Never Alone, also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, is a short game (for PC, PS4 and Xbone) from Upper One Games with collaboration from the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. As a simple puzzle platformer with striking visuals and starring a small, lost child; you’d be forgiven for thinking of Limbo: Another simple puzzle platformer with striking visuals etc. etc. This isn’t where the similarities between these charming games end however: interesting ideas, harsh environments and unusual settings are common in both.
The story comes from folklore tales of the Iñupiat, natives of the Alaskan wilderness. A young girl, Nuna, travels out into the wild to find the source of a terrible blizzard that has clouded her village and is making hunting impossible. Along the way she meets an eccentric arctic fox; with his spiritual connections and her bolas, they have a legendary adventure passed down through generations of Iñupiat. The story is told through cutscenes made up of odd drawings (salad fingers springs to mind) and in game narration. Both combined, as well as the Cultural Insights which I’ll talk about later, provide a rich background from which the gameplay can naturally emerge.
You’ll be struck by the gorgeous artistic direction pretty quickly; the animated drawings, stunning colours and cute character designs definitely stand out in an industry full of gun-metal greys and browns. I don’t think it unfair to draw these comparisons between Limbo and Never Alone: 2D level design with stand-out visuals; whites, blues and greys compared to Limbo’s blacks and greys. It’s not a bad direction though; these almost mono-chromatic palettes are still refreshing to stare at, especially with the shorter game length. The lack of colour variety feels as beautiful as it is deadly; creating a bleak landscape in which Nuna (the girl) becomes lost, creating a real sense of bitter cold.
The gameplay draws other comparisons to Limbo: 2D puzzle platformer, child in hostile environment and puzzles that gradually more difficult as the game goes on. There are however two playable characters: Nuna, and the fox. Nuna is the focus of the story, while the fox seeks to aid her; he can bounce between walls, climb higher to kick down ropes and, most importantly, coax nearby spirits into being; allowing Nuna to access otherwise impossible areas. You can freely switch between the two or have someone take over the spare character; either method works quite well and compliments the other character amicably.
What doesn’t work so well are some of the later puzzles. Trial and error is the order of the day; the only way to figure certain puzzles out involves dying repeatedly. As you can imagine this begins to take the shine off of the charm of the story; it’s amazing how quickly you can become disinterested in Nuna when she refuses to correctly jump from a ladder onto a spirit platform. This is made worse by the numerous chase sequences; involving a polar bear, an evil wizard and an ice giant, although not all at once. Wind is another timed factor; it can either help or hinder your jumping depending on the direction of the gusts and often serves to annoy and slow progress. Some of these problems may have been resolved in the pre-release patch, but this update took effect after the time of writing, so my complaints may just be echoes in the void.
One of the main points that caught my eye was the Cultural Insights: short documentary style videos that are unlocked by collecting owls during gameplay. These videos are beautifully filmed; with sweeping shots of the frozen arctic tundra, worthy of a David Attenborough epic, interspersed between interviews of living Iñupiat folks. The natives explain their way of life, the background for these intergenerational stories that the game is based upon, and how climate change is affecting their livelihoods. It is both educational and interesting, providing a genuine drive to unlock these extras through gameplay while accentuating the unique setting that the game has. These insights are that something I would like to see more of in the industry.
In short; Never Alone is a charming game with a unique and refreshing setting and presentation. The story based in folklore meshes with the cultural insight extras beautifully, and even manages to educate along the way without being intrusive to the gameplay. I think the industry could take some examples away from Never Alone, just hopefully not the sometimes annoying gameplay that really breaks the immersion. At its worst: it’s like Limbo while being repeatedly punched in the back of the head. At its best: it’s an atmospheric peak into the world of the Iñupiat people that I’d recommend should you want more of Limbo or just an intriguing little experience to kill a day.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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