Also On: PS4, PC
Publisher: E-Line Media
Developer: Upper One Games/E-Line Media
On an ethical level, I adore Never Alone. It’s the first game made by a native studio, Upper One Games (in partnership with E-Line Media), and it’s an attempt by Alaska’s I?upiaq people to tell their own story, rather than having other people tell it for them. Not only that, the story centers around a girl and her arctic fox companion — not exactly your traditional gaming heroes. Considering that we’re talking about a medium that has produced the likes of both Custer’s Revenge and Gamergate, Never Alone’s very existence represents pretty amazing progress.
Even better, the game delivers on what it sets out to do from an artistic perspective. Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is gorgeous, and weaves in all kinds of I?upiaq and Alaska Native imagery in a way that games haven’t done — or, really, even tried to do — before. On top of that, the game’s story (or, more accurately, stories) centers around I?upiaq mythology, which means Never Alone goes into territory that games haven’t traditionally trod. Take those two things together, and you have a recipe for a game that, from an aesthetic perspective, delivers some truly fresh-feeling experiences. When else do you get sent on quests by owl men, or ride on the backs of animal spirits? There’s no way to describe it all as any way other than very, very cool.
Unfortunately, no matter how great a game’s ethical and artistic merits may be, the fact is it still needs to deliver from a gameplay perspective, and on that front, Never Alone falls a little bit short. For one thing, as a co-op platformer, it doesn’t do a whole lot different in terms of what it asks you to do. The setting and characters may be fresh and new, but they’re still operating within a pretty standard genre. The fox is a little more nimble and spry, the girl is larger and can throw a bolo, and…well, you can probably figure out the rest from there.
Being somewhat conventional when it comes to gameplay, however, is forgivable. What’s harder to ignore is that Never Alone features all kinds of glitches that will either cause instant death or force you to restart your console. During my time in the game I discovered ropes that couldn’t be climbed, icebergs that didn’t move the way they were supposed to, and terrain where you’d simply fall through without any explanation. And, of course, there were the death animations; while it starts out being heart-rending to hear the girl mourn her fallen fox, it’s a lot less heart-breaking when the fox is vibrating rapidly on the ground, all the while spinning around in a circle.
Oh, and apropos of nothing, I should also mention that some may find Never Alone to be a little on the short side, with a campaign that can be beaten in around 5 hours. If you’re like me, with an unending backlog and limited time in which to game, that may not be a bad thing, but if you want a really, really long experience, this isn’t it.
Ultimately, though, it’s the glitchiness that drops Never Alone from being a must-have game down to simply being a pretty cool achievement. The ideas are definitely there, and consequently I can’t wait to see what Upper One does next, but right now, I can’t honestly recommend Never Alone unreservedly.