Never Alone's failings don't diminish its importance
|Box Art N/A|
|Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One|
|Developer Upper One Games|
Never Alone wants to fill a gap.
From Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? to Oregon Trail, the power of games as teaching tools has been demonstrated countless times through the years. But puzzlingly, edutainment has remain mainly the purview of games aimed at kids.
Never Alone isn’t a textbook-style interactive CD-ROM, but it enrobes a fascinating cultural survey with a candy coating of game mechanics. The story and heritage developer Upper One Games and publisher E-Line Media is distinct, and its presentation is made with care. But the platformer built to help make this education easier to swallow is a little bitter.
On its surface, Never Alone is a serene, beautifully-rendered platformer in the spirit of Limbo or Braid. When her village is plagued by blizzards, a young Iñupiat girl named Nuna sets out — with the aid of a helpful white fox — to find their source and, hopefully, put a stop to them.
In many games, Nuna’s cultural heritage would be a helpful way of rounding out her character, but Never Alone injects that cultural identity in every crevice of the world she inhabits and the story in which she plays the starring role.
As you navigate the perils of Nuna’s vast, frozen world, you’ll unlock brief, expertly-produced videos
As you navigate the perils of Nuna’s vast, frozen world, you’ll unlock brief, expertly-produced videos that explain a facet of her people, an Alaska Native group called the Iñupiat. These 24 mini-documentaries explore everything from the value of caribou skin clothing to the importance of sharing to the Iñupiat’s survival, and, better yet, they’re related by actual members of the community.
While most games would exile these explainers to a sub-menu, Never Alone puts them front and center, frequently prompting the player to watch the clips as they’re unlocked and always tying them to the action of the game. For example, when a mysterious owl-man asks Nuna to help locate his drum, a video is unlocked which explores the importance of percussive instruments to the Alaska Native culture.
It’s not surprising that these clips are presented as keystones rather than diversions; Never Alone was developed by Upper One Games, which identifies itself as "the first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in US history."
So yes, there’s an agenda here, but it’s a noble one and it adds an immeasurable amount to the product as a whole. I’m a sucker for cultural documentaries, and the clips permeating Never Alone add up to a really fascinating one. It’s a shame then that the game that surrounds them is so underwhelming.
Never Alone isn’t egregiously bad, it’s just wholly uninspired. Nuna can jump, toss a traditional weapon called a bola and drag the occasional box. Her fox buddy can scale walls and summon ancient spirits that serve as platforms for Nuna to navigate the world.
Good games have been made from more mundane mechanics, but Never Alone rarely forces the player to think about how they need to be employed. You see ice, you throw the bola at it. You see a coiled rope, the fox needs to unfurl it for Nuna. It’s all completely rote and thuddingly mechanical. The game doesn’t even require much platforming precision until its later stages.
Never Alone is designed as a co-op experience, and though it can be played by a single player switching between the two leads, I would strongly advise against it. The AI pathing is absolutely terrible and I can’t tell you the number of times I completed a series of jumps only to watch in horror as my computer controlled pal leapt to their doom.
Towards the end of the game, when the pair find themselves more frequently threatened by enemies, it’s a Sisyphean task to navigate Nuna to safety and then instantly switch to save fox who sits patiently awaiting his death. Once my wife took over controlling Nuna, it was infinitely easier to keep the two alive.
Solo play pushes Never Alone from inoffensive to infuriating
Having a partner doesn’t make Never Alone more engaging or inventive, so the core issues remain, but at least they’ll keep you from wanting to pull your hair out. Solo play pushes Never Alone from inoffensive to infuriating and frankly should have been omitted entirely.
The game component of Never Alone does have some strengths. It looks great, with some lovely animation and stark environments. It sounds great, thanks to a sparse score and a mesmerizingly gruff narrator recounting Nuna’s story in the Iñupiat tongue. It’s tempting to wish you could divorce Never Alone’s entrancing, beautiful, heartfelt videos from its mediocre game, but you’d be doing them both a disservice. Hearing about a culture is one thing, but the ability to then walk around in that culture, to face enemies and traverse environments informed by that culture’s struggles really helps the information stick.
Never Alone's failings don't diminish its importance
Despite Never Alone’s failings, it’s an effective, important experiment in blending gaming and education for grown-ups and, as such, I find it hard to entirely dismiss. While I’m in no great rush to play it again, the appreciation I gleaned for a culture I knew practically nothing about is something I really cherish. If you can patiently plod your way through the game entwined with the story of the Iñupiat people, I suspect you’ll cherish them too.Never Alone was reviewed on PS4 using a download code provided by E-Line Media. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here. About Polygon's Reviews