Never say never: A Never Alone review

A beautiful and peaceful game that gently guides you through a thoughtful story.

Never Alone is a sweet, emotional and lovely game. It’s one of those 2D puzzle titles, in the vein of Limbo or Braid, but one that focuses much more on telling a traditional Iñupiat tale (Alaskan natives, if you didn’t know). It’s a heavily cooperative game, and isn’t particularly challenging. But that’s not why you play it. You play it for the curiosity. The marvel. The art. You play it to spend a quiet couple of hours with your friend.

Originally released in 2014, Never Alone went on to win a whole bunch of awards (deservedly so). And, recently, Xbox Live Gold members can get it for free. So we popped it on as a laugh. Worth a shot, innit.

We binged it right the way to the end.

Play for the story. Learn some new mythology.

Never Alone centres around two characters: a young Iñupiaq girl called Numa and a spirit fox imaginatively named… Fox. You play as both, switching between them at will, as they investigate the eternal blizzard that’s ravaged their village. Struggling past polar bears, gale-force winds that push you off the map constantly, and treacherous slabs of ice – you’ll experience a bunch of different traditional stories. And you’ll unlock even more, if you’re keen-eyed.

You’ll meet many characters as you journey to find the cause of the blizzard.

While you can play alone, it’s best with a friend. It’s called Never Alone, after all. It’s also a great game to introduce someone new to gaming, as the puzzles aren’t particularly taxing. If you’re an experienced gamer, you’ll likely be solving them accidentally.

Simple, intuitive controls make it easy for new gamers

Even an elderly half-blind codger managed to pick up the controls in just a few seconds. Numa and Fox only have a few actions they can perform, and they’re pretty easy to wrap your head around. And the game very carefully introduces each new button-press, very steadily increasing the difficulty of the puzzles.

It was actually quite surprisingly intuitive. Never Alone doesn’t hand-hold, in the sense of a long tutorial or ugly hovering text. It just prompts you very subtly about the mechanics. Fox, for example, can create bridges by summoning spirits. They do this by simply standing near the spirit. At first, you’ll find yourself wandering over to these spiritual nodes, just out of sheer curiosity. It’s elegant game design done well.

You won’t need the muscle memory of a pro-gamer, either. It’s much more a mental exercise. You’re solving problems and figuring out how to continue the story, rather than frantically rushing to press the right button at the right time.

Short, but sweet

We managed to complete it in just a few hours. Admittedly, we didn’t spend the time exploring as much as we could have. And we didn’t watch the extra content that we unlocked. But even so, you can play through in an afternoon or on the weekend quite comfortably.

It seems the right sort of length. A little longer than a movie. A little shorter than a mini-series on telly. It’s a short story in the form of a game.

You’ll find other stories, if you have the patience to hunt for the hidden achievements.

And as I’ve mentioned a couple of times now, it makes it super suitable as a game to play with someone brand new to gaming. It makes a good replacement for the tedious droning of day-time television. What would you rather: Watch another episode of the latest repetitive reality TV show or play a game with a friend that has some real depth?

A few tricky puzzles, but never infuriating

There are a few moments where you’ll find yourself scratching your head, and discussing how you’re meant to continue. But it’s not like some arbitrary point-and-click adventure game, with insane moon logic. It’s more like a sudoku puzzle. You can see it’s possible, but you’re going to need to spend a few minutes thinking.

A lot of experienced gamers will find a lot of the puzzles pretty obvious. Usually, you’ve done something similar in another game, so you can figure out the logic quite easily. Which is why it’s much better with a friend. It becomes less about just trying to quickly solve the problem and hit the right buttons, and more about working together to do it. You have to talk, and ask each other to move to specific places. For example, Fox will need to scramble up a wall to let down the rope for Numa or build a bridge so she can keep going.

Granted, if you have someone truly terrible and thick, you might find the experience a lot more frustrating than we did. But even so, it’s such a calm game, you’re unlikely to get into controller-throwing territory.

Beautiful art, themed throughout the chapters

Never Alone looks strange and magical; the animation soft and delicate. They clearly spent a lot of effort on every frame, as it looks like they’ve hand-drawn it all.

Everything looks so peaceful, until suddenly it isn’t.

If you enjoy being whisked away to a new world, and appreciate going to an art gallery on your day off – Never alone is the kind of game you’ll love. It’s bright. It’s spiritual. And it’s quite simply a pleasure to just stare at the screen.

It lacks the oomph and danger of other titles

Perhaps this was a deliberate choice. But there was never really a time that we felt punished for getting something wrong. You start again relatively quickly from the regular checkpoints.

Unlike a game like Limbo, where you feel terror every time you encounter that dreaded shadowy spider, Never Alone never really makes your heart race. It was almost too calm. The pace felt very similar throughout the game, even when there was meant to be a genuine peril. It’s a very accessible game, which focuses on the story way more than the challenge. Which is fine. But if you don’t play it through in one sitting, you’re unlikely to come back to it.

It doesn’t really explore the possibilities

It’s so narrative-driven that we found ourselves getting a little bored with the actual gameplay. Towards the middle, you basically know all the controls you’ll ever learn. While there’s a big shift, at one particular moment, the new functionality isn’t very interesting.

The game rarely gives you new equipment.

It felt as though they could have added more. They could have made it more challenging: added in new features and mechanics. Once you’ve figured out how to play it, the game is pretty easy.

But you’ll still play through. You’ll want to finish Numa and Fox’s journey.

And that’s the point. It’s not really about splatting alien brains or being utterly horrified. It’s about carefully moving along. It’s about enjoying the story.

7/10

Play with a friend, when there’s nothing to binge on Netflix.