2014 has been one of the best years ever for indie development, with 2D side-scrollers being a clear favourite with developers when it comes to genre. While there have been some real gems released this year such as Shovel Knight, Rogue Legacy and Valiant Hearts: The Great War, it could be argued that the genre is becoming a little stale within the indie scene. Now to round off the year is Never Alone, a 2D platformer that was developed in collaboration with native Alaskan people, known as Iñupiats. An interesting partnership you might think, but does this translate into a quality game? In the case of Never Alone, unfortunately not.
As mentioned before, developers Upper One Games worked with native Iñupiats to help create an engaging and meaningful experience, and their influence is best seen in the game’s setting and story. Never Alone takes place in Alaska and follows an Iñupiat girl called Nuna and a fox, who both set out on a journey to find the source of a blizzard which is threatening to destroy the girl’s village. The story is mainly told through animated cutscenes between levels and a narrator, who is speaking what we assume is the native Iñupiat language while English subtitles are displayed at the bottom of the screen. We do appreciate the attention and care that has been taken to respect the Iñupiat community and their beliefs, but the story is far too simple for our liking. Nuna’s journey is never built upon throughout her travels to the source of the blizzard, and we felt rather indifferent about the ending once we reached it. The game’s story does have a small saving grace though, the developer videos you unlock as you progress. These videos focus on the Iñupiat people, their lives and the influence they had on Never Alone. They’re all worth a watch after you’ve completed the game and give the player a much better insight into where the developers got their inspiration from, and what influenced some of their design choices.
It’s clear that Limbo was a big inspiration for Upper One Games throughout development because the game handles and feels a lot like the 2010 release. But what sets Never Alone apart from most other 2D side-scrollers is the ability to play the game entirely through co-op, with one player controlling Nuna and the other governing the fox, and this is by far the best way to play the game. However, this isn’t to say that co-op is a fantastic experience, it just compares more favourably because the AI’s control over the other character within single-player is downright terrible. In typical 2D platforming fashion, the player will have to jump over gaps in the ice, traverse chasms using swinging ropes and solve simple puzzles to progress to the next area. It is here where the game’s AI severely lets both the player and the game down. We lost count of how many times we would successfully navigate a tricky section of the game, only to have our AI partner fall to their death and result in us having to play that section over again. It is incredibly frustrating and unfair on the player, and for that reason Never Alone is best experienced cooperatively.
When the game does work properly, controlling both characters is a decent experience. You can switch between Nuna and the fox on the fly with a press of the triangle button, and they’ll work in unison to traverse the environment and solve puzzles. One ability that is unique to the fox is wall climbing, which regularly concludes in the fox dropping a rope down to Nuna following a wall climb, and the two of them can move on together. The problem is though, these puzzles never pose any sort of a challenge to the player, they’re all far too simple and easy to work out. The latter stages of the game are slightly tougher, but we were never stumped for a solution for more than a minute.
Besides the Iñupiat influence, there is one other unique element in Never Alone, which are the spirits we meet and interact with throughout the game. The mysterious fox is the only character that can see the spirits at first, and once it interacts with them, they become available to Nuna too. Both protagonists can then jump onto the spirits and use them to travel through the level, with their main use being a way to cross huge drops in the environment. While these spirits are of course useful for progressing through the game, we’re never really given much context as to why they are there. Are they the spirits of fallen Iñupiats? We doubt we’ll ever really know.
Another gameplay element is wind, which will randomly blow towards the player as they roam through levels. At this point Nuna and the fox must both brace themselves, which is done through holding the circle button. However you can also use the wind to your advantage. There will be times when the wind changes direction and blows from behind the two characters, meaning they can travel further when jumping. This is a neat little aspect that both aids the player in solving puzzles and reminds them of the blizzard that is threatening to destroy Nuna’s home.
Never Alone breaks up its gameplay with chase sequences, but these do very little to build any tension or excitement. The menacing foe isn’t even really the enemy in these sections, it’s the game’s camera. There were many times when we fell to our deaths due to how slow the camera scrolls during these sequences. Any tension and excitement is completely sucked out of the game when we have to wait a few seconds for the camera to catch up with our characters, and thus continue progressing.
The camera is not the only technical problem either, as we experienced multiple glitches which resulted in either character falling through the environment and then to their deaths. We also encountered frequent audio cuts when the game’s narrator was talking, and while we still had the English subtitles to help us follow along, these cuts need to be fixed in a future patch.
We completed Never Alone in just three hours, and due to complete lack of replay value, we were very hard pressed to find any reason for playing through the game a second time. However, trophy hunters may appreciate this due to how easy it is to earn every trophy the game has within one playthrough.
It’s obvious that Never Alone’s Iñupiat influences took precedence throughout the whole game, and as a result its gameplay took a hard knock. Some serious AI flaws and glitches ruined any enjoyment we could have with the game, as we spent more time wrestling with its problems than actually gaining any satisfaction. Never Alone is just not an enjoyable or fulfilling experience, and that is why it is best left alone.