Never Alone is the perfect title for this Xbox One, PS4, and PC game for a number of reasons. Based on the beliefs and home of the native Alaskan Inupiat people, it features helpful spirits who guide a young girl through a journey. It’s also a game that’s best not played alone because the single-player gameplay can be terribly frustrating. However, playing with another person makes the experience much more tolerable and offers an enjoyable, albeit short game.
Never Alone follows the story of Nuna, a girl who ventures out into the tundra during a nasty blizzard that has caused her people to shelter indoors rather than hunt or gather food. Because of this her village is starving. Nuna is determined to find the cause of the blizzard in order to save her village. Soon after she leaves her home, she’s greeted by an arctic fox who accompanies her on her journey and helps bring to life various animal spirits to aid in her quest. Along the way Nuna comes up against a hungry polar bear, an evil man who seeks a magical artifact at any price, evil spirits of the Aurora Borealis, and even the weather itself. The story is told by a narrator in the native language of the Inupiat and occasional scrimshaw style cut-scenes that really give you some insight into the culture of the tribe. The narration in particular was something I especially enjoyed. It made me feel like I was sitting around a fire, hearing a story by a wise elder.
Never Alone is a platforming game with some light environmental puzzles sprinkled in. Nuna must traverse a number of environments including snowy terrain, burned-out villages, ice flows, a dense forest and the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. The game can be played by two people—with one controlling Nuna and the other controlling the fox—or by a single player who can switch between the two characters at any time. Both characters are necessary to the gameplay as they each can traverse areas the other can’t. Nuna has control of a bola, a traditional weapon used by the Inupiat, which is used to break ice barriers and hit targets to make the spirits appear. The fox has the ability to scurry up high walls and find and move targets into a place where Nuna can hit them. The spirits take the form of various animals and provide platforms that enable you to get through areas you otherwise couldn’t. Halfway through the game, these platforms can be pulled by the fox to move Nuna across gaps and up and down tall walls. The blizzard also becomes an element of the gameplay, serving as both a hindrance and a help to Nuna in different places. The puzzles involve figuring out how to manipulate the environment so you can get past certain areas or outsmart enemies.
With two people playing, Never Alone offers a great opportunity for communication and cooperation. With one person playing, it’s an exercise in frustration. This is because whichever character you’re not playing at the time becomes controlled by the computer. The computer does its best to keep the characters close together, but in practice it frequently fails to do so, many times to your detriment. I often found the fox leaping off a platform to his death while I was controlling Nuna. Other times the fox would venture too far away from a spirit platform, causing it to disappear while Nuna was standing on it. Nuna would also miss jumps that she could easily accomplish if I was controlling her. If either character dies, you have to start over from the last checkpoint. Luckily, the game is very generous with the checkpoints, so you never lose much progress. However, for me many of the puzzles turned into figuring out how to keep the computer-controlled character from doing something stupid, rather than figuring out how to navigate the environment, and that took away from my immersion in the story.
As you’re playing the game, you encounter owls that unlock short National Geographic-style videos that give additional insight into the Inupiat culture. Everything—from their relationship to their harsh environment to their traditional clothing, artwork, and music—is featured in these videos. As an adult I found them interesting, and they helped to further explain some elements from the story. However, since they’re completely separate from the core gameplay, I doubt that kids would choose to watch them on their own. If you’re interested in this aspect of the game, the developer has put together a parent guide that gives more insight into the Inupiat people and gives tips on how to play the game with kids.
This section includes information that gives away a major plot element. If you’re concerned about not finding out the story in advance, you may want to skip this section. The game’s artwork may make it appear that the game is aimed at kids, but Never Alone is rated T with a content descriptor for violence. The evil man who wants to take the magical bola from Nuna throws fireballs at you and “kills” you if he gets close enough, but no blood is ever shown. The most disturbing violence comes when the the man catches the fox midway through the game and snaps his neck before throwing him at Nuna’s feet. Even though the fox stays with you in the form of a spirit boy in a fox outfit, I found that scene particularly shocking and somewhat disturbing as well. In addition, if the polar bear catches the fox, he will grab the fox in his jaws and shake him violently, but again, no blood is ever shown.
Never Alone is a unique game in that it offers some insight into the culture of a native Alaskan tribe that most people probably aren’t familiar with. As a cooperative game played by two people, it’s a simple and short but enjoyable experience; as a single-player game it proves more frustrating than fun.
[Update: The ESRB rating for Never Alone has been amended and is now E10+ with a descriptor of “Mild Violence.” It is also now available on Mac and Wii U.]