by Jed Pressgrove
Note: This review was made possible by a review copy of Never Alone from E-Line Media.
Never Alone shoots itself in the foot with its best part: the inclusion of brilliant documentary footage of Iñupiat people and land. In this traditional game of jumping and character switching, you gradually unlock mini-documentaries about the Alaska Native group/culture that inspired Never Alone. In fact, the game encourages you to suspend play to watch the segments rather than relegating the videos to main-menu content. This admirable structure has the unintentional effect of exposing Never Alone’s lack of sophistication, pleasure, and beauty as a game.
While the documentaries, along with fantastic in-game narration by James Nageak, connect the audience to an overlooked culture, the game reconnects us to the frustration of platforming banality. The boring action in the first half of Never Alone does not serve the goal of cultural authenticity. Instead, the effort resembles a Yoshi’s Island-meets-Lost Vikings novelty without the classic charm or challenge.
The girl protagonist is Yoshi, opening new passages through the art of throwing. Her arctic fox companion is more interesting to play as, but most of his tricks are by the books: scrambling up walls and untying ropes for the girl. The fox’s most unusual ability is spirit summoning, a double-edged sword. While this ability grants more of a unique platforming identity to match the cultural lesson, the more precarious second half of Never Alone underlines the shoddy game design that is present from the beginning.
Never Alone suffers from Secret of Mana syndrome. Like Secret of Mana, Never Alone has single-player and multiplayer options but would’ve been better as a multiplayer-only game if judged by the (un)intelligence of computer-controlled companions. A single player can only control one character at a time in Never Alone, so the companion character shouldn’t hinder progress, especially since the game restarts from a checkpoint if one character dies. Unfortunately, the computer-controlled companion in Never Alone will inexplicably commit suicide in various situations. For example, you might jump over a pit with no problem before your companion, instead of following suit, incorrectly judges the distance of the pit and falls to its death.
This poor design is complemented by the game’s ugly visuals. While the game claims to be based on a classic Iñupiat story, the documentaries show that the game mostly fails to capture the beauty of Alaska and this native culture. Granted, the story is intended to be dark and tumultuous, but the warm personalities and natural grandeur in the real-life footage are far more satisfying. The documentary induces awe with the green Northern Lights; Never Alone reduces awe with the lights as green obstacles. The documentary emphasizes the sense of community and selflessness in Iñupiat culture; meanwhile, Never Alone protagonist finds her village burned yet doesn’t display any emotion about this loss or being separated from the family/community, despite the narrator telling us that she does! Without the documentary bits, Never Alone would be never appealing.