Being from Canada, Aboriginal culture is a big part of Canadian society. Their history is taught in schools. Their contribution to Canadian culture is celebrated as part of other Canadian cultural events. They’re just as much a part of the cultural identity of Canada to Canadians as hockey and winter.
That’s why I was so interested in Never Alone. The game is a side-scrolling platformer based on the folklore of Alaska’s Inupiat people. Having learned about native folklore in the classroom and in museums, I was excited for a great interactive story based on some fascinating folklore. Instead, I got a game that wouldn’t seem out of place in a museum exhibit, both for better and worse.
Let’s start with the game’s strong point and that’s the story.
Maybe it’s just my upbringing here in Canada but Native culture has always fascinated me. Okay, all culture fascinates me but Native cultures are just so different from what I’m used to from western society. And Never Alone does a fantastic job of telling the story through the gameplay, hand drawn-looking cutscenes and the short lore videos told by Inupiat elders and storytellers.
This may not sound like a selling point of the game but if you were to cut out the gameplay, it wouldn’t feel out of place in any prominent museum in the world. I was at Science North (a science-themed museum in Sudbury) this fall and they had a travelling exhibit about Inuit culture in northern Canada. What was produced for this game was better in terms of presentation, information and production values.
As for the actual story of the game, you play as Nuna who is a little girl who meets an Arctic Fox and together they go on a journey. After Nuna returns to see her village terrorized by an evil pyromaniac type. She sets out to stop him and save her village from a blizzard that was causing problems before that guy showed up.
Nuna and Fox traverse the Arctic over ice floes, across snow drifts, through rickety structures, forests and underwater ice caverns to take them to the source of the eternal blizzard to save her village and the people in it.
And that segues us to the actual gameplay. The problem with the game is that for every bit as good as the story is, the gameplay was equally frustrating.
For the most part, you’re likely to see Never Alone played as a single-player co-op game. No, that’s not an oxymoron. You can control both Nuna and Fox but you can only control one at a time. The other character is controlled by the AI when you’re not in control and will keep up with your character but not really get ahead or solve any puzzles. To do that, you have to switch characters to the other one to use their unique skills to progress ahead. Nuna can move boxes and use her bolo while Fox can summon spirits to act as platforms and climb walls.
There’s nothing really wrong with the design of the gameplay on paper. In practice, everything feels slow and clunky and generally aggravating. I tried using a PS4 controller run through the DS4 Tool. The problem is that setup confused the game so it kept switching me out of single-player mode to co-op mode which got me killed. A lot. In co-op mode, it took the actions on my controller and did it for both characters because the game or my desktop thought I had two controllers. That’s not the game’s fault but it’s worth noting that.
Unfortunately, there’s no rebinding the controls. Using the straight PS4 controller (with no Xbox controller emulator), jump was on the square button which is utterly unintuitive for a platformer nowadays. I forget where the other controls were because I was not putting myself through hammering X and nothing happening.
So I went to mouse and keyboard. As an experiment, put all five of your fingers on QWEASD. That’s what it felt like playing this game with the keyboard. The mouse was only ever used for the bolo but I wish I could have rebound use to the RMB or something to make me feel like I wasn’t in danger of typing on my fingers.
Once you get past the controls, the actual platforming isn’t much better. You will die a lot while playing this game. The game likes throwing you in chase sequences and have gusts of wind screw with you, drifting ice floes move just out of reach of you while in mid-air, that pyromaniac dude bombard you and generally put obstacles in your way that take you too long to sort out how to get by. My issues with the wind and ice floes also carry over to when you’re not being chased.
I don’t mind a little trial-and-error on more complicated platforming or puzzle sections, especially if an error won’t kill you. In Never Alone, it seemed like platforming was constantly trial-and-error. If there was an achievement for never dying in this game, you could play this one hundred times and probably never pull it off. The trick with good platform design is that you make it hard to be perfect but give someone with just sharp enough reactions the ability to avoid sudden disaster or someone with decent pattern recognition the ability to smartly guide themselves through.
Aside from that issue, I often found that controlling Nuna and Fox was a bit like slogging through two feet of snow. Being from Northern Ontario, I’ve actually done this and know it’s hard to drag your feet through anything more than six to eight inches of snow without difficulty. This felt worse. Everything felt sluggish to move or to jump. Nothing felt particularly responsive regardless of which control scheme you use. About halfway through the game Fox goes from being your preferred character to one you wish you’d never have to control. It’s like they spent all their time on what you see and none on what you play.
Speaking of what you see (it’s sad when more effort went into the segues in this review than the heart of the gameplay of the game being reviewed!), the art of this game is fantastic.
Most of the drawing reminds me if you took traditional Native drawings and animated them for a children’s cartoon. The skyboxes (such that they are in a side-scrolling platformer) are among the best I’ve ever seen. You’re looking forward for the game to hit night so you can see the Aurora Borealis dance across the sky. It’s probably the best representation of it I’ve seen in a game (and yes, I’ve actually seen an Aurora in person because I live up north).
The cutscenes are actually done in the style of a slightly animated hand-drawn Native folk drawing. The little lore snippets told by Inupiat elders are all professionally shot and in HD without looking poorly translated from video to game as some FMV tends to get lost in that move from video to game.
The long and short of the graphics is that they’re the #2 selling point behind story and both are a long way ahead of gameplay.
People often talk about gaming as an interactive storytelling medium. Never Alone certainly falls into that category. The game takes traditional Inupiat folklore and puts you right in the middle of the story so that you are told the tale while being a part of it. That aspect of the game works beautifully.
The problem with telling a story in the game is that the game part has to work so that it’s seamless with the story. In the case of Never Alone, the gameplay gets frustrating to the point where I’d put the game down for days or a week at a time and never want to come back. Maybe it would be better in co-op but if you’re offering a single-player option, that has to hold up as well. In Never Alone, it does not.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) was reviewed on PC but is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Your impressions may differ based on platform played on, PC specs and your interest in the Native culture.