Very few games celebrate culture in the way that Never Alone does. There aren't many examples of games made to educate the player on the history and traditions of a rarely represented people. This was an approach to games I thought had gone unrealized until I heard about Never Alone.
A project Spearheaded by the Anchorage based Cook Intel Tribal Council (CITC), Upper One games and the native Iñupiat people of Alaska. Never Alone is a game that aimed to bring the folklore of Alaskan Natives to new generations both inside and outside the culture itself. On one level this is an astonishing little insight into a largely unfamiliar world that I would have previously been uninterested in. On the other its a 2D puzzle-platformer in which you take control of two characters, A young Iñupiat girl named Nuna and her fox companion and navigate the treacherous Alaskan wilderness.
As per usual with these sort of message or story driven games, it succeeds far more at being a narrative experience than a truly competent gameplay experience.
I must say that this appears to be a Co-op focused game. I have only experienced the single player due to only owning one Xbox controller so if you’re looking for an opinion of Never Alone as a Co-op title, you will not find it here.
The opening cinematic sets the tone perfectly. Depicted in a seemingly genuine Native Alaskan drawing style with a narration in the native tongue, telling of an unrelenting blizzard that has swept the land. These cinematics are a definite high point.
You are then put into the shoes on Nuna and this is where things start to get a little shaky. Moving Nuna around feels cumbersome and unresponsive, slightly reminiscent of Little Big Planet’s rather slow moving platforming. It is however perfectly serviceable for the first parts of the game. When the game starts throwing precision puzzles at you, it really demonstrates how lacking the controls actually are. You are given a projectile known as a Bola a little way into the game which is then used in many of the puzzles after. You are required to hit very small targets in sometimes very tense situations. The choice to map the action of throwing the Bola onto the imprecise right analog stick with no indication of where the projectile will land results in many frustrating trial and error attempts with the Bola missing multiple times and a fair few deaths.
Jumping feels floaty and inexact. The distance covered by your jump for example never really feels the same. I ended up overshooting or just missing ledges multiple times when asked to make a quick jump to get away from danger. Again, this isn't really that big an issue for the majority of the game, but the controls just don't adapt that well to the few instances where quick precision platforming is needed.
The player is asked to switch between Nuna and the fox on the fly, using each of their individual skills to solve increasingly difficult puzzles. Before the most recent update (v1.1 at the time of writing) the AI just was not good enough to fulfill this promise. There were many times where the AI would get stuck on terrain or simply walk straight into an enemy without a second thought. These issues have been addressed to a certain degree, with a noticeably improved AI. However, the claimed 'general control improvements' I have still yet to find.
I feel I’ve ragged on enough. For all of the missteps in the gameplay, Never Alone comes to a very satisfying conclusion with a fantastic 3rd act and does make some nice little steps to combining narrative, educational and gameplay elements. The Cultural insights for example, take the form of 30 second to 2 minute long video documentaries that give background information on aspects of the culture reflected in the game. These are found at random points throughout the levels and help contextualize the narrative as well as inform the player on various traditions of the culture. The choice to view these videos immediately or at the end of a chapter is a nice touch as it doesn't forcefully interrupt gameplay and make you sit through a tangentially related cutscene but lets you view them at your own leisure if and when you are interested.
The game may not be perfect but it represents a good step for educational games. The atmosphere is absolutely gorgeous and the way it represents the culture through the medium of the videogame is absolutely fascinating.
If you are interested in learning about Iñupiat culture or seeing a good step in the direction of how to create an entertaining 'educational game' then give Never Alone a go. For the rest, its a middle of the road platformer with some nice scenery, a story of companionship and a few decent set pieces.
You can get Never Alone for the PC on Steam.
This game was obtained from the developer and reviewed on the PC Platform
A fascinating insight into an interesting culture held back from greatness by average platforming mechanics.