Some games are truly beautiful and – let’s not waste any time here – Never Alone kicks off with the potential to be one of them. Telling tales of the Alaska native Iñupiat people and their folklore, the game is part educational experience, part non-traditional side-scrolling platformer. While one half of that is really well done, the other one comes up wanting.
You play as an Iñupiaq girl named Nuna, as she tries to overcome a fire-lobbing monster that has destroyed her village, whilst evading other beasts that threaten to do her harm. Also, there’s the small task of finding and stopping the source of the constant blizzard that will prevent the people from hunting, although this goal isn't presented until right before you actually find the source, strangely. Alongside her is an arctic fox companion – named simply Fox - which can either being controlled by a co-op player or by yourself, utilising a button-press to switch between the two. The fox can jump higher to reach higher ledges and scramble up walls but most importantly, is in tune with the spirits of the game’s world. This means that if Fox is near to a tree branch that contains spirit powers for example, he can “activate” it, potentially moving it closer to Nuna so that she can reach it as a step to get to her goal. If there's no way of climbing, maybe Fox can magic up a spirit that will hoist Nuna up a cliff face on its back. If there's a large expanse of water, a fish spirit may appear to carry her across to safety. It's an interesting mechanic.
As we’ve said, Never Alone starts with a great deal of potential. A beautiful setting. A well-designed set of characters. Some really interesting educational vignettes about the Iñupiat and their heritage, and a story presented in an animated scrimshaw style really set the scene for what’s about to come.
The problem is that what’s to come is incredibly straightforward. If Nuna can’t just jump to something, you switch to Fox and wander around for a bit until a spirit appears. Then, you jump onto the spirit and continue on your way. Repeat until you finish the game. Some areas are slightly more puzzling, requiring you to have Fox in one place and Nuna in another before the solution becomes clear, but it rarely gets any more taxing than all that. What slows you down are gameplay issues. Jumping is a little spongy, so there are times when Nuna will just belly flop into the ice-cold water and expire, rather than make the graceful leap to the next platform that you wanted. There are times when Fox will make one wall jump, but then refuse to make the next, meaning that he falls to his death. There are times when the characters will pass away because the game has switched pace at breakneck speed, going from a slow, considered wander through the tundra, to a sprint and chase that requires you to switch between them rapidly and with the ultimate of precision in order to clear different obstacles out of the way. Those would be obstacles that you can’t actually see until it’s too late. Add that to the amount of times that the character you aren’t controlling gets snatched away by an enemy in the "Northern Lights" area of the game because they’ve decided to wander directly into the one spot that they shouldn’t be and you’ve got a full meal of frustration on a plate, with seconds on the way.
The biggest issue comes later on in the game, though. We’re going to avoid giving away spoilers here, but there are two sections where you’re sitting on the branches of a moving tree which has a tendency to sink into the icy sea. Fox can manipulate two or three of the branches to keep Nuna out of danger, but the tree moves in such a haphazard manner that you have absolutely no idea what to do, or what obstacles are coming up. It’ll step, shake, and lurch toward a fixed platform, which you grab to pull yourself to safety, but then the next time you reach an absolutely identical scenario, grabbing the platform is not what you want to do, as it'll ultimately kill you. It’s all very much hit and miss. In the final boss encounter – which is otherwise not even slightly tricky - we were stuck for a good twenty minutes in one spot, because the game decided to introduce a mechanic where if the ground is moving upwards, you get a boost to your jump height which allows you to reach the next ledge and proceed. That’s literally the only place in the game where that system is used, so we didn’t know that we had the option of using that ability.
To say that all these problems make Never Alone a bad game would be a tad harsh, though. In co-op mode, there’s fun to be had and the game is a lot easier than playing through with only one player. However, you won’t be playing for all that long. We spun through our first play in less than four hours – even with all of the forced retries. 24 genuinely interesting unlockable videos about the Iñupiat people are on offer, so there’s some replay value in going back through and picking up any that you missed. To be honest though, that first attempt saw us unlock all but two of them organically, and we nabbed all but three achievements, to boot.
Never Alone has its heart in the right place and is a wonderfully expressive and beautiful-looking piece of software at times. It’s a title that is capable of invoking serious emotional responses when the stars are aligned, but that doesn’t happen very often. Some will be caught up in the emotion of it all and overvalue the game. Take that emotion out though, and you’re left with a product that is very much a point-to-point affair that doesn’t allow for any exploration, is short, has little replay value, and who's main mechanic - the interaction between the two characters - has a tendency to fail at inopportune moments. We’d welcome more games from the developer as there’s promise here, but promise may not be enough this time around.