Video games as art seems to be the most recent movement within the genre and the latest evolution in what art is and can be, from giant names like Myst, Shadow of the Colossus, and Journey, but also from smaller works with The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, all of them share a common theme - art, whatever that may be, it’s becoming harder and harder to deny that the medium of video games can produce art on a visual level, audio level, emotional, and even spiritual planes. They can confront our views of life and existence or to make social and political commentary with surgical precision (see Spec Ops: The Line). At the core of all of these is on aspect that has been part of art since its inception with early humankind: Story. From telling grand epics of battle to the most private and intimate moments between a child and a mother, the story holds it all together and Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is no different.
Gameplay: 88 B+
Never Alone is a typical platformer with basic controls, the essentials one could say, it fits the game’s environment and for the most part is accurate. There is some stiffness in the movements at times as well as some blind jumping and timing required by the player or pure luck in reaching that magical height with your Arctic Fox companion in order to get over a cliff ledge, it can cause some frustration, but it isn't game breaking. Having such basic controls allows the player to focus on solving a puzzle instead of remembering combos or a certain move set, more in the spirit of Sonic the Hedgehog, but at a slower pace.
Audio: 97 A+
The music and ambience, along with the narration, is the shining jewel upon this gaming achievement. Like many before, the soundscapes are just as big of a factor to the world building as the visuals, which we'll get to dive into later. The native sounds of not just the land, but of the people and the words spoken in the tongue of theIñupiat people, native to Northern Alaska and Canada, which you can simply listen to while you play or you can turn on the subtitles to read more into the story. Even more subtle sounds such as an owl’s hoot indicating a checkpoint or a gust of wind all add to the immersion without the need for hyper realistic visuals. There have been multiple instances when I was just let the game sit there and let the ambience play.
Visuals: 95 A
Speaking of the visuals, they are superb for its setting. Much like the mobile hit Badlands and Limbo before it, there is a simple aesthetic in contrasting features, the characters and environments are based off of the culture not just in how the people look and dress, but also in their art and how they see the world from the landscapes, the animals, and the elemental spirits which surround and inhabit every aspect of their lives. While Limbo kept with the black and gray hues and shades, Never Alone does venture into some darker and vibrant colors, though it would be completely understandable if you just let the game sit and watched the snow roll over the hills like an interactive screensaver. There are some clipping issues and edge detection problems here and there, but like with the controls, they aren't game breakers. The scenes are all quiet self contained, having their own quirks with the foreground and background complimenting each other instead of one vying for the player’s attention.
Content: 80 B-
Never Alone on Steam is a fairly large download, especially when compared to other games of it’s type and even giving some higher end game a run for their money, but this is mostly in part to the short videos you unlock as you play the game, some are easy while others can be more difficult to find. Each video gives an insight to the culture the game is based off of and made by, in a way it’s an interactive documentary. The game does offer a co-op feature allowing for two people to control both girl and fox at the same time and as I mentioned, a fair amount of hidden objects to find for the curious, all of which does not necessarily take away from the game, but its addition is a matter of perspective, the gain is not a better weapon or being able to jump higher, but knowledge. The videos are appropriately called “Cultural Insights” and are just that, snippets that barely scratch the surface. Replayability is not really a strong point of Never Alone, but more about the experience of hearing a story being told for the first time. It captures your and brings you along. The true replayability lies in the co-op as you may share the experience with other people and seeing their reactions and emotions to the story unfolding before them as you tag along as a secondary teller.
Multiplayer: 75 C
Not much to really say about the multiplayer aspect of Never Alone, a basic co-op in the vein of Sonic the Hedgehog , except when one or the other falls, you start over from the last checkpoint.
Design: 79 C+
This is quite possibly the hardest aspect to nail down let alone grade. The fact that this game exists is somewhat of a miracle, so to judge it too harshly would seem unfair being an indie title, not to mention a new type of game structuring, but that doesn't mean there aren't any faults. As mentioned before, there are some graphical flaws, difficulty curves, and other things that may turn away folks from this, especially those looking for a “perfect” experience, but experiences like this doesn’t require perfection. Had this been made by a larger team and budget with similar faults, then one could expect a lower grade altogether. This is one of those times where the effort is what should remain in focus and not whether they colored in between all the lines.
Story: 90 A
The story of this game cannot be judged on its quality in terms of plot holes, quality, realism - this is a myth given an interactive element and thus must be taken as such. The story is told very well and and in a manner as if you were with a tribe elder telling you an ageless tale passed down from generation to generation. Having that tied right into the gameplay, the pacing is fully dependent on your progression through the game and with the soundscapes flowing in and out, accompanied by the art and visuals, the words ensnare you into investing with this girl and her fox as they trek along for the first time with you and for the innumerable times as a tale.
Verdict: 86/100 B
Never Alone is not alone in what it does and is part of an ever increasing trend in indie games taking on stronger story and art driven games, but the genre is still young with vast amount of themes to explore and interpret which we will dive into with time. The one thing Never Alone does well, that is not as common, is that it tells a good, solid tale without the curse of having every detail deconstructed, because you simply cannot without taking the magic away. It would be like trying to analyze Ulysses or Peter Pan on its realism or possibility and missing the point entirely. Too often we forget that an adventure is what we need in life instead of why we need an adventure. Never Alone is a step in the right direction for gaming to further evolve into a greater medium of depth and expression.