One of the best things about indie games is the freedom available to the developers; with all the money involved in publishing triple-A titles, there's little incentive to take risks. There's no way you'd ever see a title like Never Alone coming from a major publisher, and that's what makes it so refreshing. Developed with the input of the Iñupiat people of Alaska, it aims to be educational, fun, and culturally rich all at the same time.
The game follows the adventures of Iñupiaq girl Nuna and her companion, an Arctic fox, as they attempt to find the source of the "eternal blizzard" that has gone curiously out of balance. Along the way they'll flee hungry polar bears, dodge their way around "Sky People" swooping down from the Northern Lights, and swim through icy caves full of secrets. As mentioned, Never Alone was developed with creative contributions from Alaskan Natives, and many of the levels are designed around specific Iñupiat legends; these inspirations can be viewed in unlockable "Cultural Insights" videos, which offer brief, intriguing little glimpses into the life of this people.
Rich in culture though it may be, Never Alone is still a game at heart. You can choose to play by yourself, where you switch control between Nuna and the fox with the press of a button, or cooperatively, with each player taking control of one character. They each have a couple of abilities for solving puzzles: Nuna can push and pull heavy objects and has a projectile weapon called the Bola; the fox can summon "helper spirits" that form platforms and ladders and is able to run up walls. The puzzles aren't anything mind-blowing, but the process of figuring them out often unfolds in a satisfying and logical way. Like many good puzzlers, the game introduces new mechanics slowly and reuses them in more complex scenarios later on.
All of this sounds good in theory, but in practice it's often a frustrating chore — especially if you're playing in single-player. Since you're only able to control one character at a time, the AI often tries to compensate by having the other automatically follow along behind you. This works fine in the game's most linear platforming sections, but becomes deadly when dealing with puzzles that require a bit more finesse. What's maddening is just how inconsistent it is: sometimes the AI will move in a helpful way, but sometimes it will send one poor character toppling into a bottomless pit. These problems are largely alleviated in co-op mode, but you shouldn't have to find another person just to get the puzzles to work properly.
Even beyond these problems with control, there are some frustrating glitches to contend with. Most of these have to do with the title's suspect collision detection, which — like the AI — is woefully erratic. Nuna and the fox can get stuck in some platforms and fall right through others during one attempt, only to have the experience run smoothly the second time through. Adding to these technical hiccups, the framerate chugs at points, and this reviewer even encountered a few instances when the game froze for a few seconds before recovering.
There's no doubt that Never Alone nails the aesthetic of its inspiration. The visuals aren't particularly impressive on a technical level, but this is more than made up for by the captivating style of Alaskan Native art. The narration in the Iñupiaq language, meant to convey the people's propensity for oral storytelling, is also fantastic. There's a quiet gentleness here that few developers are able to pull off well, and despite some of the performance problems, the presentation is a beautiful work of art in its own right.
Never Alone offers fascinating insights into Alaskan Native culture, particularly in the interviews, video footage, and artifacts curated by the developers in tandem with the Iñupiat themselves. Unfortunately, it falls short in its ambitions as a game, particularly when it comes to control and performance. An abundance of glitches, occasional framerate issues, and some truly dodgy collision detection make this puzzle platformer a difficult one to recommend. If you've got enough patience you'll probably be able to mine for the diamonds in the rough - but the easily frustrated should steer far clear.