I have no idea how much can actually be said of Never Alone because of how simple it is; at its core, it’s a simple platformer with clumsy controls that also happens to be an adaptation of a popular story from the Alaskan Iñupiat people. There are some minor obstacles here and there that could generously be considered puzzles, but the solutions are always so immediately obvious that I’d mostly just consider it a straight-up platformer rather than a puzzle-platformer. The game’s also astoundingly buggy and boring to play when its chase sequences and boss fights aren’t being actively annoying, which leads to hilarious moments where you end up having more fun watching the included mini-documentaries about the Iñupiat than actually playing through the game. I think that says it all, really.
A no-frills story
From what I could tell from the documentaries and the narrator’s phrasing, the Iñupiat have an oral tradition when it comes to storytelling, and this ends up being a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives the story a great deal of focus and clarity that would obviously work well when told out loud, but on the other, the developers don’t seem to have elaborated on the story to better suit the medium. Granted, I’m not familiar with the story in question and I suppose it’s possible that they did, but a great deal of what happens over the course of the story feels bare-bones, very much “this happened and then this other thing happened” without any bells or whistles fleshing things out beyond that. The characters suffer the most from this, with both main character Nuna and the arctic fox who suddenly becomes her companion never really receiving anything in the way of characterization. They’re just stock “hero” characters who serve to wander around and expose you to the various mythology, and while there’s really nothing wrong with that, I was hoping for something a bit more substantive that could give the game some much-needed emotional weight. Right now the only character I can see anyone developing an attachment to over the course of the game is the fox, and only because it’s adorable. Still, I can’t blame the developers for not straying from the source material, so this is really just one of those “subjective taste” things that I feel the need to mention, but that I’m not actually holding against the game.
Cultural insights are little movies
Making up quite a bit for the lack of elaboration in the game’s story are the “cultural insights,” which are basically mini-documentaries on the Iñupiat that cover their way of life and beliefs. These are unlocked as you pass by owls while playing, and very few of these owls proved to be off the beaten track (I unlocked all but 3 or 4 of the videos just by playing normally, so you don’t have to go out of your way to find them). These are even placed so that the most recently unlocked video adds to your understanding of the scene you’re playing through, which shows great attention to detail, and there’s all kinds of concept art and such interspersed between the interviews. Including these little documentaries was an interesting decision given how out of left field the whole thing seems initially, but by the end I was glad that they were there and felt that their presence bettered the game.
The gameplay is atrocious
Platformers are one of those genres that end up being heavily dependent on the quality of the gameplay, so you’d think Never Alone would strive to create something memorable (or at least competent) in that regard. You’d be wrong, though, because everything about the gameplay is a mess. The most obvious problem is the strange momentum and the fact that you can’t change direction mid-air or correct your trajectory, both of which combined make it surprisingly easy to miss an easy jump. There are also a few moments where quick reflexes are needed as you’re required to quickly switch back and forth between Nuna and the fox. In one example that I happened to get video of, you have to drag a box as Nuna to move a platform below, then switch to the fox and make the jump as the box (and platform with it) slides away. You may notice in the video that the fox makes a weird jump that culminates in it hitting the edge of the platform and falling. That would be the physics at work, which seem to require a small running start to actually give you any kind of forward momentum (and even then, it seems to be either very little momentum or all the momentum with no middle ground). The whole thing feels wrong, and several jumps that I missed didn’t seem like they were due to mistakes on my part so much as the awkward inconsistency of the jumping physics. Needless to say, this is a huge problem since the entire game revolves around jumping, and it’s even exacerbated by the ubiquity of strong winds in many parts of the game that need to either be used to lengthen your jump, or avoided so that they don’t push you back and cause you to miss said jump.
Both characters have their uses
Playing Never Alone in single-player is kind of like playing both parts of a 2-player co-op game, which I suppose makes sense since this game can be played in co-op and seems to have been designed around it. The most obvious sign that single-player was an afterthought is the stupidity of the CPU-controlled character, whichever one that happens to be. It has an amazing talent for being blown off of ledges right after you climbed up, missing jumps, falling behind, and getting stuck in places where it makes no sense for it to be confused. It’s strange that it’ll try (and often fail) to make jumps, but climbing up a ladder to keep up with you is beyond its grasp for some reason. Either way, you’ll be switching between both characters often anyway because of their unique skills. The fox can scamper up ledges a bit before falling back down, and even chain these together with some Mario 64-style wall jumping if there’s a parallel wall. Not only that, but various spirits become visible in the fox’s presence and can only be interacted with so long as it’s near them. This can be a bit annoying because it means having to move slowly as the fox to avoid losing the CPU-controlled Nuna by accidentally causing the platform she’s standing on to disappear, but it’s an interesting gameplay mechanic nonetheless. Nuna isn’t quite as interesting, mostly just being able to move boxes and climb ropes and ladders, though she also ends up gaining a bola.
The bola is a huge hassle, though
Aiming the bola requires stopping, which isn’t a problem except for, you know, when you’re being chased. This can be either in the form of “run away” sections like the video above, of which there are a couple, or in boss fights. There’s one boss fight in particular against a polar bear where you have to lure it away with the fox and then hit it in the back with the bola (because hitting it in the face with the bola makes too much sense for it to work in the game), and if you get too close, it can turn around and get you before you have a chance to cancel out of the throw and run back to safety. It’s just not fun, and while I got slightly better at aiming the bola later in the game, being pressured in what amounts to timed sections is a great way of putting the less-than-intuitive throwing controls front and center and accomplishing little more than being annoying to play. Also, the bola isn’t used outside of these sections for anything other than breaking ice to proceed, which makes it seem weirdly tacked on. Ultimately, the bola adds nothing but more frustration to a game that was already swimming with it.
The fox’s second form is much less fun
I have no idea whether this counts as a spoiler or not (it strikes me as being in the same vein as things that are obvious given the type of mythology at play and that would thus be ridiculous to decry as spoilers, like “the Titanic ends up sinking” or “Zeus ends up proving himself a horndog”), but the fox ends up getting a second form. Suddenly it’s able to fly around the screen, and this isn’t fun at all. Everything that made playing as the fox entertaining in the first place is replaced with flying and moving objects so that they don’t knock Nuna off the moving platform she’s on, or slowly coaxing out things for Nuna to throw her bola at. I wasn’t exactly having a wonderful time before this, mind you, but this was the point where things became even worse. Gone was the cute little fox scampering about, replaced with a less-adorable form that seemed to exist solely for the sake of busywork.
Bugs and bugs and more bugs
I can’t help but be impressed by how many unfixed bugs linger in this game more than a year after its initial release. These can hit you at any point and under the most bizarre of circumstances. For example, not so long ago I loaded up the game again so that I could compare and contrast the gamepad controls with the keyboard and mouse ones (for those interested, the keyboard and mouse felt more comfortable and consistent, something exceedingly rare for the genre), only for the CPU-controlled Nuna to fall behind. There were no jumps or anything nearby since it was pretty early in the game, though, so I continued on and things were fine as the camera zoomed out to let me keep both characters in view. Then out of nowhere, the fox fell off the side of the screen to where I couldn’t see it anymore, and a few seconds later it died. I have no idea what happened, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and this kind of glitchy nonsense becomes especially prominent later in the game when it manages to be that much more irritating.
Take the below video as an example of the kinds of weirdness that await late in the game. Or, if you’d prefer something even more absurd, consider the area where I managed to fall through the floor, only to get trapped in an endless sliding animation that required restarting from a checkpoint. That’s not even a one-time-only thing, because I found falling through the ground in this area to be an easily reproducible bug, with it sometimes causing my character to die out of nowhere. What makes the game’s bugs so disappointing, really, is that most of them are reproducible like this, which is normally the kind of thing that would be fixed in a patch within a week. Again, Never Alone has been out for more than a year.
A minor quibble about the word “gee”
Maybe this is just me, but there are two points where the subtitles claim the narrator is saying “gee,” and this really got under my skin. I never realized before that point just how awkward minced oaths are in completely unrelated mythology, but they really, really are. Imagine if while reciting The Odyssey, Homer had randomly exclaimed, “Jiminy Cricket!” It struck me in much the same way, and I can’t help but wonder if this was a sloppy translation or something else entirely.
Dude looks like a lady
At first, the loading screens appear to recap the game’s events as they happen. However, I kept noticing that the gender was off, with these screens consistently referring to Nuna as a “he” for some reason. My first thought was that the early examples of this were actually talking about the fox, but it later became apparent that this wasn’t the case. As it turns out, the loading screens recap the original story that featured a male lead, whereas the game changed the main character’s gender. The only way you would know that and understand that the loading screen text doesn’t reflect this change, however, is if you went digging through Steam discussions until you found one of the developers’ comments on it. Some more clarity about this in-game would have been appreciated, because at first glance it looks like a sloppy mistake. That said, I’m not holding this against the game so much as bringing it up so that it doesn’t bother anyone else.
Forgettable graphics and music
The graphics and music, on the other hand, can absolutely be held against the game. The story revolves around a blizzard, which means that the graphics are constantly being washed out by bursts of white that make it difficult to tell where things are, and even when that’s not the case, there’s not a great deal of visually interesting stuff to look at. Everything is shades of white and blue, with the only departure from this being a short bit during which green aurora enemies swoop around the screen. Other than that, the graphics spend most of the time being bland, and the music fares even worse. Of course, that’s only really applicable when there is music, which there often isn’t. It makes the game feel barren and lifeless, and while I could accept that—and the little music there is being understated and unremarkable—being a stylistic choice, it doesn’t actually accomplish anything but making the game that much more unmemorable.