I’m a sucker for historical and period pieces. They provide us with insights into lives beyond our own and showcase rich style and designs not often seen in the mainstream. Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in its native tongue) is a rare title that acts as a game as well as a documentary of Native Northern Alaskan peoples, their history and folklore. It’s an interesting challenge for a game to act both as educator and entertainment piece. Never Alone largely accomplishes its goals. Though there are issues, mostly with mechanics, the game is a worthwhile experience.
Nuna is a young girl of the Iñupiaq, her companion is an artic fox. The game requires you to control both characters, in order to traverse the harsh environments that are dominated by blizzards that seem to have no end. The weather has become so bad that the Iñupiaq people are unable to hunt and fish, and are slowly starving. Nuna and her fox set out to find the source of the blizzard and stop it. Her journey will be aided by the spirit powers of her animal companion and a native weapon she finds along the way.
Our story unfolds through a combination of simple cutscenes showcasing the native art style, and in-game segments presented in a cinematic aspect ratio. Both of these are voiced by our narrator who speaks in the Iñupiaq language with subtitles. The story plays on authentic folklore from the area showcasing the creative partnership the developers and the Alaskan Natives.
“We paired world class game makers with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to create a game which delves deeply into the traditional lore of the Iñupiat people to present an experience like no other.” One that draws,“fully upon the richness of unique cultures to create complex and fascinating game worlds for a global audience.”
To further inform us of the folklore and the characters that fill this fantastical world, there are full documentary pieces, marked as “Cultural Insights” on the main menu, unlocked throughout the game. You can find these clips, 24 of them in all, next to owls throughout the game. Once found they give you the option of watching them immediately. I chose to do this and at first it was a very jarring. We go from gameplay directly to full video of Iñupiaq explaining some of the backstory for a character, setting or object that has been recently uncovered in game. At first this seemed obstruct the pacing of the game. I found the pieces informative enough, that by the end of the game this no longer bothered me.
The charming visual style reminded me a lot of Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons, albeit confined to a two-dimensional representation and a color palette representative of the extreme arctic North. The world is displayed in a gorgeous blue monochrome, befitting of the snow and ice that dominate the landscapes of the area. There are layers of swirling snow that give the levels depth. Everywhere are little touches, such as snow dust blowing off the edges of various pieces of ice, and when the blizzard winds really blow they almost appear to be brush strokes painted across the sky. Your arctic fox companion is such a pure shade of white that it almost glows, which fits perfectly with the idea of the animal spirit and the magic it uses to help navigate the frigid scenery. It really is a beautiful, minimally styled game.
The sound pairs excellently with the visuals to give you the feeling of this cold and barren environment. The effects, here again, are minimal: the crunching of snow beneath Nuna’s boots, the lapping of waves against the icy shore, blizzard-strength winds blowing, the creaking of wood, and the calls of distant wildlife. They enhance the severity of the weather and the thought of this young girl and her fox, alone, trying to save the world that they know. The music is wonderfully understated, presenting itself only in key moments to enhance the unfolding story.
The game provides the option for controlling via the keyboard or a gamepad. After working through the game using the former, my guess would be that a pad is going to be the best option. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll have a frustration-free experience. The first issue many people are going to have is with controlling the bola, a traditional hunting weapon which is used for clearing paths in the game. There is no aiming reticle, and as such it’s very difficult to hit your target on the first or even second try. When a moment comes that requires a time-sensitive hit, a few misfires can become irritating, as you die and head back to the previous checkpoint. It is similarly easy to become discouraged with some of the jumps and ledge-grabbing, which don’t always behave as they should, causing falls resulting in deaths or re-climbing of entire sections.
The level design is fairly well done, only really lacking when it comes to issues related to the above-mentioned ledge-grabbing troubles and boss fights. The ledges come in in the form of wood, ice or snow-banks and “spirit” ledges. The spirit ledges are ones only revealed by the presence of your fox. I found my self jumping through these on occasion when missing the edges. There are a few areas which would be considered boss fights in the game. The first sees Nuna facing a polar bear, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the game wanted me to do in order to progress (hint: a lot of back and forth). The game just didn’t make it clear enough for me, maybe you will fair better. The second boss fight I found frustrating saw Nuna on floating spirit platforms, while an enemy flung fire at her from below. So inconsistent was the dodging mechanic used in this area that I died continuously. I was quite annoyed to find that staying almost completely still allowed me to quickly pass the stage.
Despite the quirks of some of the mechanics and levels design Kisima Inŋitchuŋa (Never Alone) is a lovely little game. It showcases the rich history of the Iñupiaq in an interesting way. While the game doesn’t provide a lot of replay: collecting missed cultural insights and possible speed-running, and is fairly short at 3-4 hours, I think it’s worthy of playing. It sounds as if Upper One Games and E-Line Media plan to explore more opportunities like this in the genre they have dubbed “World Games”. I look forward to their next entry.
PC Review copy provided by Upper One Games