Here I am the day after playing Never Alone wondering how to construct an intelligent review of reasonable length rather than just typing ‘Wow, take an immediate sick day and play it. The end.’ The hardest reviews to write are always the near-perfect games. I’m an ex-student of literary criticism. If required I can happily rip the crap out of anything. It’s easy to do. Criticism is easy, which is probably why the internet is filled with complaints that games are too long, too short, too formulaic and too different – and that’s critics all talking about the same game. An intelligent thousand word compliment is a little harder to write, but here is my very best effort.
Based on an Inupiat legend, Never Alone is the story of Nuna, a small Inupiat girl who searches the wild Arctic tundra for the source of a terrible and perpetual blizzard. It’s a huge task for someone so young, but Nuna – wait for it – is never alone. By her side is a pure white arctic fox, her only friend, and together they must help each other navigate the perilous terrain and stay alive long enough to sort out this storm business. It’s a simple story passed down through generations of the Alaska Native people, but despite its simplicity a staggering amount of care, research and work went into putting this narrative into the form of a game. Developer Upper One Games call Never Alone’s genre a World Game. To quote them, World Games ‘draw fully upon the richness of unique cultures to create complex and fascinating game worlds for a global audience.’ I interpret that as an experience of another culture through a video game. It’s an awesome idea and Never Alone is absolute proof that it works.
You are told the story of Nuna and Fox through the narration of an elder. It put me in mind of afternoon story-time, with everyone gathered on the big rug in the corner of the classroom, all eyes glued to the teacher. Everyone was so engrossed that a basket of kittens and ice-cream could have floated past on a pink fluffy cloud and no-one would have noticed. As the elder recites the tale, you play through his story in the form of a puzzle platformer. You can take the role of either Nuna or the fox and swap between them to overcome the obstacles put in your way. If you have a second controller and a spare person next to you, you can take one role each and play together. Unfortunately I didn’t have a spare person so I had to let my faithful PS4 take possession of the other character. The AI is surprisingly reliable. I only suffered three or four needless suicides, and the rest of the time the AI was intelligent enough to realise that big polar bears eat small girls.
The game’s mechanics are fine-tuned to near-perfection. It did take me a while to work out that if I needed to make Nuna jump a little further I need to hold the X button rather than tap it, and there were a handful of jumps the fox needed to make that needed very precise timing, but other than that, movement and navigation felt incredibly smooth. The fox, in particular, was wonderful fun to control. He’s fast and I loved his huge leaps and the scrabbling action that’s required to get up certain surfaces. He’s a cute little fellow. Where can I get me one of those?
This game is beautiful. Firstly, whip out your pom poms and give three cheers for the perfectly smooth framerate. Secondly, if you’ve seen the launch trailer, you’ll already know Never Alone looks stunning. The graphics have completely captured the haunting magnificence of the Arctic tundra, fusing its dreadful bleakness with something that feels magical. The environment itself feels like a character and it taps right into the story the elder is telling you. It’s an Inupiat legend that feels and looks like a winter fairytale.
While the game is easy enough, there are some challenging sections that require co-ordination and fast thinking. You’ll be the victim of a certain amount of chases and for this you’ll need concentration, nerve, speed and timing. Nothing is ever too difficult though. Never Alone is more about a cultural experience than being a tough bastard that leaves your DualShock with teeth marks. It’s all about atmosphere. This is a game with soul. A combination of the poignant story-telling, striking graphics and emotive music gives Never Alone a touching ambience right from the start. It came as no real surprise when I dissolved into a snotty tear-streaked mess part-way though. Never Alone oozes wisdom and understanding, and it’s this that makes it more than a game. It’s this that makes it an experience.
The game’s collectables are a unique feature. Rather than picking up documents, audiofiles or little trinkets, Nuna and Fox can unlock sections of a documentary about the Inupiat people. You can watch these mini films as you go along or save them to watch whenever you fancy it. I elected to watch as I played, and this gave a lot of context to the things both Nuna and I were experiencing– her bola, the children in the sky, the little people etc. I enjoyed the documentaries immensely. They didn’t feel intrusive, the quality was as good as anything you get from the BBC and they added great depth to the game. You’d be daft not to watch them.
Never Alone is a fairly short game. I played it over the course of a single day, starting mega early in the morning and finishing mid afternoon. In my extremely humble opinion, the game is best played straight through. I certainly didn’t want to leave the Never Alone world. I wanted to hear the end of the story and I was prepared to ignore multiple baskets of kittens and ice-cream. I wouldn’t have wanted Never Alone to be any longer for fear it would lose its impact. It felt just right and, no, you’re not paying your hard-earned money for a game that only lasts for a day. You’re paying for a touching experience that you will always carry with you. So, let’s skip all the way back to my initial thoughts. Wow, take an immediate sick day and play it. The end.
Never Alone is beautiful, engaging, touching and absolutely incredible. Stick ‘Amazing’ in an online thesaurus and it’s all those things. My greatest hope is that Never Alone will kick-start the ‘World Game’ genre, because this was one of the most moving and haunting experiences I’ve had on a console. Plus, I learned stuff.
S J Hollis Rating – 10/10