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A review of Never Alone.

This native Alaskan game hits the stores as of today. We take an exclusive look at gameplay in our official review of Never Alone.

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Never Alone, or Kisima Innitchuna in the proper tongue, is finally available to play! We’ve covered this game at EGX, and again in a preview last week. Now, having played the game in it’s entirety, we can tell you it really is something to look out for! The mythological elements brought in from real Iñupiaq folk tales are simply lovely and so intense, especially from within the beautifully-designed game environment, which replicates tundra, snowscapes, iceberg-filled oceans and Northern Light displays so vividly you’ll come away feeling like the Alaskan environment is as rich as a rainforest. Every image in this article, save for one documentary photo, has come straight from in-game screenshots.

Green fire lights up the sky - Playful spirits - take a guess?
Playful spirits – take a guess at what they could be?

With a storyline that can be completed in just 3 – 4 hours of gameplay, it’s perfect for those who don’t have a lot of time on their hands. The gameplay itself is relatively simple, although there were a few boss battles and tricky manoeuvres that required a lot of retries to get right. There is an extra element of urgency added; oftentimes the simplicity is irrelevant when you’re doing something like getting chased by a polar bear, which requires you to take many leaps into the unknown and ‘get it right’ while on the clock. And if either the girl or the fox dies, it’s curtains for both of you.

Polar Bear chase ... better run faster!
Better run faster!

The nice thing is that you don’t lose out too much when this happens; dying simply takes you back to the last checkpoint. Driving forth the story is the game’s main priority, so I’m glad they didn’t lose focus by penalising the player too much regarding character death. The scrolling platformer style is similar to Limbo, in terms of both atmospheric depth, focus on survival, and limitless death, but differs in its focus on community and teamwork.

Nuna helping the Fox down. It's all about the teamwork.
It’s all about the teamwork.

The puzzles, which require the cooperation of both the girl and the fox (who you can switch between using the Y button) are immensely fun and at points remind me of the gameplay in Child of Light, with Aurora and her firefly companion solving puzzles and opening doors together. The difference is that significantly more emphasis is put on teamwork in Never Alone, and often while on the clock. One of the trickiest things I encountered was having the girl, Nuna, run away from a Manslayer, while simultaneously using the fox’s spirit powers to raise tree branches from her path. If you spend too much time as the fox, you run the risk of Nuna being caught and killed. If you spend too much time as Nuna, the fox has less time to lift the branches, resulting in a similar end.

The game has a two-player mode, which takes some of the stress off the players, but again, requires communication and timing. Either mode does not negate the fact that this game has an incredible emphasis on survival rather than fighting. While Nuna will gain a weapon, it’s mostly used tactically rather than to kill enemies. When enemies show up, the game replicates the reality of an Arctic environment which is: it’s best to avoid them. And of course, another bit of Arctic survival knowledge: never relax. Hungry enemies will track you for miles in reality, and you never know when that’s going to happen in the game, so be on your guard, and use your skills and the skills of your team to outsmart them.

The main storyline follows Nuna and her fox companion, who encounter many folk creatures while searching for the source of the Eternal Blizzard that is affecting her village. It’s based off a Iñupiaq folk tale called Kunuuksaayuka, and after listening to some of the documentary videos, what I really appreciate about this tale is that Kunuuksaayuka is, in most retellings, a young man. To the Iñupiat people, who worked closely with developers on this game, replacing the gender of the main character is not in conflict with the legitimacy of their cultural heritage – in fact, it’s sort of the opposite, as it puts the power of the story into a wider human viewpoint. They write more about it in their blog here. It’s a nice thought that tradition can be maintained without ignoring equality, and is something that perhaps many other games and forms of media could benefit from.

So the in-game story explores these myths and legends, but along the way you meet owl spirits, each of whom bestow an achievement – unlocking a documentary episode that can be viewed from either the main menu or the pause screen. These documentary episodes each explore an aspect of Iñupiat culture and social concepts, interviewing a range of different people. They are, in short, brilliant.

Hokulani Panigeo, an Iñupiat girl playtesting the game (left) and preparing muktuk (right),  a traditional food made from whale blubber.
Hokulani Panigeo, an Iñupiat girl playtesting the game (left) and preparing muktuk (right), a traditional food made from whale blubber.

The documentary aspect reminds me of Eternal Sonata (Trusty Bell in Japanese), a JRPG which explored the life of historic pianist Frédéric Chopin. Eternal Sonata was a fascinating blend of classic JRPG dreamworld elements interspersed with documentary slideshows about Chopin’s life set to some of his most famous songs, but the problem was you had to sit through the documentaries to progress with the game. Never Alone works better in that it doesn’t force anything down your throat – even the documentary elements do not interfere with the gameplay. They simply unlock – for viewing at a later time, or whenever you decide.

Perhaps the best thing was finding out from these documentaries that the fox companion in the game was based on someone’s grandfather who made friends with a wild Arctic fox in real life. It was a wonderful connection between fantasy and reality, hearing that.

Girl and fox, separated by water.
This fox’s friendship in the face of adversity is not entirely fictional.

In all, I feel that the length of the game and the gameplay choices the developers made have opened this game up to a massive range of players. Hardcore gamers will see this as a nice little diversion that, in playing, exposes them to a real culture, more casual gamers will appreciate the challenges involved, and younger players or non-gamers will find it an educational and exciting challenge.

Never Alone is available from the Steam store (PC only), Playstation Store for PS4, and Xbox Marketplace for Xbox One. I’d strongly suggest giving it a try, and sharing in this Native Alaskan cultural story.

 

All images © Upper One Games / E-line Media

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