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Ice Climbers: Never Alone Review
Ever heard an Inupiat storyteller spin a yarn in his native language? Do you know who the Manslayer is? Ever even heard of the Inupiat people before? Neither had I, until I played Never Alone.
Never Alone is an atmospheric platformer that walks the line between entertainment and education. One false step in this dangerous territory can either lead to boring gameplay or preachy lectures. Upper One Games miraculously manages to maintain reverence to their source material while also making a playable game. It’s a hell of a compromise, and Never Alone is all the better for it.
The game follows a young Inupiat girl, Nuna, on her quest through the beautiful and dangerous wilds of Alaska. Her people have been ravaged by an unending blizzard, so she sets out to find the source of the otherworldly storm. Nuna’s adventure takes players on a tour of key elements in Inupiat culture, as well as Alaskan history at large. To call this a unique setting for a video game would be an understatement.
Upper One Games developed Never Alone with the help of nearly forty members of the Inupiat people. The details here are genuine. Every level and design choice is motivated by elements of their culture. The adventure is narrated by a native Inupiat speaker with subtitles, the game’s plot a rendition of an old folktale. Nuna and her fox companion use helpful spirits based on Inupiat animism to solve puzzles, scale caves, and walk on water.
Along the way, players unlock Cultural Insights. These are short behind-the-scenes videos that explain a variety of topics Nuna encounters throughout the game. I’m not sure if it’s from lack of time or lack of resources, but Never Alone stuffs many of the world’s coolest facts into these educational videos. This leaves the storytelling in the game itself pretty barren outside of the simple narrated story. Many areas and characters come and go with little to no in-game context. Once I dug for details in the optional videos, I appreciated the different environments and enemies much more.
This speaks to the core of Never Alone’s faults: it’s a decent platformer with National Geographic-style talking head interviews attached. Upper One Games deserves credit for choosing such an unconventional setting, but the gameplay is nothing special. In parts, the controls are too loose to compete with better platformers. Some puzzles are more fun to look at than to solve. The platforming is functional, not groundbreaking. I had much more fun just soaking in the atmospheric environments and learning about something completely new.
The vanilla game mechanics never became too much of an issue due to a breezy three-hour runtime. Nuna’s journey is short and sweet– an enlightening romp through a world largely untouched by video games, let alone older forms of media. The $15 price point is too steep to recommend on gameplay alone, especially when there are much better, bigger games out there for the same amount of money. Players will fall in love with the game’s unique setting and probably learn a few things without even realizing. If anything, Never Alone is evidence that video games can teach and entertain with reasonable success in both.
This review is based on a retail copy of Never Alone, developed by Upper One Games on the Playstation 4.