In this day and age with people shouting from every mountain top and soapbox available, it should come as no surprise that a game like Never Alone exists,a game based on and around another culture and its mythology where you play as a young girl on top of everything else. It’s something that we're probably going to be seeing a lot more of and I'm all for it. I just hope those other games don't skimp out on the "game" part of it all.
Never Alone is based on the lore of the Alaskan Iñupiat. In it you play as a young girl named Nuna and a magical arctic fox. After saving her from a polar bear, the fox starts following the girl around through a giant blizzard. The entire game is narrated by a person speaking what I presume to be the Iñupiat native tongue, and it gives the feeling of listening to your grandpa tell you a story around a campfire, which is fitting. In between all the in-engine bits we have cutscenes drawn to look like old paintings you would find in caves and on native art and whatnot. All of this really helps sell the idea that this is another culture's story being told to us by another culture, and not filtered through white people.
When we aren't in the native art style, the game looks kind of weird. The fox and the polar bear look like they don't have enough fur on them, with their coats fading out as it gets further from the body. It gives them this balding effect and I can almost make out the naked model underneath it all. The girl looks fine, but I have a hard time figuring out if the trim on her coat is supposed to be frozen hair, animal bones, or it just glitched out. There are these huge triangles all over the coat and they look like something wasn't coded properly.
The environments don't look that much better. Sure, when you get to the caves and wooden areas, everything looks fine. But when things are covered in snow, it gets bad. The snow never looks or acts like snow. It looks like white dirt that the character models just clip through. And that's a real shame, because it looks like some effort was put into the game in regards to the snow. When you walk on ground level snow there's a slight bit of dust up, and when the snow gets deeper Nuna does a small hop with every step, which is how a small child walks in snow. Believe me, I'm Canadian, I would know. The snow never feels like anything more than a big texture, and it really bugged me.
But snow aside, where the game really falls apart is in the gameplay. You control two separate characters, Nuna and the fox. I think this game was meant to be played in co-op mode, with one person controlling Nuna and one controlling the fox. But I don't have any friends to play games with, so I had to play it solo. You can switch between the two of them at any time, and when you do the other character becomes AI controlled. Unfortunately, the AI is kind of stupid. So many times throughout this game my AI character would die or screw up puzzles because I had no way that I knew of to tell them to stay put or come or not be stupid. There was a level where I was controlling Nuna and had to jump between blocks of ice that were smashing into the ceiling (because video games). So I jumped and ran across the ice block to the safe area. The AI then did one of three things. He either ran into the safe spot with me, caught up to me then ran back into the crushing maw of death behind me, or overshot the safe spot and fell into the gap between the platforms and drowned. This happened so many times I almost gave up and stopped playing the game. But I eventually made it through there and made the jump to the final platform, completing the level. Or, I would have, if the fox hadn't missed the jump and drowned. Pushing us back to part where one of the previous three things would happen.
Speaking of jumping, it doesn’t feel great in this game. Like a lot of polygonal platformers nowadays, turning around takes off a lot points right off the bat. So many times I tried to make jumps but my character wasn't facing the right way, so I went a foot forward (or backwards) into a bottomless pit. When you do get the jumps right, you have to make it a decent way on to the platform or you will fall back on to the ledge and have to sit through the climbing animations. And then you have the wind to deal with, which is always fun. When it's first introduced, you're given the ability to brace yourself so you don't get thrown back. But almost every time you encounter wind after that first time, you're supposed to use the wind to propel yourself forward to make jumps. It's never really clear on when you're supposed to brace or use the wind, and since the place I'm supposed to be jumping to is blocked by the camera which I have no control over, I'm just sitting there cowering from the winds trying to figure out where the hell I'm supposed to go next.
Also there's the bola. Oh boy, is there the bola. You get this from a magical owl man who may or may not be your grandfather and it's absolutely terrible to use. What you do is, pull the right stick back to charge it up, then flick it forward in the direction you want it to go. There is no precision aiming with this thing. You just fling it and hope it's going in the right direction. And it's dependent on which direction you're facing, too.
The fox can scurry up some walls and wall jump, and it works fine enough. He can also somewhat control spirits. This is entirely dependent on his position on top of the spirit, which basically serves as a platform. When you get to a specific on the spirit, it will move. But, since you probably had to control Nuna to get her up on the platform, you will have to switch back to the fox to move him the quarter of an inch forward to get the platform to activate right. It never feels right doing this stuff and it really pulls you out of any kind of experience when you have to move that damn fox into the proper position.
I believe games being developed by and about people of other cultures is a good thing. I don't really go out of my way to learn about this stuff, but a game could get me interested and teach me something I didn't know before. Hell, this game even has a documentary series in it about the Iñupiat. But the game around all the learning stuff needs to be good. And I don’t think Never Alone is particularly good. The graphics and platforming aren't great, and the computer controlling the other part of your twosome is terrible. Maybe I would have had a different experience with the game if I had played this with a friend or, failing that, the fox that hangs out outside my house howling at me all night. But I didn't. I was alone in this, and I did not enjoy it.
- Published in Playstation 4