The very best videogames tell a story. That may be of something conjured up recently in one’s mind or, as is the case with Never Alone (Kisima Innitchuna), a tale that has been passed on down through the generations. A tale that is being forgotten throughout the world, but a tale you really shouldn’t miss.
Originally conceived as a way of spreading the word, not just across the globe but within the increasingly distant and separated native Alaskan community, Never Alone by Upper One Games has been inspired by the the story of Kunuuksaayuka by Robert Cleveland. Telling the tale of a young girl; Nuna and her pet fox, through a puzzler platformer, you’ll get to experience a way of life far far different from that of your own.
The traditional Inupiat people are big believers in interdependence and Never Alone portrays that feeling immensely well with both Nuna and fox working together to get them through one of the most atmospheric stories you are ever likely to see. When all hope looks to be over, a quick change of character can open up the puzzle in a whole new way, with plenty of twists and turns in both the story, and indeed the basic gameplay mechanics, changing the further you progress. You’ll come across and look to escape from Polar Bears, will discover the delights of friendly spirits and the terrors that bad ones bring to the local communities, all whilst taking in a story that has been passed on down through the generations.
It must be said however, there is nothing in Never Alone that should faze even the newest game player. The puzzles and indeed the levels themselves are well thought out but relatively easy to work through with the inclusion of some well placed – and well spaced – checkpoints meaning that very rarely will you need to trawl back over the same old ground whenever you miss a jump or get consumed by the Alaskan weather. In fact, I managed to fly through the entire campaign, collecting all but one collectible in a little under four hours. That may seem short, and yes, the whole story is over just as you really want it to get going, but the main aim of Never Alone is seemingly to tell a tale, and it’s that which it does extremely well.
Scattered throughout the story are small ‘collectible’ Owls. These twit and twoo whenever they are nearby, being very difficult to miss even when the harsh sounds of the torrid Alaskan weather is coming at you from all directions. There are over 20 to collect in all – the vast majority of which don’t even need you to go off the beaten path – with each one unlocking a ‘Cultural Insight’ video vignette of Alaskan elders and storytellers, helping reinforce the background story even more. I’m not normally a big one for story telling in games but these short videos were superb to watch and helped give a real insight into the harsh realities of which the Iñupiaqs must go through on a daily basis.
So far then, and Never Alone is on course for a pretty decent review. However we have to unfortunately point out a few issues, one of which even the most basic of platformers should have nailed down from the word go…..jumping. Platform games live or die by the perfection required behind the leap from platform to platform and ridge to ridge but Never Alone makes the smallest of actions turn out to be the most trickiest. Things are okay when running at speed, but try to make a small step to the left or right, or drop down to a ledge below you and it’ll be a bit hit or miss at whether you reach safety or indeed fall into the icy water below. There were a fair few situations which I had to attempt numerous times in order to get the jumping right and whilst I was enjoying the story enough to want to continue, I feel that many may just have given up.
Never Alone has been made to be the ultimate co-op platformer with one person controlling Nuna and the other fox and it must be said, if you have a friend sat next to you with another controller, then things work seamlessly. Another problem arises however when you try and play through the story alone (something many will want to do). You can quickly switch on the fly between the two characters with a brief hit of the Y button, with the character you aren’t controlling, following behind or alongside you, and the jumps being played out by the AI. An AI which occasionally goes a little nuts, flinging either fox or the young girl to an untimely death. It’s a little annoying to say the least, but fortunately those super placements of checkpoints that I previously mentioned just about lets Never Alone get away with these issues.
Personally, I still believe that if Never Alone had an online multiplayer presence as well as the local sofa mode, then both the game and indeed the story it is telling would have reached a wider audience. I understand that the developers quickly came to a decision that bonding occurs in a greater form when you are playing a game with someone sat next to you, but I’ve had many moments of laughter and joy with friends across the world via Xbox Live and Never Alone is something I would just have loved to experience with them. The world is an ever decreasing space and so the easier it is to get a story told, then the quicker that story can navigate its way around the globe. Online multiplayer would have been a great conveyor of that.
Even with the faults though, Never Alone is a full on delight. It is at times visually immense (only let down by some poorly animated death visuals) and comes with a sound that whisks you away to a world far away from your own. It is something which has obviously had much love thrown into it from all fields and if only a little more time and consideration had gone into the sometimes dodgy basics then Never Alone would quite easily be walking away with top marks.
It’s a story that must be heard!