An indie game about a child and their companion braving the odds, developing a relationship all during a unique, stylised, cutsie adventure? There’s a dime a dozen of these indie games and while I’m not saying that’s bad, these games do have to be pretty special to stand out from the crowd.
Well Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) does stand out from the crowd. Upper One Games in conjunction with E-Line Media (entertainment and education publisher) and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (representatives of the Inupiat cultural group – Alaskan natives) have retold an Inupiat folk tale in the form of a video game. The cut scene art design is taken directly from Inupiat art and the game is narrated in the native language (with subtitles).
You play Nuna, a young Inupiat girl who befriends an arctic fox while attempting to discover the source of an eternal blizzard. Other myths are interwoven into the narrative such as little people, sky people and the story of the manslayer. You switch between Nuna and the Fox, using Nuna’s bola and young girl strength; and the Fox’s ability to communicate with the spirits to traverse through this puzzle platformer.
Never Alone is well-polished game with a surprisingly smooth use of character swapping and a reasonably seamless delivery of the documentary (giving you the option to watch it while playing or during loading screens). It’s a side-scrolling, puzzle platformer, so you can be assured that the majority of the game relies on well-timed jumps, manipulating platforms and avoiding enemies. The controls are reasonably responsive, though there were a couple of times where Nuna would keep running after landing… straight into icy water. And I got the impression Nuna and the Fox didn’t quite know the difference between climbing down from a ledge and jumping into the abyss. This all caused for a bit of frustration.
At first I was a little annoyed by the constant blizzard, something that just slowed you down if you didn’t press the ‘hunker down’ button. But this soon became a part of the platforming as the direction of the wind affected your jumps. And when you’re first introduced to Nuna’s bola, I was annoyed by the lack of reticle or any kind of aiming indicator. It took about half an hour for me to realise that she held her hand in the direction she plans to throw, which is a brilliant feature. Never Alone threw a couple of sucker punches in this general direction. Unconventional game design that initially surprised and annoyed me turned out to be reasonably creative. The developers really made an effort to interweave mechanics, visual design, educational value and Inupiat culture into a well-rounded game.
I wrote a piece over a week ago now talking about my opinion of education in gaming, this game being a catalyst for those thoughts. And while I came to the conclusion that Never Alone‘s educational value didn’t really come from the game mechanics; if used in a supervised, classroom environment, Never Alone could be considered a rather entertaining learning tool. Partially because of its knowledge delivery, but also partially because it can be played co-op (team play is so much more engaging).
And in hindsight, I wish I had played it co-op. You can only control one of the characters at a time and what the other character does in the meantime can lead to disaster. The other character follows the one you’re controlling, and the AI is intuitive most of the time as they go to the places required of them for the puzzle. But there were several instances where Nuna decided to jump off a ledge for no reason but to spite me. Or Fox would move out of range of the spirit Nuna was currently on, causing it to disappear. There were also a couple of puzzles which were poorly design with clunky timing.
So the game’s platforming mechanics weren’t overly polished which can drastically lower the quality of a puzzle platformer. Failing a game because you suck is one thing, failing because of poor design is nothing short of frustrating. So is it worth the $15 you’re likely to pay for it? That’s still an easy yes. It is only a short game, taking me 3 hours to finish. But it was exactly the right length. While I did find some the gameplay a hindrance rather than fun, it’s not so hard that you can’t push through it after a couple of attempts. Some of the unique aspects of the game and live-action story telling makes this a game I can recommend to most people.
The next review in 3 weeks will be on The Old City: Leviathan.
(Thanks to MostStrange for gifting me The Old City)