I recently finished up playing Never Alone, a PS4 title which I tucked away some months ago ready for a few rainy hours. It's a unique game which tells the story of an Iñupiaq girl, Nuna, and her companion, an arctic fox. Alongside the game – which is rich in cultural detail – short documentary-style videos are unlocked as you progress, giving some fascinating insight into the life and environment of the Alaskan natives.
The developers worked closely with the Iñupiaq people to ensure that the game was true to their environment and the narratives which are so important to them. Without wanting to spoil too much of the story, the game excels at creatively bringing to life the spirit of the harsh Alaskan environment and those who brave it. It is obvious throughout that a great deal of care has gone into making Never Alone an authentic interactive interpretation of its various source materials. It is with no joy that I reflect on how frustrating the game's mechanics can become.
The mechanical heart of the game is a fairly traditional platformer, something which depends upon tight, reponsive controls. From the outset, there is a weight and a lack of urgency to the jumps you make with Nuna. Never Alone doesn't trade on fiendishly tough platforming, but by its conclusion it demands a level of precision which it struggles to support. There are also a few platforms which don't always respond as expected, resulting in some I'm gonna make it! moments, only to inexplicably miss the landing and fall into the perilous chasms beneath you.
Compounding all this is the ability to tap a button and switch between Nuna and the fox. On its surface this makes for some nice single-player co-op puzzles, but it also means that whichever character you aren't controlling has a tendency to drift towards the one you are. This is absolutely intentional and the only way to ensure that one of the two protagonists isn't left behind. However, progressing into the back half of the game it sometimes feels like the level design outgrows this relationship. Too often I needed to scale some platforms with the fox, hopping back and forth across the screen, only to have Nuna step off a ledge trying to ‘keep up’. These sorts of moments aren't impossible to overcome, but they do start to add up and frustrate, making fiddly work of some nicely designed sections. Knowing what to do but not being able to do it is only fun as long you're aware that the limiting factor is your skill, and not the game design. As a developer, you have to inspire that feeling of: Next time I'll nail it!, not I'm nailing it so why do I keep falling?
I want to like Never Alone a lot more than I do. Its art is excellent, its story engaging (in a charming sort of way) and the inclusion of the Iñupiaq documentary videos is genuinely fresh and compelling. It's a great shame that the nuts and bolts of the platforming increasingly make it a tough game to get along with.