Never Alone (or Kisima Inŋitchuŋa to its friends) is something of an anomaly. It’s a game that should have existed long ago. It’s a co-op puzzle platformer developed by Upper One Games, working in conjunction with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The council are a non-profit organisation, who work with indigenous groups in Alaska’s urban areas. Upper One Games was formed by the council, and it’s the first indigenous-owned video game developer and publisher in US history. All proceeds of the game will go towards funding the council’s mission, and the expansion and preservation of the culture of these indigenous groups. Never Alone is an exploration of traditional Iñupiaq culture, through a girl named Nuna, and her artic fox companion, and their quest to stop an eternal blizzard plaguing their land.
So far, a great story, a heart-warming idea to explore a little known culture and create a fascinating video game at the same time. All that would be for naught if the final product turned out to be awful. Never Alone was formed as part of a series that “shares, celebrates, and extends culture” but there’s a large swathe of the gaming population who are exclusively interested in the core gameplay. A tight combination of light puzzling and simple twitch platforming with a gorgeous art style and a dedication to revelation of Iñupiaq culture that is inspiring. The game is side scrolling left to right, and you can opt to play as both characters, or play on co-op where one controls Nuna, and the other controls the fox. I can’t recommend co-op highly enough over single player. It was an incredibly fun experience, and really builds on the sense of friendship and teamwork that the game wants you to feel between Nuna and the adorable fox. Never Alone is straight forward enough that even non gamers could come to grips with it, and it’s the perfect game to show to that person who might have been on the fence as to whether video games were for them.
The game follows roughly the traditional story of Kunuuksaayuka, as told by Robert Nasruk Cleveland. It also delves into other legends, including those of Sky People, Manslayer, the Blizzard Man and the Little People. It moves through these stories fluently, diving in and out of tales in between chapter cut scenes and through extra supplemental video diaries. The game moves through its own simple story of Nuna and her artic fox friend, leaving her village to stop the blizzard that is destroying their homes and livelihood. Along the way, they encounter, puzzles, peril, and various characters from other legends.
The only unlockables are cultural insights, gained from finding owls that are often in plain sight, other times fairly well hidden. On my first run through I was missing one insight and I was compelled to go back and find it, not because I am a completionist (which I am) but because the videos are so fascinating. They’re brief little diaries featuring the Iñupiaq people talking about their culture, revealing small family stories. There’s also some gorgeous footage of the native fauna, the vast landscape of the tundra, and the Northern Lights in full swing. The stories from the people are incredibly enjoyable, and the insights can be viewed at any point in the game, providing you’ve unlocked them. Dipping in and out of the gameplay and videos at each chapter’s end is a fantastic way to learn of the culture and then see it in action as you explore with Nuna and the fox.
The game deserves to be lauded purely for being about something other than white males shooting things in the face, and it’s another step in an excellent direction for gaming. Never Alone is a cultural and educational tool that feels like neither, a game with the right level of challenged leveraged by an incredible art style, music, and direction. The gameplay is nothing new but evolves nicely over the course of the brief story, as you unlock new powers, and a mid-point moment of crushing sorrow soon blossoms into an organic moment of joy, and a feeling of serenity, of being one with nature, as well with a complete overhaul of how the game plays. Never Alone will take you maybe four or five hours to finish, at the most, and the insights probably total about half an hour of extra video content. The length is perfect and the game ends leaving you wanting more.
There’s little replay value, but then again, the value of a short, contained experienced that can be finished, digested, enjoyed and discussed in a matter of days cannot be understated in our world of huge games filled with side quests and pointless filler material. Never Alone also has some minor technical niggles, with characters sometimes getting stuck in walls or failing to jump the way you tell them to. Also, the bola item that Nanu collects about a quarter of the way in is nigh on impossible to aim with. The control scheme for it is intuitive but just doesn’t work.
These are small blemishes in a big and beautiful picture, and the game provides frequent checkpoints to alleviate any frustration you might feel. The most difficult puzzles will only stump you for a matter of moments, and the game carries an immensely satisfying feeling of forward momentum, of a journey to there and then back again. The art looks hand painted, with vistas of white snow and blue ice providing a beautifully, solitary world. A world of emptiness, a world of myth and spirit. This is a game that everyone should play, if only to see the cultural and educational value video games can hold without feeling like you’re being lectured. Upper One Games has promised that this will be the first of many “World Games”, exploring different cultures and peoples. I can’t wait to see what they do next, if it’s as accomplished as Never Alone, then it will be something truly special.
For more video game and movie reviews from Jason Purdy, check out his Youtube channel, Polygonasaurus here: https://www.youtube.com/user/Polygonasaurus
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