PC, PS4, Xbox One
Fittingly for a modern retelling of a story about an odd couple, Never Alone operates on two very different levels. The first is as a vehicle for a lifeaffirming fable from a culture that has survived 4,000 years in one of the least hospitable environments on Earth: Arctic Alaska. This is a cultural artefact, and to engage with that is to be enriched. The other level, however, is as a rudimentary platformer with a number of foibles. Much like battling the savage winds that beat against the playable duo of Iñupiaq hunter Nuna and her arctic fox companion, the effort going in here feels like it deserves to result in far more progress than is made.
It does, however, look the part. Framed by vignetting and jet-black Arctic waters, these wastes of hard-packed snow and treacherous ice put other frozen videogame landscapes to shame. A section on the floes captures the gravitas of sea ice perfectly, towering structures of translucent purity reflecting light in mesmerising ways. Ruddy-cheeked Nuna is no less of an achievement, her coat’s furs living brushstrokes that flap in blizzards. Never Alone communicates the harsh realities that shaped its mythic tale like few works before it.
If only the gameplay were as accomplished. The pacing is a mess: light puzzles that usually involve The artistry goes a long way in helping the fable hit home, and in co-op the bond between the fox and girl can be powerful. A late difficulty spike might stop the younger part of its audience making it to the end, however finding and gently manipulating friendly spirits to make new platforms encourage a meditative approach that’s punctured by scrabbles through crushing ice structures, inelegant leaps of faith, and no fewer than five chases. Nuna is slow and the collision detection on her ledge clamber is clunky, further thwarting fluid progress.
Things gets worse when you play solo: the AI that takes control of whoever you aren’t controlling is inconsistent, sometimes able to keep up and at others needing rescuing, and all too prone to taking ill-judged leaps to its doom. If either hero dies, it’s back to the checkpoint. Your third and fourth partner-driven restarts seriously undermine the sense of attachment between kindred spirits on which the story is based.
And for a game so adept at communicating the feel of its homeland, it is poor at telling you what it wants of you as a player. For instance, spirits are only revealed in the immediate vicinity of the fox, and more than a few segments revolve around positioning it to create a path for Nuna. But points where the invisible tether between the pair can be stretched are never telegraphed, leading to spells of needless bafflement.
All of which means Never Alone is a fragile container for a tale of such inestimable value, and what ought to be universally welcoming instead must be approached with caution: come expecting revelation on an emotional level, not a mechanical one.