really care for their plight simply by watching every little thing they do together.
Besides the main single-player campaign, which is unfortunately over in under five hours, there are also several informative videos about the Iñupiaq people that should be watched. These cultural insight clips generally unlock after reaching certain points in the game, and tend to focus on various aspects of their culture. While I’m sure some may groan at having to watch these clips, I believe that they should be glimpsed, just so you can become familiar with a group of people you may not have previously been privy to.
As the first effort from both Upper One Games and E-Line Media, Never Alone is a success. It is not only an engaging and entertaining platformer, but also informative and insightful. If the two can hammer out the few technical issues that popped up and possibly work on extending the length of a story, then we could be on the cusp of a new world of “edutainment” games.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which was provided to us.
Effortlessly charming and surprising insightful, Never Alone is only hampered by some frustrating control issues and unfortunate technical hiccups.