Never Alone Review – An Arctic Fairy Tale From Another World

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Posted December 4, 2014 by Chris Henrikson in Video Games

Developed by: Upper One Games

Published by: E-Line Media

Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC

Release Date: November 18th 2014


Writer’s Note: I have received an e-mail from an Upper One Games representative informing me that a patch is in the works that will address many of the issues that many reviewers, including me, had with the game. As of the time of this writing, the patch has not gone live on PSN, so I can’t verify if it works as intended, and as such, the impressions listed below are from the original pre-patched version. 

It is a glorious year for the genre of “documentary” games, especially after years of practically every experiment in the area turning out to be subpar at best. Recently, though, things have started to look up. In June we got Valiant Hearts which, with its amazing art style and intriguing story, was set to become the documentary game of 2014… But then we got Never Alone, and it pretty much stole Valiant Hearts’ trophy right under its nose. Allow me to say that Never Alone doesn’t just give me hope for documentary games — it makes me excited for the potential of gaming in general. The title shows nothing short of pure genius in the way it combines a very fun and rather well-crafted gaming experience with short video vignettes that give context to the various elements encountered in the main campaign.

At its core, Never Alone is a platformer in the style of Limbo, where the emphasis falls on puzzle solving rather than on tricky platforming. You start off playing as Nuna — a young Iñupiat girl living in a village in Alaska who embarks on a quest to discover why the weather has suddenly worsened (as with most fairy tales, the answer lies in the supernatural). Soon afterwards, Nuna encounters a fox which seemingly takes a liking to her and decides to join her on her journey. From that point on, the player is free to switch between the two of them with the press of a button, or give control to the other to a second player. Either way, both of them are vitally important to the adventure, as each possesses skills that the other lacks. While Nuna can’t jump too far, she’s able to push and pull crates, climb ropes and at a certain point in the game even acquires an appropriate weapon. The fox, on the other hand, can jump farther, climb walls and, interestingly enough, communicate with spirits. As the name suggests, the two of them stay together for the rest of the game, and you need to learn how to utilize and combine their respective skills in order to overcome the countless obstacles the pair will encounter on their journey.

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Never Alone isn’t awfully long, but that is only because it lacks any sort of filler that so many other games feel the need to have for the sole reason of prolonging playtime. I have voiced my gripes with this practice in the past, so I in particular was particularly pleased with the flow and pacing of the story. No level overstays its welcome — the moment a particular setup exhausts every challenge that it could reasonably offer, a new mechanic shows up to make the experience feel fresh again. Whether you’re climbing spirits, swimming among glaciers or evading traps, you’ll never feel like you’re doing the exact same thing twice. Unfortunately that comes with a a downside, as the different challenges also have various degrees of difficulty, and it’s not always seamless. Especially towards the end of the game, some sections may seem painfully easy while others prove to be more frustrating. I wouldn’t say that Never Alone becomes a hard game at any point (it’s certainly many degrees below the difficulty of Limbo), but I feel like certain sections could have used a little more playtesting just to iron out the kinks. Still, that’s a relatively minor gripe in what is, overall, a particularly solid platforming experience with difficulty appropriate for players of all skill levels.

The platforming may be a major element in Never Alone, but it’s not what sold me on the title. As I mentioned earlier, the game can also be categorized as a documentary, and that is because its story, its style, its very heart, is drenched in elements from traditional Iñupiat culture, which I personally found more and more fascinating the longer I was exposed to it. The cutscenes that are not created with in-game footage are crafted to look like the scrimshaws which the Iñupiat people have used to tell stories for generations, and the plot itself is filled with references to Iñupiat mythological elements such as the little people and the northern lights spirits. The experience is an absolute delight for anyone familiar with the culture… Which I assume is not a whole lot of people. For everyone else, the game offers the so-called cultural insights, which are short documentary-style videos in which Iñupiats talk about various elements from their lives. Those videos — and the way they complement and enrich the narrative — are the true star of Never Alone.

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The cultural insights themselves are collectible throughout the game at certain points in the narrative— most of them are in such obvious spots that they’re impossible to miss even if you’re not particularly looking for them, but at least a couple are placed just a bit out of the way in order to encourage exploration. The videos are often related to the part of the story where they were found — for example, when a character asks you to find his drum, you will get a video explaining just what the role of the drum is in Iñupiat culture, and why it matters so much. Other times the insights share anecdotes about the lives of the Iñupiat people which are meant to help ease the player into that mindset. Some of my favorites are the story of a boy and his father who drifted off on a glacier (appropriately unlocked when something similar happens to Nuna), or the one about the boy who killed a bear before finding out that she had been a mother and was subsequently tasked with raising her cub. The cultural insights were fascinating, but more than that, they were also an integral part in helping to bridge the gap between the average player and the rich, yet most likely foreign culture that the game is drenched it.

With that said, Never Alone as a whole isn’t without its issues, and unfortunately one of them is almost game-breaking. As I mentioned earlier, the player is in charge of two protagonists that can be switched at any time with the press of a button (think the Lego games). But when you do switch, the other character is taken over by what is probably the worst AI companion since Sheva from Resident Evil 5. It’s rare to pass a harder-than-average platforming section without at least a couple of deaths caused by my companion deciding to unceremoniously commit suicide right in the middle of it. Depending on the AI’s unpredictable quirks and the difficulty of the chapter, this can potentially lead to an experience that’s far more frustrating than intended. Aside from that, the game also has a couple of rough edges on the technical side — while nothing crashed my game, I did experience a couple of very noticeable bugs, which is practically unacceptable for such a short and linear game.

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But these are relatively minor gripes about an experience that’s not only very well designed, but is also educational about one of the most fascinating cultures in the world. Overall, Never Alone is most definitely an experience worth picking up, whether you’re experienced in platforming or are picking up a controller for the first time. I’d say that it’s also a very good game for parents to play with their children thanks to the low difficulty and child-friendly narrative. And while its short length might turn some people off, what’s there is definitely worth every penny.


About the Author

Chris Henrikson

Ever since he first got his hands on an NES controller when he was 3 years old, Chris Henrikson has been completely obsessed with videogames of all shapes and sizes. His passion led him to study game design in the UK and, of course, to write a whole lot about videogames. Follow him on Twitter (@ChrisHenrikson1) and add him on PSN (RaidenDP1)!