12 Months, 12 Games: September – Never Alone

I’ve set myself a personal challenge to complete one game a month from my collection in 2019, a mixture of larger studio published games and more independent titles to provide variety and avoid repetition. From one of the most well-known and praised titles to a more niche release, this year will provide me with the opportunity to enjoy a range of games within my collection and review them retrospectively. Enjoy the next 12 months.

Never Alone_20190906182350

“The weather did not clear up as a blizzard was followed by yet another blizzard”

Robert Cleveland (Nasruk)

Never Alone (PS4)

Developer: Upper One Games

Release Date: November 2014

Finished: September 2019

Released in November 2014 from Upper One Games and published by E-Line media, this critically lauded and Bafta winning platform and puzzle solving game is a narrative driven experience, utilising a voice over mechanic to bring to life the Iñupiaq tale, “Kunuuksaayuka”, a traditional folk tale originating from the writings of Robert Nasruk Cleveland about the journey of Nuna and her artic fox companion as they look for the source and cause of blizzards affecting her village. Lauded and praised for its collaboration with the indigenous tribes living in and around the Alaskan wilderness, whilst not reflecting contemporary tribal living it does work to bring to life the history and heritage of these people in a respectful and endearing manner.  It’s a world away from the open world environments and experience of recent titles and was a refreshing change of pace to explore, if only for a while, this unique and distinct culture. Few games tend to approach these topics and themes in a respectful and indeed, positive manner, to have the opportunity to explore and learn deserves a great deal of praise. With additional content available following its release, it has the air of a premium independent title, showcasing the mythology and heritage of these indigenous tribes to a new and curious audience. 

The narrative is fairly straightforward, young Iñupiaq girl Nuna and her artic fox companion set forth to discover the cause and resolve the menace of a series of blizzards striking and devastating her village. On her journey, Nuna and the fox traverse a plethora of hazardous environments from frozen tundras, the depths of the ocean and haunted woods and quarries.  The companions are confronted by a series of challenges both in nature with the menace of a polar bear pursuing the two friends and an overshadowing villain seemingly intent on the capture and destruction of the Iñupiaq village. Over the course of eight chapters, the narrative is driven by a spoken word tale concerning Nuna overcoming the challenges in her path. In this way, it set the game apart from many I have experienced in the last year, abandoning the traditional game structure of set chapters and objectives to a certain extent with the narrated tale detailing the moral and lessons along her path. This very much feels like a village elder bringing a story to life on this digital platform. We live in a world where so often when we come together our communal exchanges are formed around sharing stories amongst each other, factual accounts of our recent history for example, to use this mechanic in a gaming structure was a novel and pleasing change from the usual artificially contrived perils and menace encountered typically in video games.

“Abandoning the traditional game structure of set chapters and objectives to a certain extent with the narrated tale detailing the moral and lessons along her path”

Never Alone_20190906153128

Visually the game impresses, built on the Unity game engine I enjoyed particularly the interconnecting scenes that allowed you to see more of the detail of the main characters however these were largely few and far between and as such you spent a majority of the game from a wide perspective that afforded a reduced view of Nuna. Given the hostile environment of the tundras and blizzard conditions, in truth it was a challenge at times to actually pick out the details or design of the main character in contrast to her fox companion. Perhaps a reflection of the homogenous nature of clothing and traditional attire in these conditions, or indeed even a contrivance of modern gaming where you desire your central protagonist to have an individual look, there just wasn’t a memorable or lasting impression of Nuna to take away beyond the brief glimpses during the sparse cut scenes. You are left with the impressions it was a budgetary choice as opposed to a design aesthetic with the playable character form easier to program and capture in contrast to the more detailed image of the realised individual. In contrast, I did find the environments distinct and memorable despite the frozen and unwelcoming setting. Whilst there was a degree of repetition towards the end with certain assets re-used to some measure each chapter and element of the narrator’s tale felt unique and interesting to explore. I enjoyed also the environmental challenge of each area that felt different, the frozen waters, the spirits in the tree’s, the danger of the quarries.  Unlike the character’s, each area had a distinct and memorable feel, perhaps assisted by the relatively short time experienced in each area. 

There is perhaps a sense of self indulgence with the supplementary learning videos that populate the experience. They are never forced or required viewing, an aspect I do feel would have broken up the appeal of the game to a large extent and instead as you discover and unlock the various owl’s throughout the gaming world it provides a brief video detailing the culture and history behind the tribes and the reasoning behind many of the allegories and myths that perpetuate Never Alone. It’s a contrivance and indulgence of a great deal of titles that look to showcase and highlight the foundations and history of the development process, justifiable on occasion but certainly for the most part you don’t wish to feel overtly educated during a relaxing pastime. I’ll champion games and studios that provide the opportunity to indulge and explore the worlds and environments once the core experience is finished, I’ve written extensively on the matter over the last year however here, in this title I do feel given the nature of the title its fitting and appropriate. These videos are presented in the typical gaming mechanic of a collectable item, finding the various owls on your quest isn’t an especially tough challenge but adds an element of familiarity and expansion to what would otherwise be a fairly vanilla experience. With a download pack released that expands the games eight chapter narrative with new levels, whilst not a long experience it is a memorable and educational game to finish in its entirety. 

“I did find the environments distinct and memorable despite the frozen and unwelcoming setting”

Never Alone_20190906151938

The gameplay is somewhat simplistic though the progressive puzzle system is entertaining during the entirety of the campaign and features one of the more successful co-operative playing mechanics I’ve experienced to date. Certainly you do have the sense playing with another partner would bring a new dimension to the experience, playing on my own and moving between the two characters did add an additional challenge, certainly during the escape from the polar bear and chieftain who pursues Nuna and the Fox across the tundras. I enjoy these types of games the progressively build up your abilities towards the final confrontation and escape, a simple mechanic of rewarding progress with advancement as you learn the required actions and forward your momentum. Equally I enjoyed the fact there wasn’t parity between the characters, each had their own individual strengths and merits that complemented each other leading you to realise the role they played in the tale. One of the frustrations of modern gaming is the interchanging aspect of characters in terms of their abilities to the point they largely become a homogenized collective of multi skilled, interchangeable individuals. Why I enjoy titles such as these, there wasn’t a temptation even in the single player campaign to allow you to play the campaign with one character or another, you need the fortitude and skill of Nuna, equally the mystical means and tenacity of the fox to overcome the challenges in their path.

Sometimes, this didn’t always work to the best extent with a number of frustrating moments when the fox would fail to engage a puzzle mechanic resulting in Nuna’s death. Similar to other platform games of this type, any contact with the pursuing forces results in death and starting again from a checkpoint, mercy in this environment is for the weak. There is a sense of frustration when mortality catches up with you not through lack of skill or merit but through intermittently poor and unresponsive controls that punish you through no fault of your own. The terrain and environments are hostile at all points, the water lethal on contact, Nuna often falling to her death as you attempt to stop jumping onto a platform. I enjoyed the wind mechanic that is utilised to great effect however given the random and chaotic nature, you do at times have to game the game which breaks the immersion, standing still on the tundra as you wait for the weather pattern to cycle through the motions before progressing forward. It creates the illusion of randomness but clearly there was a cyclical nature to the wind currents but for long moments you find yourself stopped in your tracks waiting for the audio and visual signs the current was going to change to allow you to move forward. When this becomes a required function to progress, the frustration grows. Increasingly as the puzzles and challenges become more complex and the spirit platforms and segments grow more challenging the AI of the companion is stretched at points, playing as Nuna you rely on the Fox being close by to allow the platforms to hold their form, as he drifts away, you find yourself falling to your death in rage with your spirit animal.

“I enjoyed the fact there wasn’t parity between the characters, each had their own individual strengths and merits that complemented each other leading you to realise the role they played in the tale”

Never Alone_20190906163127

To measure or judge this game against established platform franchises such as Rayman or the traditional Mario games seems disengous however you do have to weigh the game on its merits and there are a number of faults to observe in addition to the positives. The game mechanics, critical to a video game are patchy at best and the handling suffers as the threats and puzzles become more complex requiring on functional AI in your computer controlled opponent to not wander off or fly into the space of green spirits. I liked the variety of puzzles, for a game of its run time it does introduce a number of different mechanics, never overtly complex or challenging in contrast to the aforementioned titles and series but certainly showcasing a number of the staple abilities encountered in its larger more complex peers. From a presentation stand point, arguably a victim of its limitations with the best views of Nuna and the Fox constrained to brief video moments before utilising a wide view perspective that reduces her to a much smaller perspective. This was a real shame as clearly the design work was present but not fully realised. The educational elements were informative and a nice welcome touch that introduces a culture and mythology alien to a more traditional western audience. It serves to educate, and in doing so accomplishes that aspect with merit, as a game, unfortunately it just feels sluggish and unresponsive. I would love to champion the unique culture and message of this title, I just can’t praise its core foundation, of being a video game to enjoy.

Golden stars rating template isolated on white background.

Never Alone_20190906165510

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog please ‘like’ the Around The Bonfire Facebook page and contribute your own stories and comments, and share my blog and Facebook posts (this is really important – it’s how we reach more readers!). Alternatively join us in the Twitter Universe  for a take on the latest gaming news or Instagram for a wealth of gaming pictures and stories.

One thought on “12 Months, 12 Games: September – Never Alone

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.