Nominated for a Game Developer's Choice award for Best Debut, the Never Alone game is a very promising start for Upper One Games. The story is heartbreaking but, unfortunately, so are the frustrating gameplay and controls—which slow down and distract from an otherwise wonderful experience.
Never Alone Game Pays Tribute to Native People
But first, the good. Upper One Games, the first game company owned by indigenous people in the United States, has gone out of their way to make Never Alone a respectful journey through Iñupiat folklore. The story is told in the Iñupiak language, giving it a credence that wouldn't be possible without Iñupiat involvement. Short, optional documentary snippets provide more cultural context for the story, helping players understand how the folklore reflects the values of Iñupiat life.
And the story is wonderful. As a young girl named Nuna and her fox companion, the player sets out to find the source of a never-ending blizzard. Aided by helpful spirits, chased by polar bears, and besieged by terrifying child spirits who want to play football with her head, Nuna makes her way through the harsh Alaskan winter—all the while demonstrating the resilience and community values that are at the heart of Iñupiat life.
Enriched by ghosts, magic, and beautiful scenery, Never Alone is the perfect blend of folktale archetypes and unexpected twists. Though you know everything will likely turn out okay in the end, there are still genuinely shocking moments peppered throughout. The world is an unforgiving one, and the game aims to portray that ruggedness realistically.
Frustrating Controls and Glitches Drag Down Never Alone's Story
Unfortunately, not all is right with Never Alone. Though the puzzles are often clever and require some quick reflexes and thinking outside the box, there are multiple issues with wonky controls and the occasional glitch that leaves Nuna hovering on perfectly stable platforms before plummeting to her death. Throwing Nuna's bolas (a throwing weapon weighted with bones) is an exercise in futility—sometimes the weapon goes where you want it to, sometimes it flies elsewhere, and sometimes the game just switches you to another character instead. In boss battles, that brief moment of switching characters unexpectedly is enough to get you killed repeatedly, leading to rage-inducing frustration.
Playing with two players would certainly ease some of the frustration. The game allows—if not encourages—local co-op, with one player controlling Nuna and one controlling her fox friend. This would eliminate some of the game's AI issues, which are especially aggravating in puzzles that require a lot of quick movement. Switching back and forth between characters to tweak positions and change platforms is fun when you finally get it...but after ten to twenty solid minutes of trying to jump, switch characters, move, switch characters, move, switch characters, and so on, the brief adrenaline rush of flawlessly flipping from the fox to Nuna just isn't enough.
Though a recent patch integrated customized keybinding and improved AI, some parts are still more difficult than they are fun for a game like this. And that's the real issue with Never Alone. The story is lovely, but having to replay the same puzzle so often in a game like this just isn't working. In games like Super Meat Boy or Spelunky, you expect to die, and the story isn't the main focus of the game. But in Never Alone, the draw is finding out what's going to happen next. It's not about staying alive, it's about progressing, and, for the easily frustrated player, progressing might not happen at all.
Never Alone Has a Lot to Love if You Can Overlook Issues
The gameplay problems are such a shame, because there are a lot of things to enjoy about Never Alone. The story is great, the puzzles are tricky, and there's enough innovation and evolving of each mechanic to progress the game. It's tempting to give this game a better score because of the obvious care and love that went into creating it, but the sheer frustration of repeating boss battles because of funky controls seriously detracts from the fun. Even so, Upper One Games is a studio to watch, and their future seems promising as they continue to improve on their debut and learn from first-title mistakes.
If you're inclined to rage-quitting or you aren't a platforming fan, Never Alone probably isn't for you. But if you're willing or able to overlook frustration—or you have a friend to ease up some of the AI issues through co-op—Never Alone is an experience worth having and sharing.
Never Alone game is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on Steam.