Review: Never Alone < Kisima Innitchuna > (PS4)

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Title: Never Alone < Kisima Innitchuna >
Format: PlayStation Network Download (4.8 GB)
Release Date: November 18, 2014
Publisher: E-Line Media
Developer: Upper One Games
Original MSRP: $14.99
ESRB Rating: T
Never Alone is also available on Xbox One, and PC (Steam).
The PlayStation 4 version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

DLC Review(s) For This Game:
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Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 398 of the podcast.
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Gameplay:
First things first, if you haven’t already heard it, go back and listen to Episode 383 of the podcast where I got to sit down with Alan Gershenfeld, President and Co-Founder of E-Line Media and Gloria O’Neill, Executive Chair at E-Line Media and President/CEO of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). They give a tremendous overview of the game and background as to how it all came about.

A little background is in order: The Cook Inlet Tribal Council services about ten to twelve thousand Alaskan Natives per year. They were looking for a unique way to promote and preserve the heritage of the Alaskan Native people and eventually came up with the idea of a video game.

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The result is a remarkable achievement and a model for a new type of game, one in which learning and gameplay go hand-in-hand in a way that hasn’t been done before. Like many cultures the Iñupiat folklore has been handed down from generation to generation in the form of storytelling. Bringing one of those stories to life inside a video game is challenging enough, making it interesting and fun to play is a real achievement and they could have stopped there but they didn’t. The CITC formed their own game development studio, Upper One Games and partnered with E-Line Media for the ambitious project at hand.

They spoke with Alaskan Native people looking for just the right thing and eventually settled on the the Iñupiaq legend of Kunuuksaayuka, as told by Robert Cleveland (known also by his Iñupiaq name, Nasruk). His daughter Minnie Grey gave permission for them to take the legend and turn it into a game.

What makes this experience so unique is that during the course of the game you’ll be able to unlock Cultural Insights, short videos where real Iñupiaq people explain key moments and what they mean in the everyday lives of the Alaskan Native people. This is all done with a remarkably delicate balance of being quick and very informative. They also manage to pique your interest, opening up a whole host of questions that’ll make you want to learn more. These Cultural Insights are best viewed in context during the game. When you unlock one, you’ll be prompted to hit the Touch Pad on the DualShock 4 which will jump you right into the video. When it’s finished you go right back to where you were. It’s all done beautifully so as not to remove you too much from the experience of the game while still giving you that deep understanding of the significance of what you’re experiencing.

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None of this will mean very much if the game is terrible, or even worse, boring, and thankfully this isn’t the case. Never Alone is a side-scrolling platformer that provides just the right amount of challenge for a veteran gamer and not only that, it’s outright fun. An unending blizzard has gripped the world and a young girl named Nuna has decided to search for the source to try to stop it. She quickly gains a companion in the form of a white fox that can jump higher than Nuna and has a deeper connection to the spirit world which becomes critical in moving forward.

I don’t want to spoil the story or the experience so I won’t get to deep into what happens but your platforming and timing skills will definitely be put to the test. This brings up the Cultural Insights and how they’re unlocked. Two are available right off the bat, and I’d suggest watching them before starting the game. Many of the rest are found through the normal course of gameplay whenever you encounter and owl. There are a few however that are hidden away and require a little searching. It’s nothing too tough because while the developers wanted to challenge players a bit, the goal really is to allow you to watch all the videos and learn about the culture.

I was worried that the experience would end up being extremely short and that only intensified as it came across a full third of the twenty-four Cultural Insights pretty quickly in the game. That changes as you get deeper in and my total play time was just over three hours, much like Journey. I found this to be a good amount of time for the game. The story was well told and I was quite satisfied by the end.

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Visuals:
Gorgeous, simply gorgeous. I was blown away when I saw the game this past July and it looks even better now. With a somewhat limited color palette the lighting takes center stage. The glow of the stars and the night sky reflect off the snow and water giving the game an ethereal quality unrivalled on the PlayStation 4. Seriously, this game is just jaw-droppingly beautiful.

It’s the little details bring the story to life. The fur of Nuna’s coat whipping around in the wind and her hood getting blown around are subtle yet very effective. The cutscenes are told using what is essentially an animated scrimshaw based on authentic carvings and drawings and it’s perfect.

The Cultural Insights are filled with old photographs, old and new video footage and of course, the people. It’s all exceptionally well edited to keep the information flowing and the game moving along. When I was at the E-Line offices in New York I saw a bunch of footage that didn’t make it into the game and I know they shot hours and hours more. I hope that if the game does well enough they’d consider editing some of it together into a short documentary for a Director’s Cut or Special Edition of the game.

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Audio:
Another strong point for the game the audio is excellent overall. With one of the Iñupiaq people telling the story, the immersion is complete. He mostly speaks between levels and at critical points in the game but it was enough that I really felt as though I was sitting beside him, listening to the tale as I watched it unfold before my eyes. The music is much the same, beautiful and immersive. One of the Cultural Insights even has one of the Iñupiaq playing his drum which helps to give a deeper understanding of the culture.

The sound effects are used to great effect with the terrifying howl of a polar bear, ice smashing together, the girl, the fox and even most critically the wind. You’ll see the snow briefly change direction along with the whistling of the wind and it’s you cue to lay down and brace yourself rather than get blown back and possibly off a cliff.

Online/Multiplayer:
While playing alone works, switching back and forth between Nuna and the fox, a second player can join either locally or through Share Play. It works quite well and can actually make some of the more challenging puzzles a little easier as long as you’ve got some good with platformers and you can communicate well. It’s a great experience either way.

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Conclusion:
Never Alone achieves everything that it sets out to do and it does it with style. While they could have created a simple platformer with some text driven background, Upper One Games went the extra mile, integrating people from the Iñupiaq community and breathing life into what could have been a stodgy social studies project.

It was an incredibly risky project from the start but the Cook Inlet Tribal Council has been able to pull together all the right ingredients and put forth an amazing experience that all Alaskan Natives can be proud of. This is a game that would feel right at home in a classroom or a hard core gamer’s collection, and that’s quite a feat.

Score:
9.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 25 different consoles and 6 different handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation – minus the Switch.

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