Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Never Alone

Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa)
  • Publisher: E-Line Media
  • Developer: Upper One Games
  • Release:
    • PC / PlayStation 4 / XBox One, 18 November 2014
    • Wii U, 25 June 2015
  • Genre: 2D Action/Puzzle
  • Players: 1-2 Co-op
  • Cost: US$15
Previously on Indie-Cember, I reviewed Go! Go! Nippon!, a dating-sim visual novel which would totally have been a generic addition to its genre were it not for the context of exploring a foreign culture.  And because I have suddenly decided to arrange my reviews this month in some sort of narrative flow, I shall take on Never Alone, which does the same thing in the context of a platform-puzzler.  ...Well, shoot, that seems to have given away my opinion on the game right off the bat, but stick around and I'll try to explain myself.

Never Alone takes place in the world of the Iñupiat, an Inuit society living in northern Alaska.  The heroine of this story is a young upiat lady named Nuna, who goes out hunting one day and gets chased by a polar bear, only to be saved by a white arctic fox, with whom she goes out on adventures of some sort.  As you play through their adventures of some sort, you switch control between Nuna and Fox on the fly, as you utilize their differring abilities to solve platforming puzzles and move forward.  Nuna can push blocks and, once acquired, throw her bola to hit distant targets, whereas Fox can climb certain walls and call on spirits to serve as platforms.  The puzzles are no more complex than in, say, the Lego Star Wars games.  A co-operative mode is also available if you have a friend handy.
Some passages require the abilities of both characters,
such as Fox making rope spirits appear for Nuna to swing on.
I'm not sure the controls are firing on all cylinders, however.  Whichever character happens to be controlled by the computer can be a little sluggish in following your character's movements.  It's almost as if the game was trying to coerce you into playing co-op, eh?  Another specific gripe I have is how you throw Nuna's bola by holding the right control stick opposite the direction you want to aim in, and flick it across to throw.  I found this a very imprecise mechanic at all but the shortest ranges.  Honestly, it's at least as bad as the aiming controls in Yoshi's Island, admit it.  And sometimes, you have to do so while you're being chased by someone or something, and given that you'll only have one or two spare attempts to hit your target, the aiming becomes a severe liability at all but the shortest ranges.  At least you have infinite lives, checkpoints are frequent, and the overall pace of gameplay is quite leisurely, so it never feels too stressful.  Also, as I was playing the PC version, I got stuck with a bug where I ended up controlling both characters at once, rendering the game impassable early on.  This bug has been acknowledged by the developers, who have posted a solution here.  I don't know if this is true for everyone, but considering the persnickety nature of PC gaming, I feel I should bring this to your attention.

Never Alone is based on lands in the real-world Arctic, so naturally the setting is going to deal with a lot of ice and snow.  But, as we learned from Frozen, it is easy to make that sort of thing look pretty.  And despite it all, some of the chapters nonetheless manage to stand out in terms of the sites and sights they present.  For example, one takes place inside a giant ice whale, and another takes place on a cliffside village during an aurora borealis.  Granted, part of the notability of these levels comes from the mechanics they introduce.  The ice whale part introduces swimming (in which Nuna and Fox can never drown, as commented on by the narrator... I'm serious), whereas the other level I mentioned features aurora monsters which follow looping paths and must be avoided, lest Nuna and/or Fox suffer death by snatching.  So it looks like I've solved the mystery of why each of these levels were memorable despite all of them taking place in the same biome.  The soundtrack is ambient and, together with the setting and the relaxed pace of gameplay, does a great job of building the feeling that you are... well, not alone, because that would make a lie out of the title.
The game's setting is pretty much all ice and snow,
but some chapters mix things up visually.
The story is narrated at certain points by a storyteller in the Iñupiaq language (subtitled in English, of course), sometimes without breaking the flow of play.  There are cutscenes, of course, but most of them are presented in a quasi-animated, leather scrimshaw style, as if to mimic styles of art that are popular up there.  But those aren't the only cultural ties that Never Alone boasts.  Throughout the game, you can find owls which will unlock video clips, called Insights, to play at your leisure.  These Insights are mini-documentaries, only a couple of minutes each, about some Iñupiat cultural feature.  These range from their unique beliefs to facets of their everyday lives, and all of them have to do with something that happens in the game.  Indeed, members of the Iñupiat community helped write this game, and as such it really feels like those people are sharing themselves with the gaming world.  It is for that reason that for all its insubstantiality, I can't stay mad at the game.

At first I was going to liken Never Alone to DLC Quest, in that it's an ordinary 2D platformer buoyed only by its context.  But upon further reflection, I think Papo y Yo would be a more fitting comparison.  It's simple, relying on just a few mechanics for most of its puzzles, and it's heavily steeped in a foreign culture and presented with great imagination.  Either way, it's amazing the difference a little context makes.  Without any of the trimmings of its setting, Never Alone would just be another puzzle-platformer with no replay value and not even a lot of first-play value.  Also, US$15 is a bit much for an indie game, especially one this short.  But if you could take just a couple of hours out of your time to breeze through this game and watch all the Insights, you might just walk away feeling enriched.

Positives:
+ Puzzle platforming with a patient pace.
+ Unique and distinct level designs, even within the confines of an ice/snow theme.
+ Wonderfully ambient and emotive.
+ The cultural insight videos enrich the story.
Negatives:
- Clumsy controls, especially with computer-controlled characters.
- Only about two hours long, with almost no replay value.

Controls: 2 bolas out of 5
Design: 3 bolas out of 5
Writing: 5 bolas out of 5
Audiovisual: 4 bolas out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

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