While some people make a fairly big deal about the lack of ethnicity represented in video games, it’s rare to see anyone actually do anything about it. Blacks and Hispanics are still by and large gangsters or other troublemakers. Asians are either the smart guys or in the Triad (or similar criminal organization). Essentially, saying that it’s rare for a game to actually feature any non-white characters in a prominent, non-stereotyped, role is like saying that the oceans are just kind of wet.
I think that this has a lot to do with why Never Alone (Kisma Ingitchuna) has been as incredibly well received as it has been. We have a protagonist who is a little girl (gasp!) by the name of Nuna, is of the Iñupiat people (she’s not white? double gasp!) and she goes off on an adventure to figure out why her people are beset by constant blizzards with her fox companion. It’s almost like a Disney movie in that it’s a very simple story that manages to be told in a very compelling way that grabs your attention. Mix that all together and you’ve got a game that’s going to get noticed. But underneath that is something of a problematic game that mildly interferes with this otherwise excellent product.
Never Alone is a very basic 2D platformer by and large. You will run, jump and climb your way across a number of wildly varied stages. The main difference between this and your run of the mill platformer is the fact that navigating the various stages requires careful use of both Nuna and her fox companion to proceed. Nuna has a bola that she acquires early on, a throwing tool that will she uses to break ice to clear a path for the duo. The fox meanwhile is able to sense and manipulate the spirits of the world around him, making them move around to help Nuna navigate the world.
With gameplay that simple it would be hard to mess it up and, by and large, it all works very well. Unfortunately there are a few hiccups that really throw off the flow of the game. There are numerous areas where Nuna is being chased by someone or something and you’ll have to move very rapidly through the tundra. Unfortunately in these situations the bola is very difficult to aim properly. It requires pulling the analog stick back and then flicking it forward to throw the stone. Normally you can aim it carefully but when under pressure it’s very, very easy to miss your shot which will get you killed repeatedly.
Another issue is that of the AI itself. Normally when you control one character the other one will follow you along very carefully, avoiding pitfalls and other dangers while you do the crazy stuff. Sometimes however the AI will do very stupid things, costing you progress. I’ve seen it walk off ledges, fall into the water or, in the Northern Lights level, walk right into harms’ way after I carefully positioned it in a safe spot. It’s an infuriating event whenever it does happen since that mistake pops you back to your last checkpoint which in later levels can get fairly sparse. You could solve this by playing with a second player but that’s not always going to be an option which leaves you at the mercy of the sometimes faulty AI.
With all of this said it’s not that the game is bad, far from it. It is a very charming game with a lot to like. I’m actually a pretty big fan of the fox’s game mechanics because of how basic but effective they are. Typically what will occur is that you will find come across a pit you cannot cross or a ledge that’s too high to reach. From here the fox will have to crawl through small spaces, run up and jump off of walls or otherwise platform his way up to wherever the spirits can be found. Spirits are drawn to the fox so they will move closer to wherever he is. Thus you have to carefully move him around, or find a spot for him to wait, so that Nuna can leap onto the spirit which can then be led to its destination by the fox’s movements. It’s a very simple but effective mechanic.
The first thing one notices about the game is just how gorgeous it is. The graphics are strikingly good considering that you’re basically just looking at white for most of the game. With white snow, hazy bluish-white sky and a snow white fox bouncing around through snow flurries one wouldn’t expect it to be quite as visually engaging as it actually is. But the almost hand painted look of the world mixed with the smooth animations just make for a visually engrossing game. Honestly everything is so well animated and the visuals are so enticing that I was rather surprised. For a first outing for a newly formed independent developer there’s a startling amount of quality at work here.
What really surprised me is that the game is actually a bit of a throwback in one major way – it’s kind of an edutainment game. That’s a genre of game so dead you can find dinosaur bones amongst copies of said games. But the game developers were clever enough to turn this educational stuff into bonus content, unlocked via game progress and finding spirit owls scattered about the environment. Each of these videos will showcase one or several Iñupiat who will speak in further detail about the story part in question. This provides insight into the morals of the story in question or just explaining how it fits into the Iñupiat peoples spiritual beliefs.
It’s a very interesting look at a group of people I have personally known very little about. Personally I’m a big mythology buff and have familiarity with the myths and stories of numerous groups of peoples but a lot of the various Native groups have been incredibly underrepresented in this regard so I eat this sort of stuff up. For a group that’s been so underrepresented in this regard this was a great outing that I’m happy to have been a part of.
Never Alone is a bit of a mixed bag gameplay wise, blending a few really good ideas with some dubious execution, but it’s far from bad. It’s simply a good game with a great, almost storybook, plot and a few flaws. If there is any real concern to be had then it’s in the fact that the game has a somewhat high price point for its rather short content. If you’re not interested in actually learning about the Iñupiat stories and have no interest in watching the various videos then you’ll want to wait for a sale. Only with that extra content is the game worth its price point.