Let's be honest, the video game industry can sometimes be a frustrating world to be a part of. This year we have had tit for tat arguments over which console runs at a higher resolution, mass uproar over unfinished or delayed games and a rather unpleasant undercurrent of sexism which sometimes includes abuse on social media towards female gamers. All of these things honestly make me want to unplug my console, take a walk and put on some music. Yes I love games, but in a time when the industry churns out one sequel after another of the same old franchise, it takes something a bit special or unique to grab my attention. Indie titles seem to appeal to me more and none more-so than the eagerly anticipated debut from Upper One Games.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) tells the story of Nuna and her arctic fox companion as they battle to save their village from a never ending snowstorm. The unique thing about this game is that it has been developed in conjunction with the indigenous Alaskan people to both tell the story of one of their oldest fables and also to educate us on their culture and way of life. Their first foray into video game development is certainly a brave one. It would have been so much easier to jump into a tried and tested market but Upper One Games should be applauded for taking a risk here in trying an almost educational approach.
This is a puzzle platformer with a twist, you control either Nuna or Fox and can easily switch between the two with a quick button press. Doing so is essential as both have different skills that you will need to utilize in order to progress through the game. For example Fox can communicate with the spirits to help guide Nuna to hard to reach places and she in turn can use her bola (a throwing weapon) to break through the ice to clear a path. You can play through the game on your own with help from a computer controlled partner but this game is more enjoyable in couch co-op. It's great to play with a friend or a spouse. As you play through the game you unlock cultural insights which can be viewed either as you unlock them or through a gallery at your leisure. These insights are made up of real documentary footage and help to build upon the narrative.
Visually the game is stunning. You can tell the team focused on creating a lush and detailed game world which reflects both the beauty and danger of the real Alaskan environment. From character models to level design, Never Alone looks fantastic. The snow whips around you like a wild animal, pushing and pulling you in different directions which is mesmerizing to look at but also a key mechanic of the game. It will blow consistently in one direction and then swirl in the opposite way for a moment before crashing down upon our heroes. Using this brief window you can spot the change in direction and hunker down in the snow or use the change to your advantage and get some extra distance on a leap.
Since I first laid eyes on the demo at EGX in London I was insanely excited about this game. Everything about it just screamed "play me!" It was incredibly refreshing to see a title like this on the show floor and after talking to members of the development team, I was impressed by their passion and knowledge of the Inupiaq people and what it meant to them to bring this game to the public. The final game does have some flaws. In single player, having to depend on a computer controlled partner, the AI isn't the most intuitive and can sometimes be frustrating when it lags behind. Veteran platformers may not like having to wait for their partner to catch up. Gamers who aren't as experienced with platformers, may not like the trial and error aspect to solving some of the puzzles but fortunately the beautifully designed world and game aesthetic help mask those more "gamey" elements.
Despite these small niggles, this game is a phenomenal achievement. It looks gorgeous, plays well and has a wonderful story which brings with it an insight into Alaskan culture. I love what Upper One Games have accomplished here and the journey that they have gone on to bring this wonderful story to the video game community should be applauded. This is one of my favorite games of the year for many reasons and I urge you to pick it up on PS4, Xbox One or Steam. Support this wonderful developer and experience it for yourself. This is the perfect game to hunker down with on a cold winter day.