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Saturday, 16 April 2016

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna).

No Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress today, unless you guys want me to review the Chinese hardsubbed version. I mean, I don't want to do that, I'm waiting on the official English subs, which means that the review of episode two will be up this time next week.

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)

I've been distantly aware and interested in Never Alone for a while - a critical darling, it arrived on Steam to a chorus of praise for its interesting and striking art style, its exploration of the mythology and culture of Alaskan indigenous people, and for possibly being the first art game in months at that point with gameplay more complex and engaging than 'walk around and listen to tapes.'

Based on several Inupiaq legends and stories, the game follows a young girl, Nuna, an accomplished hunter who sets out to discover the source of the endless blizzard plaguing her village. While she receives help in the form of a friendly fox, she also encounters many challenges - a violent man who wishes to take her magical bola, a persistent and hungry bear, spirits of the Aurora Borealis, and a tremendous giant whose snow shoveling is the cause of the blizzard.

Praise should be rightly heaped upon the game's art direction. Consistently stunning and often breathtaking, Never Alone's graphics and environments convey the beauty and, often, danger of snow and ice startlingly well, and while the world is relatively empty, those creatures which do show up are well-designed and interesting to look at. 

Owl Dude, who really only exists to give Nuna some bola.

That, coupled with an excellent soundtrack and some great voice work from James Nageak as the game's narrator, means that from an artistic standpoint, this game deserves all of the praise given to it. It's a feat of artistry, one that a lot of care and thought was clearly put into.

So too was care taken with the story. It's clearly a pretty lightly sketched out story, but that helps it feel more like a legend or piece of folklore - the world of Never Alone doesn't revolve around Nuna, and her journey more often sees her very briefly passing through other stories, without pausing to find out what's going on. We never find out why the angry man is so obsessed with getting the bolas, or why there's a whale made of ice, or why the aurora spirits have chosen to hang around this particular ruined village, and in the context of the game, it doesn't really matter - they're just stories that happen to overlap with Nuna's.

As far as Nuna and Fox's story goes, its main failing is in how short the game is, and how little they interact - since the game is mostly without dialogue and mostly without cutscenes, it's difficult for an audience to get any sense of Nuna and Fox's friendship, or to become invested in it, and the game isn't really long enough or story-rich enough to compensate for that. The result is that at the dramatic turning point in the plot, where Fox is seemingly killed, only to rise again as a humanoid fox spirit, it's less emotionally touching than the writers probably intended it to be - and the same is true for when Fox leaves in the ending. I never felt overly invested in their friendship, so neither of these things produced a gigantic emotional reaction from me.

The Aurora Spirits are not good people.

Other games use clever tricks to give the audience an emotional attachment to a friendship between characters: Prince of Persia (2008) has the Prince and Elika start to exchange short little jokes during gameplay as they grow more comfortable with each other; ICO has hand-holding be an important game mechanic to make players more attached; Bioshock Infinite makes Elizabeth invaluable in battle. The only thing Never Alone does is require you to use both characters to solve puzzles, and that can sometimes be more frustrating than anything.

Because while the gameplay is generally fine - it's standard 2D platformer stuff, with an occasional foray into admittedly slightly frustrating chase sequences - it's in the cooperation between Nuna and Fox that the game falls down. Clearly built for multiplayer, when played in single player the result is that whoever you're not controlling at that present moment has all the self-preservation instincts of a lemming, wandering either straight into danger or, sometimes, just off the edge of cliffs. Many of the puzzles require Fox to hover near Nuna in order to manifest spirits that can be used as platforms and handholds, but if you're not controlling him, he'll sometimes just meander off, leaving Nuna to die.

A friendly spirit.

The game has a few other niggling, frustrating features too, like the wildly inaccurate and awkward to use bolas (which feature heavily in chase sequences!), and frustrating enemies like the aurora spirits. The fact that the game gives you checkpoints very liberally doesn't do much to help with any of these things.

All in all, while Never Alone is certainly artistically impressive, it was never really my cup of tea. The awkward and often very frustrating gameplay killed my enjoyment of it a little, and in many respects, I found myself glad that it was so short. That said, it's definitely one of the most unique and interesting games on the indie market right now, so if you're interested, I do recommend looking it up. 

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