Review: Never Alone

Never Alone is a something of a missed opportunity more than anything, with simple mechanics and uninspired design.  The game requires a lot of trial and error, with frustrating pointless death and truth be told there are far better games out there in this vein. Unless it's on sale or you find the culture fascinating, your money would be better spent on Abe's Odyssey New 'N' Tasty.
Review: Never Alone
Date published: Apr 15, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Never Alone is an indie puzzle-platformer developed by Upper Line Games and published by E-Line Media. Never Alone was one of those games that came, and had much fanfare about it from an indie perspective. It became an "Indie darling" overnight. Everyone raved on about the social ramifications of a game like it and praised it for the cultural aspects hidden in the game, but is it any good? I decided I would take it upon myself to explore it as it's currently free on PSN plus. So here goes.

The story for Never Alone is based upon real Iñupiaq culture and stories. A girl named Nuna becomes lost in a snowstorm, and struggles to head home. She is attacked by a polar bear, and meets a fox who helps save her from  the beast. Realising she's lost, the fox guides her back home and reveals it is no normal fox. Upon arriving at her village, she find it has been razed to the ground by unpleasant men searching for something. She is chased by one of the men and forced to flee from her village.

Never Alone switches between artistic sort of stick figures in a story book setting for the cut-scenes, as well as some events happening within the game engine. The characters aren't really all that likeable but there is one or two moments that you will feel for the pair and identify with them, regardless of the cultural gap. Nuna encounters all sorts of creatures and communes with the spirits in order to find her way home. The character I found most likeable was the Fox, and even then that was only for the first half of the game. Sadly, the plot doesn't seem to make sense without understanding the culture and while there are hidden "Insight" scenes that are done in a documentation fashion that reveal more on the culture, it didn't manage to keep my interest

The platforming mechanics of Never Alone are pretty simple

The gameplay for Never Alone is fairly straight forward. It is a side-scrolling platformer with puzzle-solving elements. You can control Nuna or the Fox, switching between them at will. Throughout the course of the game you will encounter spirits. The fox can converse with these spirits to provide platforms, ladders and all sorts of different way for Nun to traverse the snow-barren wasteland. The fox can talk to them and control them along the way to help Nuna. Another aspect of the game involves the snowstorm itself. Some area will require Nuna to jump at the right time as a thick gust of wind allows her to jump and further. Nuna also acquires a special tool later on in the game that can be used to break the ice and allow her to progress.

The platforming is pretty basic with jumping puzzles, spirit puzzles, and boss battles. The boss battles—if you can call them that are fairly basic and require you to solve a puzzle. They never entail you having to actually stay and fight, while some actually encourage you to run. Nuna isn't a fighter and in every situation if she is hurt by anything she will die. Same goes for the fox. If either of them die while playing them the game reloads. Either character dying counts as a fail, but luckily the auto-save points are generally fairly decent.

Never Alone's platforming mechanics rely heavily on trial and error to overcome a janky physics engine

It's a good thing the auto-save is fairly decent too as there's a lot of trial and error. Occasionally the messed-up physics will cause you to die pointlessly and you'll die quite a fair few times before figuring out your next path. The puzzles aren't hard, but the game isn't clearly signposted and you will often get lost, being unsure of how to progress not out of difficulty, but due to level design. This causes you to over-think solutions and can be very frustrating when you finally figure it out. There's only one solution to every problem as well, so if you can't grasp it you're stuck til you do.

The art design is rather uninspired if well-animated

Graphically Never Alone isn't particularly special. The models are very basic, although the fox does look gorgeous. The environment is barren and incredibly bland. It's just snow, ice, crevices, ice caverns, the occasional underground mine and frozen lakes and oceans. The game present it decently enough but ultimately Never Alone is kind of an ugly game. The animations look fine, so the facial features of character models somewhat strange, and the weird storybook cut-scenes are off-putting—looking like something I used to draw when I was 8 years old. It's not a deal breaker, but there's just a plethora of things that really make the game unpleasant looking. The water looks great, as does the occasional tree or the particle physics from sections involving thick parts of the snowstorm. Ultimately though, no-one will rave about the game for its appearance and the engine looks like it's several years old.

The sound design does its job decently enough. Emotions seem to be conveyed properly in the story, but I honestly wouldn't know as I don't speak Iñupiaq and the entire game is voice acted in the language. The voice acting does suit the title though as it would e somewhat weird to have english speaking VAs in a game like this that is so ground in the cultural basis of Eskimos. The music is mostly ambient and there's nothing that will really stand out to you. The music is soft except in tense situation where it picks up slightly. The wind howling and blowing does pull you into the world of Never alone however and helps with immersion. The cracking of ice, howl of the blizzard, the footsteps in the snow. Everything sounds correct.

The problem with Never Alone is it tries to be more than it is—a fairly run-of-the-mill platforming title. It tries to set out on this grand epic story that ultimately doesn't really make much sense without Iñupiaq context. I tried to watch some of the Insight videos but ended up losing interest rather quickly. Maybe I'm globally inept but life in such a hostile unforgiving place like Alaska didn't pique my interest. The developers really care about the cultural however—you can tell. every aspect of the game has been deliberately crafted as such and while I didn't like the couple of hours I spent with it, I don't feel I wasted my time. 

The Final Word: Neutral - Never Alone is a something of a missed opportunity more than anything, with simple mechanics and uninspired design.  Unless you find that cultural angle particularly enticing, however, there are much better games in this genre, and you’re better served waiting for a sale or purchasing something like Oddworld.