I firmly believe that people can be both educated and inspired by video games. By playing out a story and performing actions within a game, creators can teach us about history and pass on information about a certain topic – if it is well designed, that is. This belief rings true with Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), a unique collaboration between a gaming company, educational group, and genuine Alaskan Natives. Developed by the all-indigenous, Alaska-based studio, Upper One Games, the team has created a one-of-a-kind storybook experience that gives players an inside look into the lives of the Native Alaskan Iñupiaq people and their culture. Presented in such a sincere and honest way, it strongly encourages players to want to learn more about these people, the way they lived, and their devices of storytelling.
The story of the game is based on a folk tale about a young Iñupiaq girl named Nuna. She is on a quest to find the source of an endless snowstorm, and to put a stop to it. Only then can she restore life back to normal and save her village. Together with the help of an arctic fox, the duo must face numerous daunting foes, including a charging polar bear and the ghostlike Sky People. Throughout the game, the story unfolds charmingly with narrations in the traditional Iñupiaq language and artwork carvings called scrimshaw, which come to life during animated cut scenes.
The level design is very reminiscent of Limbo in terms of landscape and platforms, but this isn’t necessarily a critique. The puzzles on the other hand, unlike the aforementioned, come across as being a bit too straightforward and won’t really offer much in the way of a challenge. I did enjoy the dynamics of playing as two characters as it gave me the same vibe as playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, but with a side-scrolling approach to design. All the puzzles and levels revolve around collaboration between the two characters, which did make these components more enjoyable as they would have been too simple with just one playable character. As you guide yourself through the game, you’ll also discover snowy owls that will unlock videos called “Cultural Insights.” You can view these immediately after unlocking, or within the main menu, which are worth checking out if you’re interested in learning more about the Iñupiaq culture.
In terms of gameplay, Never Alone is a standard platformer that doesn’t offer anything new to this established genre. You take control of Nuna and the arctic fox, and help them run across snowy ledges and jump over frozen waters. Using each other’s distinct abilities, you assist them into proceeding through the environmental puzzles ahead of them. The two complement each other’s skills and need to work together if they want to locate the source of the blizzard.
The arctic fox can jump higher and climb walls, as well use a special ability to summon the spirits that help the duo reach more complex heights. Nuna can pull or push objects to act as a platform, and she can also wield a weapon called the bolo, which is skillful in shattering icy obstacles that block your path. In single-player, you can switch between the characters, whereas co-op lets you and a friend control either Nuna or the arctic fox. In the single-player mode, however, controlling one character can often lead to the others death as they mostly emulate your moves for better or worse. The AI fails in that area, which is unfortunate as it somewhat kills the mystique of the experience.
The presentation of Never Alone is where this game shines most, but this often works best as a history lesson about to the Iñupiaq culture as opposed to defining the platforming elements of the experience. To clarify further, the entire game has a striking art direction that exudes their culture and spirituality, and, without fail, ties well with the documentary approach to the game. I found that the blizzard did hide a great portion of the scenery in the game, but there is still a good deal to look at, including frozen foundations, icy caves, and a truly fascinating cast of characters.
The soundtrack is very minimal, which subtly sets the tone for the lonely quest into this dark and unforgiving snowy terrain. The visuals and sound often complement each other, which really helps to radiate every facet of this vast icy world. The Cultural Insight videos, in my opinion, were arguably the most important and fulfilling aspect of the game as it gives you a real backstory and visualisation to their world. The videos are of exceptional quality, and provide a relatively in-depth look at the Iñupiaq people’s culture, history and way of life, told by Alaska Native elders and youth.
As a platformer, Never Alone is far from revolutionary but still delivers decent gameplay. It’s the cultural flavour of this game that makes it an extraordinary entry to the video game medium, however. The art style and audio are impeccable as it’s matched seamlessly with the narrative. There are a few technical hiccups that prevent the game from reaching full potential, but that shouldn’t stop you from giving this unique and insightful game a wholehearted try.
Please Note: This review was based on the XB1 version of the game, and was provided to the writer by the developer for the purpose of review.