Review: Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)
Videogames have been a fine and innovative storytelling medium for a while now. So it seems only natural that a culture noted for its storytelling traditions should enter the fold, in the form of Never Alone.
Never Alone is a charming game developed with the help and guidance of the Alaska Native people, telling the story that kicks off with an unusually strong blizzard that has been going for several days preventing the village from hunting. You play as a brave young Iñupiat girl who ventures out to try and find the cause.
Along the way you pick up a four legged helper in the guise of an arctic fox. But it’s no ordinary fox for he is able to see the spirits and allow them to come to your aid. In-game this can make platforms appear to jump on, climb up, or ropes to swing on. A most useful companion, you’ll find yourself growing attached to the fox as you progress together.
But the girl is no helpless wanderer. Your hunting skills with the Bola can be used to knock through to new areas or to trigger spirits the fox has seen. She can also move heavier objects the fox cannot. Gameplay consists of switching between the two companions and is pretty seamless.
In practical terms, the game is a puzzle-platformer with a pleasing difficulty curve. Gameplay elements are introduced one at a time but you never feel the game is leading you by the hand. For example, once you’ve been taught how to brace for high winds it’s then up to you to be alert, read the change in the direction of the snow that precedes it, and then hit the deck!
The wind also becomes a crucial element in the platforming. Timing jumps so that you have the wind behind you allows access to distant platforms, while jumping into a headwind will see you fall short. As with all great plat formers, timing is the key.
Aside from a big bad enemy that you encounter on your travels, there are plenty of natural hazards to avoid and traverse. Hungry polar bears, mischievous little people and dangerously mobile ice sheets all inject an urgency into the gameplay.
Stylistically, the game portrays a strikingly harsh environment in a painterly fashion. It is unique and beautiful, both in-game and also in the scrimshaw inspired art sequences. This is an Alaska Native art form that acts as linking devices for the chapters, and the accompanying Iñupiat voiceover gives you a good sense of their storytelling style.
When successfully completing feats in the game you unlock cultural insights. These are videos detailing the life of the Alaska Natives with talking head pieces and fantastic shots of the environment. They cover everything from the Northern Lights to the importance of group drumming and singing within the Iñupiat community. You can watch them as soon as you unlock them, or save them for later. Either way, they are well-produced and a great store of knowledge. You will be missing out if you don’t view them.
There are a few wrinkles in the game. In terms of the AI, occasionally you may find it jumping to its doom if you don’t switch characters fast enough, although it should be made clear this does not happen all the time. Also, there are times when the logical path ahead isn’t all that clear, reducing the gameplay to trial and error. Again, this is not a common occurrence, it happens often enough to frustrate.
But the true value of Never Alone lies in its ability to educate and convey ideas. It can either do this subtly (switching between characters emphasises the importance of teamwork) or directly (the cultural insight videos). The game does also include a co-op mode allowing a friend to join you and control your companion. Again, another fantastic example of the theme of teamwork (and a handy way of avoiding AI based mishaps).
In forgiving some of its minor flaws you will find a heart-warming experience that will prove two things. Firstly, that games can educate and entertain at the same time. And secondly, that some stories and traditions transcend time and are worth holding onto.
To sum up
Never Alone is an engaging journey that will provide a solid couple of hours of gameplay along with an appreciation of the Alaska Native’s culture. If you are looking for a platformer that does more for you than testing your reactions, Never Alone could be the game for you.
Version reviewed: PlayStation 4
Never Alone is out on PlayStation 4 on 26 November 2014 (very last minute delay) and Xbox One and PC now.