Never Alone, also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, is an educational game. It tells a traditional Inupiat story of a young girl and her arctic fox companion and mixes this tale with video segments explaining the culture of the Inupiat people.
When your eyes finish rolling and you focus back on this article, your next takeaway should be that Never Alone also manages to be a particularly platformer, with interesting environmental puzzles and some tense (though often infuriating) action scenes.
• Developer: Upper One Games, E-Line Media
• Publisher: E-Line Media
• Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
• Also Available On: PC, Xbox One
• Release Date: 18 November 2014 (US) / 26 November 2014 (Europe) – updated
Like every other medium available to us, video games can be used to pass on cultural messages as well as stories. Never Alone is one of the first games I have been made aware of that attempts this and for the most part, it succeeds. It is actually a retelling of “kunuuksaayuka,” a story passed to the developers of the game by the daughter of an Inupiat named Robert Cleveland.
The game tells the story of Nuna, a young Inupiat girl, whose village is attacked. Meeting a mysterious arctic fox who seems to have a direct link with the spirit world, Nuna and her new companion must brave extreme environmental conditions to survive. As the name of the game suggests, the best way to play the game is with a co-op partner – though it can be tackled solo.
At the beginning of the story, you will feel powerless. Besides a relatively short jump and the ability to scale low platforms, Nuna does not start with a lot of tools to use in her adventure. When she meets the fox that becomes her friend throughout the game, their capabilities increase by quite a bit. However, when you get attacked by wild-life or other people, your only recourse is to run and avoid confrontation.
The first major ability you learn is actually through the fox. It can communicate with the spirits of the land and they will help you to progress. The spirits support you by becoming platforms, allowing you to bridge a normally insurmountable gap, or by allowing you to latch to them to scale steep walls. Spirits in later levels form more advanced platforming tropes like swinging ropes.
As Nuna, you will also get access to a bola – a throwing weapon with weights connected together with cords. This can be used to either break apart weak ice to allow you to progress, or to trigger spirits (by hitting floating targets in the environment.
Splitting up the platforming portions of the game are environmental puzzles and chase sequences. The puzzles are really well made. The limited number of tools available to you mean that experimenting can quickly give you a solution but some of them are real head-scratchers. On the other hand, the chase scenes are a mixed bag. While they do add excitement to the game, the controls are not precise enough to make the experience enjoyable. If you are caught by your pursuer, it often leads to a one-hit-kill that restarts you at the last checkpoint. There were a few occasions when I was getting repeatedly caught by a polar bear because the animation that triggered when I landed a jump kept on allowing the bear to catch up to me.
During these chases, you also have to know your surroundings. Thankfully, the game is better at telling you exactly what you are up against here. For instance, a soft noise will play before a gale force wind cuts across the screen, allowing you to brace yourself and avoid getting knocked back. Similarly, slippery ice is telegraphed by the shine it gives off, so we know that you will start sliding as soon as you reach it. These two aspects of the game actually factor into the platforming too as they both allow you to jump farther than normal, when used correctly.
As you progress through the game, you will encounter owls dotted throughout the landscape. Interacting with these unlocks brief interviews with Inupiat natives on various topics. During loading screens, these can be accessed by pressing the touch pad. The topics range from their philosophies to their hunting habits. The game’s story is also told through cut-scenes which use scrimshaw carvings to illustrate the tale. These are traditional drawings used in Inupiat culture to help tell stories.
The sense of place Never Alone evokes is stunning. The game uses the Unity engine and it is one of the best looking games of that engine I have seen. The weather effects, character animations and landscape visuals are superb. Married with excellent sound design, the game is truly immersive.
Even if Never Alone did not contain the extra cultural elements and simply existed as a fun platformer with an interesting story, it would still be worthy of high praise. The only thing that changes because of these additions is the game’s description – it goes from “a fun title I would recommend you play” to “an important title I would recommend you play.”