Video games often send us to the hustle and bustle of large cities, dense forest settings, or the brown-fest of desert towns. Not here. Never Alone transports players to the isolated, snowy and harsh expanses of northern Alaska, where a young girl called Nuna battles the elements to stop a blizzard destroying her home.
The game carries a significant weight of indigenous authenticity: Upper One Games is the first indigenous-owned video game developer of the United States; it’s narrated by an Alaskan Native elder (subtitles are most welcome here); and the game’s alternative title is Kisima Inŋitchuŋa.
The story itself is wonderfully told. The 2D cutscenes, almost depicting ancestral drawings, are overlaid with great narration from one of the elders. It definitely feels that, as the tale of Nuna progresses, there’s a group of children around a campfire nervously awaiting the next plot twist.
The game also looks fantastic. Never Alone’s Unity engine is at full strength here and beautifully details icy caverns, fluorescent lights in the night sky, and violent winds of the Alaskan Wilderness.
With each passing chapter, Never Alone becomes more of a cultural learning tool than a video game. This is due to small owls Nuna will encounter, as each of them unlocks a ‘Cultural Insight’ into the lives of Native Alaskans – both past and present. There are 24 in total and each supplies interesting short videos of tribal tales, relationships with animals or even opinions on climate change; they’re great and add depth to the in-game story.
There are small hindrances with traversing the ice, with the power of the blizzard and changing wind direction the brunt of the game’s frustrations.
The addition of Nuna’s friend, an adorable arctic fox, also switches things up nicely. The fox can fit through small cracks in the ice and scurry up ledges very quickly. It’s an avenue for two-player fun but, much like Chariot, suffers in opting for local-only co-operative play.
It’s also strange that Never Alone is labeled as a ‘puzzle’ game when it couldn’t be further from it. It’s understandable this title isn’t meant to be overly difficult, but Never Alone is ridiculously straightforward when it comes to its ‘puzzle’ sections; aligning boxes and timing jumps will be the extent of your worries.
There’s also a content issue here. Even with the aid of a partner, the game takes a touch over four hours to complete. So, to recap, there’s a four-hour story and about 20 minutes worth of video footage – for US$15, it’s pretty steep.
If you peel back the layers, Never Alone is a simple platforming game that provides a good tale with unique cultural ties. But despite all its faults, there is an important point here: Upper One Games have successfully delivered what few developers have before, in bringing an isolated culture to consoles.
Walking on thin ice
Simple game with a great tale, but a hefty price.