Upper One Games and E-Line Media‘s puzzle-platformer Never Alone: Arctic Collection doesn’t only offer a lot of snow, but also a cultural insight into the lives of the native people of Alaska.
Young Iñupiaq girl Nuna and her arctic animal companion Fox embark on a journey to find the source of a blizzard that suddenly threatens their world and people.
Cultural background stories
The main plot and character development is rather simple, but how both are presented is unique: Based on a traditional story shared among the Iñupiaq people, it’s told in an oral style with a narrator without any dialogues. While this might take away some of Nuna’s individuality, the universal idea of someone so small, accompanied by an animal, to go against all odds is heartwarming. So despite a rather short journey, one becomes as attached to them as they rely on each other.
Despite its supernatural elements, like spirits floating around that either do harm or help the duo, the story contains folklore mixed with reality. In order to understand everything, one should watch the documentary videos that are unlocked by collecting “Cultural Insights” owls. Here Iñupiaq elders, storytellers, and community members share their stories with the player and make some of the weirder parts easier to understand.
As not everyone is aware of who the Blizzard Man, the Little People, Manslayer, the Rolling Heads or the Sky People are, it makes for an interesting way to learn more about the culture. The only downside is that some of these collectibles can be missed, either because they’re well hidden or one doesn’t have time because one is running for one’s life.
Puzzling and platforming hardships
Even if it’s supposed to be an educational game, how it plays makes it less accessible than it could be. Switching between Nuna and the Fox is essential to progress, as both have different skills that are required to overcome obstacles and solve puzzles. For example, the canine companion can squeeze through small spaces, run up walls, and jump higher, while the girl climbs ladders and ropes, moves objects, and throws her bola, a sort of sling shot, at things. At one point, one even has to take control of the fox’s ghost presented as a young boy.
In theory, all of this sounds like varied gameplay and lots of fun, and it is to a certain degree, at least if one plays together with a friend in local co-op and really communicates with one another. If one is on one’s own, one has to do all the work that often requires fast reflexes and timing, especially if one has to float with the fox ghost to make invisible and moving spirit platforms accessible for the girl to jump on.
Dying and retrying
Even with good cooperation or switching between the characters in single-player, the controls are often imprecise and many parts of the game are simply unfair, relying on trial-and-error platforming segments which become extremely frustrating when one has to escape certain death. One should probably prepare for many retries in the course of the story, which is a shame, because not everyone will have the patience and endurance to see it through.
There are quite a few memorable set-pieces, but these are usually broken up by either a chase or escape sequence, some of which almost hark back to retro platformers with automatic side-scrolling levels in which pixel-perfect jumping and simultaneous co-op work is vital to survive. Some boss fights are included, too, which aren’t necessarily about killing people or creatures with a weapon, but about using the environment to one’s advantage, something that mostly requires trial and error as well as luck.
These scenes certainly make sense, e.g. fighting against or going with the storm to reach platforms, jumping on floating ice blocks, climbing unstable glaciers, being chased by a polar bear or strange beings. But too many difficult passages prevent people from enjoying the great, often otherworldly atmosphere.
More than just snow to see and hear
Most of the strange ambience is conveyed by the presentation: Except for the obvious HD quality documentary-style videos, the game features great weather effects, particularly snow which is to be expected because it takes place in the Antarctica. As one often fights through snow storms, vision is limited and one sees shapes of far-off objects like icebergs or mountains, adding to the wider scope of the game.
However, after one comes through the natural hardships and sees some of the Northern lights depicted as big spirits, one is finally transported to another world. The animation work on the protagonists and all the other people or creatures is outstanding, making the emotional scenes that much more convincing. Having the cut-scenes that often explain some parts of the folklore story presented with a style reminiscent of cave drawings is also rather unique.
Of course music can be immensely powerful to evoke feelings in the player, so it’s no surprise that it’s either used sparsely or not all all when the sound of the wind takes over. But then it turns into some very beautiful electronic tunes, intermingled with classic instruments like violins or drums. The voice acting is excellent throughout and with all the story parts spoken in the original Iñupiaq language (with subtitles), it’s a testament to the game’s direction of presenting the story in the most truthful way.
After the long journey…
If one wants to spend some more time with Nuna and Fox, then the Foxtales DLC, which is part of the Arctic Collection, offers a rather short experience with roughly 1 hour of playtime. As the duo tries to help a small mouse drifting away on a floating ice platform, one paddles through Northwest Alaska, at least until one has to engage in more platforming and puzzle solving shenanigans.
… a shorter trip
It doesn’t bring any new changes in terms of gameplay and one shouldn’t expect a deep story, but there are a few tense set-pieces and learning about the “The Two Coastal Brothers” tale that inspired the DLC with the Cultural Insight videos should be reason enough to give it a try, even if it means dying a lot once again.
A unique tale with a flawed game
Never Alone: Arctic Collection is a brave attempt to educate people about different cultures. While it succeeds with its Cultural Insight videos and the emotional story, it has too many frustrating platforming and puzzle elements that are the reasons why the playtime is a bit more than 4 hours. Even the co-op mode doesn’t make most of the trial-and-error segments easier, especially with its clunky controls.
However, if one perseveres through the shortcomings of its gameplay, one will be rewarded with a unique atmosphere thanks to the stellar presentation and the way how one playfully learns about the Iñupiaq’s folklore and their way of life, something that a real documentary can only partly achieve.
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