When the concept for Never Alone first made its way to me, I felt an enormous sense of pride for the industry that I, and countless others, dedicate my life to. Upper One Games, the first indigenous-owned game company in the US, pitched the idea of sharing a new sense of culture with us through generations of Native Alaskan lore, and that privilege was something that was both humbling and overwhelmingly exciting.
Now that I’ve been given the chance to regale the lore first-hand, I can see why my initial desire to play the game was both fervent and incessant. Never Alone is a testament to the power of narrative, and it’s ushering in a new way to pass along tradition through unconventional storytelling.
Never Alone inserts you into the life of Nuna, a young Iñupiaq girl living peacefully with her family in a place unknown, but thriving with life. One day, a powerful blizzard approaches the land, threatening to destroy the lives of every living being coexsting together, and Nuna sets out to rid the land of this unknown but powerful force. Joined by her newfound companion, an absurdly cuddly arctic fox, Nuna must face the trials of life to eliminate the threat and restore balance to the land.
The story, inspired by Native lore ‘Kunuuksaayuka’, is told through a master storyteller, a faceless, nameless entity that narrates Nuna and Fox’s every move. Through the use of the Iñupiaq language, Never Alone keeps the original essence of the traditional lore, allowing for an all-encompassing narrative experience. The subtitles never once interrupt the flow of the game, and more than once, I found myself completely lost in the story being told. It’s not too much to say that the narration gives Never Alone a sui generis kind of soul – one unrivaled by any other game of its kind that I’ve approached.
Every gameplay mechanic balances perfectly to fit around the ideas the story conveys. Consisting of only a very few number of select controls, the simplicity and minimalist system makes Never Alone infinitely accessible to a variety of players, whether you’re a veteran of the puzzle genre or not. The ability to switch between Nuna and Fox is an imperative mechanic throughout the entire game, and its execution is one of the most flawless parts of the experience. With the touch of a button, you can seamlessly switch between Never Alone’s two main protagonists, allowing for each of their special skills to shine in your time of need. Fox carries with him the ability to climb up otherwise inaccessible walls. Paired with his wall and ledge jump abilities, as well as his knack for finding ropes for Nuna to access, Fox is a key element when it comes to creating solid and enticing gameplay.
That being said, sometimes the AI for your non-selected character can get a little out of hand. It’s more of a subtle irritation than a game-breaking flaw, but I found that in a few instances, the need for your companion to follow you often leads to an unnecessary death, either by falling into a death trap or being scooped up by upset spirits. This is certainly remedied by the addition of a local co-op mode, allowing a second controller to be added, and control over your companion to be given to those you deem worthy — or whoever wants to sit on the couch with you. The game feels like a completely different beast with two players, but strangely enough, it could be argued that it enhances the experience. The level of constant cooperation brings an entirely new element to the gameplay, and you’ll have to combine and time abilities properly in order to advance.
Nuna’s abilities don’t revolve around animal-like agility, but rather encapsulate what it is to be human. The winds of the eternal blizzard are often her biggest foe, causing her to topple over endlessly if you refuse to brace yourself against it. Nuna is bound by her size, so she often relies on Fox to reach unobtainable places, but opposable thumbs come in handy when it’s time to do some rather heavy lifting — well, sliding — as pushing and pulling crates and boxes becomes important during gameplay. Perhaps the most important tool in Nuna’s arsenal comes in the form of her Bola. Traditionally made of braided sinew tied to bone, a bola is a throwing weapon and one of the most essential tools in the entire game. It’s used along your journey to clear paths through ice, taunt enemies you may encounter, and unleash helping spirits when the journey becomes tough.
Perhaps the most ethereal part of Never Alone rests in its articulation of the helping spirits. The spirit helpers, with the aid of Fox, pop up along the way to help guide you through your challenging journey. They make the impossible possible, and breathe a beautifully envisioned life into an already breathtaking landscape. Iñupiaq culture, from the outside, is portrayed as an incredibly spiritual way of life. Everything is connected, and everything exists to coexist. This is something that’s really driven home with the helping spirits. Some take a more ethereal form, showing up as faint whispers in the wind, while others take on a more human appearance — but all serve to guide you on your way. Not only is it a beautiful way to portray traditional narrative elements, but it serves as a unique element of gameplay. At some points, Fox is needed to help guide the spirits in the proper direction for Nuna, creating tense action-packed sequences that perfectly intervene between serene exploration.
Although exploration in the game is a bit one-tracked, there is certainly a little breathing room to venture off the beaten path — and it’s rewarding. Riddled throughout Never Alone are Snowy Owls. You can often hear them hooting in the distance, and trust me, you’ll want to find them. By finding these owls, you’ll be able to unlock one of the coolest and most interesting features of the game — cultural insights. Although many of these insights are unlocked simply by playing through the story, you’ll have to track down all the owls if you wish to gain a full perspective on the team and culture behind the game.
The insights themselves are something of a work of art. Working closely with the Iñupiaq community and other partners, Upper One Games produced a seres of short video that illuminate and enlighten players with insight on the story, the history behind the lore, and incredibly interesting facts and stories that center around Alaska’s Native People. Upper One wanted to sneak in a little bit of education into the game itself, and I’m definitely not complaining. I sat down to watch one video clip, but ended up viewing all 24 segments. These insights give players a chance to peer into a culture that’s transcended tradition, and it’s experiences like that that make Never Alone something quite special.
When I look for games, I always attempt to search for those with something deeper to offer. Narrative is something I hold so near and dear to my heart. So every once in a while, when a game comes along that encompasses the sheer beauty of storytelling, I can only hope it lives up to its promise. It’s been a while since I’ve been so deeply touched by a story than that of Never Alone, and it’s my hope that gamers everywhere will give it the same chance that I have. Iñupiaq culture speaks of Sila, a life-giving element; Never Alone stands as just that. It’s a game that’s breathing life into a dusty genre, allowing us to connect with a culture not our own through games — something that connects every one of us.
It’s certainly not without flaws, but in the end, Never Alone is one of the most solid and heartfelt games I’ve had the pleasure of playing all year. It builds tension in the all correct spots, offers a heart-wrenching but enchanting story, and forces you to often think quickly and critically about your next move through an endless series of engaging puzzles. It’s a game, a history lesson, and an enlightening experience all wrapped in a beautifully crafted entity. With a run time of around 4-6 hours, Never Alone is a game you’ll want to play, then play again. Then, perhaps, play again with friends. It’s a timeless story that will engulf both casual and well-versed gamers, and at $14.99, there’s certainly no reason to say no.
This review is based on a digital copy of Never Alone for the PlayStation 4 provided by Upper One Games.