Never Alone is an interesting game for one very big reason: it was developed in partnership with Cultural Ambassadors—that is, actual Alaska Native storytellers and elders—in order to authentically tell a story inspired by the traditions of the Iñupiat people. This is made very clear. No one is going to accuse this game of cultural appropriation, as not only does all promotion for the game make its origin very clear, the actual game is full of video clips you can unlock through progress in the game which feature interviews and history of the themes present in the game.
This is all very cool, but now that we got that out of the way, I’m going to talk about the game itself. Because to me, a game is measured first by gameplay, second by a combination of its sensory experience and storytelling (they can make up for each other), and very little by anything else. Because although a gaming experience can be enhanced by things like fan-service nostalgia (looking at you, New SMB series), or in this game’s case, unique theme and development methods, in the end they can only do so much to contribute to the core gaming experience.
Let’s start with the look and feel. Never Alone does a wonderful job of pulling the player into the environment. The icy surroundings are beautiful and the main characters are cute but realistic. The cutscenes are composed of animated scrimshaw carvings (traditional bone carvings) and are perfect for the theme. However, in-game character animations tend to fall on the clunky side. The first playable scene in the game involves running from a polar bear, and the jumping animations of the bear look quite unnatural. The bear’s gentle landings give him no perceivable weight, as there is almost no register in the bear’s joints that he has just leaped between two floating icebergs.
For gameplay, you aren’t going to see anything particularly new here. The two characters have different skills, so you must switch between controlling Nuna or the fox to accomplish different goals, which usually amount to some combination of pushing boxes, hitting things with your bola, and scampering up walls with the fox. The basic platforming mechanics are here, with jumping being the most common activity, occasionally accompanied by things like swinging or climbing. The fox’s main duty involves summoning spirits, which act as dynamic platforms. A plus for those with a friend available is the capability of each controlling a character simultaneously. The gameplay is a bit lean overall, but it would be enough to qualify the game as a satisfactory platformer when taking into consideration the visually appealing scenery and cutscenes. However, playability issues are numerous enough to seriously detract from the gaming experience.
You will see many graphical/animation glitches. Collision detection is also not superb, so you will often see jittering or stalling animations when climbing an edge, standing near an edge, or dying—especially when crushed or falling into an abyss. Controls are also imprecise, which is the ultimate turn-off for a platforming game. There are times in the game where you need to make your character stand at the edge of a platform in order to make the platform move forward. In a polished game, this small task would require nothing more than a no-thought flick of the control stick, but in Never Alone it becomes a trial. More often that you’d like, your small flick of the stick will cause Nuna to walk several steps forward, tweak out on the edge of the platform, and ultimately fall. Also a note about AI, you lose whether you or your teammate die, and there will be several occasions where you make a jump, yet your bumbling pal will miss for some reason and fall to its death.
I also must add that I ran into three different progress-stopping glitches during the first hour of play that caused me to have to restart from the last checkpoint to continue. This is what ultimately caused me to stop playing the game altogether, because beyond the annoyance of having to restart a scene (which has the added side effect of bluntly reminding you that it is a game, thus destroying suspension-of-belief), it as well destroys the player’s confidence in the game. By that I mean that usually when stuck at a difficult puzzle in a game, the player can trust that the obstacle can be tackled, if only given enough thought and investigation. But when you have tried to solve a puzzle for several minutes, only to find that an error in the game was the real obstacle, you begin to question every puzzle’s integrity. And restarting should never be a part your inventory of puzzle-solving tools.
Never Alone is an adequate platformer, enhanced by beautiful scenery and cool Native Alaskan art and storytelling. But as it stands, the game fails to deliver a rewarding experience due to numerous errors, glitches, and a general lack of polish on controls, gameplay mechanics, and animation. Hopefully the developer has plans to clean some of these issues up in further updates.