When I was given the opportunity to review Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna in Iñupiat), I was curious. A puzzle platformer developed in Unity, in which you get to control 2 characters with aesthetically pleasing graphics based on Northern Alaskan mythology? Sure, sounds interesting. After a few hours of puzzles, deaths and Iñupiat culture, my curiosity was rewarded as I finished the game pleased by the result. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
It Would Be Really Nice to Hear A Story
This game is part of a new paradigm of gaming, called “World games”, in which stories from indigenous people are presented in game form in order to celebrate and make them known to the rest of the world. Never Alone is the first game produced in close cooperation with an indigenous organization, the first commercial game to feature so many elements from Alaskan Native culture, the first… you get the point. It’s the first commercial game about Iñupiat culture in which Alaskan Natives have had a hands-on development position.
Storytelling represents an important part of Iñupiat life, for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s how they pass down their ancient stories and life lessons from generation to generation and secondly it was one of the few moments during the day when they could relax following the daily struggle of living in the frozen north. So, naturally, the story of the game sounds a lot like a fairy tale.
It starts with a little girl minding her own business, hunting ducks and seals alongside the rest of her community. The status quo is shaken when an abnormal series of blizzards renders the village unable to hunt. Determined, she embarks on the hero’s journey to find the cause of the blizzards and put a stop to it. Almost immediately, she gets attacked by a polar bear and start running. She is shortly joined by an arctic fox that saves her, thus becoming her companion for the rest of the game. This being an animist culture, it’s a no brainer that the fox can sense and influence the nature spirits all around them in an attempt to help the pair along on their journey. Returning to the village, the pair find it destroyed by a firebending maniac who is searching for something. The girl acquires a weapon (named bola) from the Owl Man, it is revealed that this was the object the villain was searching for and so begins the chase. I will not spoil the later developments, but it was necessary to mention the story inception.
On the Rocks
Being a puzzle platformer, it’s full of puzzles involving platforms. There are multiple gameplay elements to touch upon, so let’s start with the main enemy of the game, nature. The dangers of the environment come in many forms, from the classic endless pits, to the occasional spikes (icicles in this case). A love/hate relationship will develop between the protagonists and the wind. The gale can influence the pair, blowing them a few paces back if they don’t hunker down and wait for the intensity to reduce. Another enemy is represented by the natural barriers which will inhibit you moving forward (in other word, the puzzles). These can be anything from an impassable chasm (which you can jump propelled by wind) to cliffs which can be passed only with the fox’s help.
Another terrifying enemy is the Aurora Borealis monster. The mythos is that they are actually spirits of dead children who, if you draw them in too much, will play football with your head.
Nature may be your greatest enemy, but it can also be your friend. An example of this comes in the form of spirits which transform into platforms, makeshift ladders or ropes and can be influenced by the fox.
The girl has a few moves to get her along, starting with the basic jump, influenced by the wind either positively or negatively. Secondly, she can move certain objects to gain height or for other purposes. She can also duck in order to avoid the wind (ability shared by the fox too). Lastly, she has her trusty bola, with which she can either smash ice or objects to form new paths, free spirits etc. or summon spirits from spirit balls.
Apart from the shared abilities, the fox can run up walls up to a point and then jump away from it, onto a ledge or another wall. Also, it can awaken spirits and guide them slightly (later in the game it will gain a greater control of them). The interesting thing is that when the fox isn’t close to a spirit it just vanishes, which adds a dimension in some puzzles. Lastly, the fox can toss down a rope that the girl can climb, when one is present.
You can switch between characters at any time to solve various puzzles, but there is a limit to how far they can get from each other. And speaking of puzzles…
Puzzle Me This
Most puzzles in this game are mobility driven, involving the fox navigating up walls to throw down a rope or awaken spirits or the girl moving an object to climb on, shoot a spirit ball or ice to create a new path. However, we do have some notable exceptions.
For example, the chase scenes, in which you have to quickly switch from character to character as efficiently as possible in order to keep going. Then you have the boss fights, each won with a simple yet smart strategy (I won’t spoil them for you). Finally, you have the ones where I just had to scratch my head. There are a few and it might take some time to figure out exactly what to do (pro tip: increase luminosity. You will thank me later). One puzzle in particular had me stumped for half hour, just because of a red herring (a bug) in which I could make the fox run up a wall of air onto a roof, and from there I would become stuck because there wouldn’t be anywhere else to go.
A particularly interesting zone is the inside of a whale, where you can swim and can actually break some ice to let more water in to reach certain spots. It is also where I almost became lost. There is another zone where you have moving trees which slowly submerge and you have to find a way off them by having the fox move spirit branches. The piece of resistance is of course the finale, which I’m not going to spoil, because it’s enjoyable and intense.
The graphics are pleasing to look at, nothing groundbreaking but they fit the overall tone and Alaskan Native art style (scrimshaw). The chapter beginnings are done purely in scrimshaw, while game cutscenes are rendered in the game style.
In the sound department everything’s just fine. The polar bear in particular sounds great, the music complements the atmosphere and the blizzard sound is chilling.
In conclusion, this is an excellent addition to the indie puzzle platformer genre, a game which shines light on an intriguing culture by taking a story (in this case Kunuuksaayuka) and transforming it into an enjoyable, occasionally mind bending and all around solid experience. I, for one, am looking forward to what other stories this “World game” genre will shine light on in the future.
Rating: EXCELLENT (shite, cash grab, mediocre, good, excellent).