Never Alone (or Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in its native tongue) is a PlayStation 4 platformer by Upper One Games and E-Line Media. It’s an interactive re-telling of stories that come from the Alaskan indigenous peoples, the Iñupiaq. Some of the stories touched upon are The Blizzard Man, The Sky People, and Rolling Heads, among others. Throughout these tales, you’ll control two characters: a girl named Nuna and her adorable arctic fox companion. The heroine is on a quest to protect her village from an unrelenting blizzard – and if you’re not careful, you, as well as the star, will learn a thing or two along the way.
First things first: this is both a game and an educational device. Located throughout the title are a series of owls that, when encountered, unlock a short video that offers a glimpse into the culture and lifestyle of the Iñupiaq. We’re not ashamed to admit that we knew absolutely nothing about these people prior to starting the release, so these clips are fascinating; as Valiant Hearts: The Great War proved earlier in the year, games really can be great learning aids. If that’s not enough, as you progress you’ll also get an insight into their cultural beliefs; different tales are woven into the story brilliantly, through a combination of cut-scenes and renders.
The game has an absolutely gorgeous art direction. Much of it occurs in a blizzard, which may seem a little bland – but there’s a wealth of variety on display here. From the beauty of the ice formations that you encounter, to the absolutely stunning skyboxes, the game’s visuals deliver in spades. Not to be discounted is also the soundtrack, which is subtle enough to tug at the heart-strings, but never so invasive that it hurts the experience – it perfectly complements just about every facet of the experience. In fact, we’d go as far as to say that short of a few animation issues, the title’s presentation is practically flawless – but how does it play?
Well, there’s a decent sense of progression here; through all eight chapters, you’ll be able to feel the pace and challenge of the title gradually beginning to increase. It starts off relatively easily, but by the end you’ll really need to have mastered the title’s platforming. Unfortunately, the level design can be a bit finicky in the very latter stages, and you’ll get to a point where you’re caught in an endless cycle of death. This is a shame, because it kills the narrative’s momentum, which is arguably the primary draw in the first place.
The true nature of the difficulty, though, will depend on how you decide to play. If you opt for the solo route, you’ll control both Nuna and her arctic fox pal; however, if you decide to play co-operatively, each player will control one character apiece. Naturally, shepherding just one of the heroes is easier, but having to play as both isn’t impossible, you’ll just find yourself at the mercy of the game’s artificial intelligence at times. During this review, we did experience instances in which the computer would simply guide one of the two stars off a ledge, but this has since been patched, and we can confirm that the problem has thankfully been rectified.
There’s more to the game than just simple platforming, too. For example, the arctic fox can uncover and guide spirits, while Nuna has a throwing device (named a ‘bola’). Sadly, the latter is a source of much irritation, as it sees you aiming and tossing using only the right-stick, but it just doesn’t seem to work very effectively. We reckon that adding another button prompt to the mechanic – perhaps one of the DualShock 4’s triggers – to release the throw would work much better, especially seeing as not all of the controller’s inputs are employed.
In addition to the aforementioned issues, the only other real complaint that we have is that the last portion of the concluding stage feels rather disjointed. It consists of most of the environments that you’ll have encountered earlier in your adventure, but it’s cut up with dozens of loading screens, which, while mercifully short, completely kill the sense of immersion. It’s certainly not a game breaker, but it’s a shame, as it doesn’t feel like the title finishes with its strongest foot forward. Still, don’t let that put you off, as it’s not often that you can get this type of cultural enrichment at the same time as a great game.
As a platformer, Never Alone is solid, but not exactly revolutionary. It’s the cultural aspects that go hand-in-hand with this release that make it so special, then. With incredible art and audio, as well as a compelling narrative, this is an interesting indie that deserves your attention. And while there are a few niggles that prevent it from reaching its full potential, you shouldn’t let them stand in the way of your opportunity to meet up with the Iñupiaq.