Retellings of folklore is a common theme in videogames, but rarely has there been a game that presents a tale I’m not at least somewhat familiar with. Between my interest in Asian culture & numerous religious studies classes, it’s not often that I come across a retelling in game format that I haven’t at least heard about. But Never Alone has managed to be one of the few games to not only present a story whose origins I wasn’t familiar with, but to introduce me to cultural ideas that were completely new.
Never Alone integrates several legends from the indigenous people of Alaska to create a singular story about a young girl named Nuna who sets out from her village to find the source of an eternal blizzard threatening their way of life. Along the way, she is both hindered & aided by spirits, one of which is an arctic fox who joins Nuna to help her along her quest. As she searches for the storm’s source, Nuna & the fox must contend with Manslayers, polar bears, the souls of lost children, & other obstacles.
Developers Upper One Games describes Never Alone as an atmospheric puzzle-platformer. You control either Nuna or the fox separately, switching between them to solve puzzles to continue your journey. Or you can play co-op & one person controls each. The two have distinctive abilities that make them better suited for different obstacles. Nuna can use a bola, a throwing weapon, to break obstacles & can drag items. The fox can fit through small gaps, wall run & make spirits visible. As the game progresses, you’ll need to use both in tandem to solve puzzles.
Narrative: Although Never Alone weaves several indigenous stories together, I never felt confused by any of it. While the specific legends & contexts were different, I think anyone who’s ever heard at least one fairytale will recognize a lot of the themes. It’s about a girl overcoming supernatural problems much bigger than herself through wit. For the aspects that are unique to indigenous Alaskan culture, the game helpfully provides short vignettes that explain their significance. I also found the story to be told in an interesting way. The story of Never Alone is told through a combination of action & narration. There’s no spoken dialogue in the game, save for the storyteller narrating the finer points. Aside from that, the story is told by seeing, as you control Nuna & the fox. I really felt like it set the tone of this being a fable retold to a new audience, which I believe was the goal of the game. As for the story itself, I enjoyed it. I’ve always gravitated to stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things simply because someone has to do it (as opposed to some prophesied hero). And even without words, the game did a good job of showing the closeness between Nuna & the fox, which was adorable. Although I would like to point out that (if you read my First Impressions) I was right about the fox’s fate, though it wasn’t as depressing as I was expecting. So overall, I think it did an admirable job of retelling a story that is both new & familiar. Score: 4
Mechanics: Never Alone controls as you’d expect a puzzle-platformer to. You run, jump & climb. I liked that each character had unique abilities needed to overcome obstacles. The puzzles are also fairly well-done, requiring a bit of trail & error without being frustrating. For the most part, the game handled well, with a few exceptions. I found it a bit tricky to use the bola. To throw the bola, you have to move the R-stick in the opposite direction you want to throw it then move the stick in the direction. This works fine if what you’re aiming at something directly in front of you. But when you’re aiming at an angle, it can be hard to judge it. It doesn’t help that a lot of times you’re running from something when you’re doing this, & you can’t move & throw the bola at the same time. Another control issue was that whichever character you’re not controlling follows you. Normally, this is a good thing, except when you have to move a character to a different section to solve a puzzle for the other to pass. Frequently the non-controlled character will try to follow, climbing onto platforms they don’t need to be on. This is usually just a nuisance, but occasionally it got me killed. For example, in one section I had to move the fox to a higher platform to make spirits appear for Nuna to jump across. But when I controlled Nuna, the fox would move, making the spirits disappear & Nuna fall to her death. It doesn’t happen a lot, but enough to be noticeable. Also, towards the end of the game, it seems pretty apparent the game was designed for co-op, because a lot of the platforming challenges require you to use the characters in tandem. It’s possible to do these on your own, but it would be a lot easier if you have two people controlling the characters separately. Overall these are more recurring frustrations that do somewhat take away from the experience. Score: 3
Aesthetics: Overall, I found the game’s presentation mixed. On the one hand, the character models & designs are nice, but it can be difficult to notice this. Because of the arctic setting, a lot of the environments look barren & lifeless. And while that’s to be expected (I hardly expected flowers in the tundra) there are times when the game shows how detailed it can be. When the game mixes it up with lighting & shading effects, you get a glimpse of how nice it actually looks. It’s just that most of the time the game looks stark. But as I said, I do like the designs. I have to give them credit for the level designed around the ice giant. I wasn’t thrilled by the art style used in some of the cutscenes, either, but as they were using traditional art techniques it’s understandable. There’s also almost no music in the game, which I found confusing. I figured they’d want to demonstrate indigenous music, but for the most part it’s just the sound of the wind. So I guess overall, not bad but not as good as it could have been. Score: 3
Replay Value: Fairly low. Unless you want to play co-op, there isn’t much reason to play a second time. But once you beat the game, you get a chapter select option, so if there’s a portion you particularly liked, or you’re a completionist & missed a few vignettes, you can replay that section. Which is a shame, given how short the game actually is. Score: 2
Final words: Never Alone encourages developers to tell new tales, bringing the cultures of others to a new medium. However, while the game’s a fun little romp through a new setting, it’s a bit short for the pricetag. If you’re interested, I’d wait until the price goes down somewhat.
Title: Never Alone
Console: PC, PS4 & XB1
Developers: Upper One Games & E-Line Media
Publisher: E-Line Media
Release Date: November 18, 2014