As the first game I’ve played since attempting to finish my backlog this may be against the spirit of the project as I purchased this game two days ago during the Steam Exploration Sale: but still, it’s now a game I own, so I must play it!
Never Alone has been on my radar for awhile due to it’s interesting production history. The developer, Upper One Games, was formed by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council to create videogames that showcase the history and culture of the indigenous peoples of Alaska.
I am personally wholly of the opinion that games are an artistic medium. Further, I think one of the strongest qualities of games as an artistic medium is the ability to provide an immersive experience of a wholly different environment or person. While I admit I enjoy the abundance of effort that has allowed me to experience the perspective of Space Marines fighting against hordes of monsters, I am hopeful that the success of games like Never Alone inspires other groups to consider using games as an outreach medium.
Never Alone is the story of a young Iñupiaq girl and a fox that she meets along her journey. Mechanically, it’s a puzzle platformer in the Lost Vikings vein: both characters have unique platforming skills which they must use in combination to move through the environment. A single player can switch between the two characters (with the non-active character following along) or a second player can play along. I was only able to try the single player mode, which was fine but there were a few points where I believe a second player would have greatly reduced the frustration of passing certain areas.
The presentation is very nice. The animations are smooth, the characters and environments look beautiful with a nice stylized presentation that helps enhance the theme. Cutscenes in between levels are drawn in a historical line drawing style as are the spirits which assist you throughout the game. Visually, the game is executed wonderfully.
The game falters a bit mechanically. The girl (apparently her name is Nuna, but I don’t remember her being named in the game) gains a bola in the course of the game, but targeting is clumsy. The bola is the only part of the game that uses the mouse: you hold the left mouse button to spin up the bola and then aim by moving the mouse on the vertical axis to control the angle the girl throws with no indicator on screen. This may have been a deliberate choice, but it’s largely frustrating in practice. There are a few areas where the collision detection between platforms is a bit buggy and in general I often felt limited more by the difficulty of the controls than by the difficulty of the levels.
The game is trying for a high level of immersion in the Iñupiaq myths it tells, and it’s largely successful but it’s reliance on platforming tropes pull you out of the experience at times. Some jumps can only be made with the assistance of the wind, which is blowing in the exact direction you need to jump, even if that’s environmentally inconsistent with the previous jumps you’ve had to make in this level. Also, while the game is never really difficult in the normal sense of a platformer, there are areas that require blind jumps, or foreknowledge of the terrain to succeed causing you to die a lot. Normally, this wouldn’t be a slight on a game of this genre as the respawn checkpoints are generous, but the game is trying to present this as a singular voyage which makes the more frustrating areas immersion breaking.
Ultimately, any criticisms I have are minor annoyances in an otherwise amazing game. Never Alone succeeds in its goal of presenting Iñupiaq culture in an interesting light. As with many games of this genre, there’s a set of collectibles. Throughout the levels there are owls that will each unlock a short video about Iñupiaq heritage. The videos are well made and engaging.
I highly recommend playing this game.