Relevant information before reading this early impression article:
- I was not given a review copy.
- I have no affiliation nor contact with anyone at Upper One Games or E-Line Media.
- Specifications of the system used for this first impressions article can be found here.
- At the time of writing this article, I had played the game for 7 hours.
- I played the game with mouse and keyboard rather than a controller.
Never Alone is an interesting take on educational gameplay. It's clear with the story, the narration and the extra 'insights' that the goal of this game is to introduce people to the Iñupiat and their way of life - but it seeks to do so without compromising on the gameplay as projects like this can often fall into the trap of doing.
The girl and the fox are on screen at the same time, and both must be used to progress through the levels. A co-optional mode is available. Both have different abilities - the girl gains a bola part way through the story and can use it to destroy objects and reveal spiritual platforms. The fox on the other hand is much more agile, and is linked to spiritual platforms that the girl cannot summon herself. There are several obstacles and puzzles that require swapping between characters in order to progress - but you are only controlling one character at once, so it's not quite the same as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Earlier on I said the game seeks to keep a certain level of difficulty, and I feel it has succeeded. Falling in the water is an instant failure, and there are plenty of times where this can happen. Although the game is easy in the early stages, there are places where the difficulty noticeably ramps up, and you will likely find yourself dying several times at one of these points. Instead, they've chosen to make sure the punishment for dying is as light as possible (heart wrenching whimpers from the remaining character aside) - the number of checkpoints are generous and they are often placed immediately before the more trying parts of a level.
What I am pleased to see is that the developers have not tried to make the game look like a mobile port - presenting lots of tiny stages with 3 star rewards and a beat the clock incentive. They've left it as an honest PC sidescrolling platformer, and I think that helps the game avoid some of the stigma that's now associated with mobile-esque games.
At first, there are not many different types of obstacles - the game will slowly introduce more as you progress through the story, and these can range from simple physics puzzles to spiritual platform that require interaction with the fox to reveal. The main villain is introduced four levels into the game, and I believe this is where the game begins in earnest, as there are several new mechanics introduced very quickly at this point - wind that you have brace against to avoid being blown backwards, a bola that you can use to destroy select obstacles or reveal spiritual platforms.
So far I've only had positive things to say about Never Alone, but the game is not without frustrations. I've found several times while playing with both keyboard and controller that the game is slow to respond to the jump command. The characters cling to ledges constantly even if you want to drop down from them - and sometimes when the game controls the second character they can die through no fault of your own. In situations like this it would be useful if the player could command the second character to wait.
The bola is aimed simply by following where the girl's arm is pointing - which is clever, but there is some discrepancy between where her arm is pointing and where the bola ends up going, which can again be frustrating - especially in time-critical situations. It is something that you can get used to and compensate for with practice, though.
One of the worries that I had as I was playing through Never Alone would be that the game became monotonous - that there wouldn't be enough variation. I'm pleased to say then that they did a good job of changing up gameplay - there are times when you're platforming and running from a chasing foe, other areas that are made up of several puzzles, and others that are simply platforming. I haven't felt while playing that the game has relied on one particular mechanic for too long.
There's also a collectible hunt, which come in the form of nicely animated little owls - often if not hidden but placed out of the way, which will unlock 'insights' - artwork and videos about the Iñupiat that can be accessed both in game and from the main menu. The developers are proud of the work that went into this game, and of the people that helped ot make it, and they have every right to show this off.
Never Alone is a lovingly crafted game. From the detailed and aesthetically pleasing art style, to the well crafted animations and the Iñupiat language narration. You will never feel while playing this game that there was a shortcut taken or a compromise made when it comes to production value, and it's very refreshing to see in a time where major publishers seem to be cutting corners at every opportunity.
The story is not rushed, it is given time to breathe in between sections of gameplay. The what seem to be hand-drawn cut scenes are charming yet eerie, at times. The quality of the overall presentation is enough to make the story emotionally resonant and engaging. The music is there to add to the atmosphere and does a wonderful job of enhancing the setting and story, even if it is sparse. If you don't believe me, turn it off and see what difference it makes.
The level design is not complex and this is no Super Meat Boy in terms of difficulty, but there are definitely sections that require some working out and some skill in execution. I think they've managed to fall in line with the level of difficulty offered by the Lego games, which makes the game accessible and engaging to both younger and older players.
From a technical standpoint, there are a couple of concerns. The game has been developed with Unity 4.3, so certain limitations are to be expected - however there are only two graphical presets - low and high - although the game is no way taxing on the high setting.
VSync is available in 'full' and 'half', although I'd recommend leaving it off as the input lag introduced is noticeable.
Never Alone supports up to 4K at least, which was tested through Nvidia's DSR feature, and I'm pleased to say that the interface and menus remain usable when scaled to 4K. In some aspects, the game becomes easier when playing at a higher resolution, as more of the level is revealed at once and it gives the player a better opportunity to plan and spot solutions.
There are separate sound sliders for narration, music, sound effects and the insight features, which is a welcome level of customisation that not enough indie games include.
Sadly, the keyboard controls are not customisable, so if you don't like using WASD then you're out of luck and I'd suggest using the controller - although here the layout is also fixed. You can at least tweak controller sensitivity settings, though.
Another minor black mark comes with the lack of a borderless windowed mode, although it can probably be forced with a third-party utility.
I've enjoyed my time with Never Alone and have genuinely learnt about a fascinating tribe of people in the process. The theme and origins of the story make it that much more engaging and I would be surprised if anyone were able to legitimately criticise the presentation of the game. Barring a few minor complaints about the responsiveness of the controls and technical limitations mentioned above, I have not encountered any problems that prevent me from enjoying this game. It will definitely be one that I look to finish to completion. That being said, the Never Alone receives my "Worth a buy" recommendation, especially at its price point. It is available on Steam for €13.49.