Never Alone has a message – but first and foremost it is a truly beautiful game. It turns an ancient legend from Alaska Natives, the Iñupiat, into a harrowing yet enlightening journey through ice and fire. It's a platformer set in the harsh, frozen landscape of rural Alaska, starring a young girl and an Arctic Fox that calls upon spirits to guide her to the source of a foul blizzard ravaging her community. The game also features a series of short documentaries about the Iñupiat: These bits of reality are scattered throughout, between chapters and at checkpoints, and players can choose to watch or ignore them.
Never Alone is beautiful on multiple levels. The art is gorgeous, an exaggerated 3D style that seems to reference Scrimshaw and the cartoonishness of Majora's Mask in one fell swoop. The platforming action is harrowing and satisfying, for the most part, especially if you can bring a friend. The environments are elegant, filled with icy blues and deep, dark waters. The messages contained in the game's mini documentaries are enlightening and educational, inviting players into a world they may otherwise never see.
The bulk of Never Alone's emotional impact stems from the friendship between Nuna, the young adventurer, and the Arctic Fox that travels with her. The two brave shifting ice, torrents of snow and angry polar bears, depending on each other to survive. The fox is able to scale walls and call on spirits to assist them on their journey, while Nuna has a magical bola, a weapon made of rocks tied to strings, that she throws at enemies and spirit markings to solve puzzles.
The platforming itself is fairly basic – think Limbo on ice – though it can be delightfully fast-paced, like when Nuna and the fox are chased by a polar bear across chunks of icebergs that move with the waves and intermittently crush together. Players must time jumps carefully, figure out how to reach the tops of rickety wooden ledges, traverse frozen caves and even explore the deep waters inside of a whale. (Yes, inside.) Players must also be aware of the natural elements, at times waiting for the perfect moment to jump into a gust of wind and be carried to an otherwise unreachable platform – one of the most enjoyable mechanics Never Alone offers. The platforming rewards speed in some areas, patience in others and clever thinking in all, asking players to use abilities specific to Nuna and the fox in equal turn.
Never Alone can be played either alone or with a partner. Played solo, the game is vastly more challenging – a single player controls both Nuna and the Arctic Fox, switching between the two to solve platforming puzzles. In multiple instances, for example, the fox must climb a wall that Nuna can't reach. The fox's presence will reveal a spirit helper on the wall, allowing Nuna to scale the incline. This back and forth is exhilarating and satisfying, and it adds a level of depth to an otherwise straightforward platformer.
However, Never Alone is even better with a partner, as if it were designed to be played by two people (which would fit the name nicely). This feeling comes across strongest later in the game, when players have practiced all of the controls and the platforming ramps up in complexity. As a solo player, this is where Never Alone can become frustrating. Nuna may be atop a branch as a tree floats down a rushing waterway; the tree sinks as it travels, and if the branches dip underwater, or if she hits a hazardous outcropping and falls, Nuna drowns. To successfully navigate this area, a solo player will most likely die at least once – it's unclear what to do to avoid a coming hazard, and by the time you figure out that you have to switch to the fox to move a branch, Nuna has already fallen. These moments are at odds with the smoothness of the rest of the game, though, and they don't destroy the overall experience.
With a partner, you'll most likely still die a few times, but the second portion of the game doesn't feel as frustrating – in fact, it's a veritable breeze. This doesn't mean it's without challenge, but with each player controlling a dedicated character, there's no pressure to switch between the fox and Nuna at a moment's notice. Instead, Never Alone maintains its peaceful-yet-action-packed vibe, and its platforming puzzles are still immensely satisfying, though on a different level. Never Alone allows players to seemingly read each other's minds – Nuna and the fox run toward a wall and without hesitation, the fox scurries up the incline and brings an orb toward Nuna, who then throws her bola at it, releasing a helpful spirit and allowing her to climb the wall as well. The controls and level design are all so clear that this scenario can be completed without speaking to the other player, and when this happens, it is magical.
The fox and Nuna aren't simply tracking down the source of the blizzard, either. An evil man who throws fire has also ransacked her village, trying to find the bola and claim it as his own. Along her journey, she must outrun and outsmart him, finally leading to a deadly showdown. Never Alone is childlike, but it respects the capacity for maturity in all audiences, and it doesn't hold back when dealing with death. If Nuna is slain by a polar bear, the Arctic Fox whines and curls into a sad ball; if the fox falls off a cliff to his death, Nuna shrieks and covers her mouth. The screen fades to black, and players get a chance to try again.
Never Alone also includes touches of authenticity that save it from commoditizing Iñupiat culture. Instead, this is a celebration of a little-known way of life, as described through classic platforming. The narrative is partially told in the language of the Iñupiat, the voice of an elder man overlaying a written English translation.
One word sticks with me after finishing Never Alone: respect. This game is full of it. Respect for the Iñupiat, respect for nature and animals, respect for the things we can't control, and respect for those who try to change their community for the better. Never Alone respects not only these ideas, but it holds video games in the same regard, as demonstrated by the care clearly put into the mechanics, story and flow of the game. Never Alone is a glimpse into the real lives of Alaska Natives, and it's a peek at a different kind of fairy tale.
This review is based on a Steam download of Never Alone, provided by E-Line Media. Images: E-Line Media.
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