Alaskan folklore comes to life in icy stunner.

Gaming doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to representing cultures or their beliefs. Stereotypes and wild inaccuracies are all too frequent – Resident Evil 5’s African village level is a particularly controversial example – which just leads to more problems than it’s worth. It’s for that reason that a game such as Never Alone, which is deeply respectful of its cultural origins while still being fun and accessible to the average gamer, is such a joy to behold.

Never Alone, also known as Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, is a puzzle-platformer by Upper One Games that follows a little girl named Nuna and her arctic fox. Nuna and her companion are caught in an extreme blizzard and find themselves away from the village. The Iñupiaq girl and her doting pet must find the origin of this snow storm, but not before running into a few obstacles along the way.

Gather Round

Using Alaskan folklore as a base, Upper One Games have created a lovely coming of age story as the unlikely duo face all manner of challenges, both inanimate and otherwise, whilst never losing sight of their friendship. It’s clear from the moment the game fires up that Upper One Games has worked incredibly closely with the Iñupiaq community, even going so far as to produce 24 unlockable video shorts called “Cultural Insights”. Most of these can be unlocked through the normal course of play, but several of them are hidden off away to encourage players to seek them out. Some are automatically unlocked, but most are unlocked when encountering a Snowy Owl in the landscape.

It’s clear that Upper One Games has worked incredibly closely with the Iñupiaq community.

When encountered they will awaken and fly off, followed by a notification in the lower left corner of the screen prompting players to watch the insight. Once unlocked, each one can be viewed via the game’s title screen, which is certainly the best way to enjoy them – watching them as they pop up can break the momentum of play and sometimes reveal upcoming plot points before they happen. These insights provide an entertaining and illuminating look into a rarely-explored culture and show just how much thought and love has gone into keeping Never Alone true to its spiritual roots.

Never Alone is a joy to look at

Never Alone is a joy to look at.

In terms of visuals, this is one of the most stunning games of the year. Despite having a distinctly cold colour palette to work with, Upper One Games has managed to craft an experience that is alive with vibrancy and personality. Ice drifts shimmer and shine, snow fields roll and settle with impressive realism, and creaky wooden structures sway and groan in the wind, shedding splinters and threatening to collapse at any moment. At one point the Northern Lights come alive to try and sweep the girl and her fox away, descending from the sky as glowing green spirits that swoop and chuckle with mischievous intent. These blasts of surreal colour are rendered all the more striking against their icy backdrops and are nothing short of captivating.

The camaraderie between the two characters is ridiculously cute.

Fox & Friend

The camaraderie between the two characters is ridiculously cute but without ever reaching chintzy levels of adorable. Another player can assume control of the fox in local co-op, which is by far the best way to enjoy the experience, not because the puzzles are especially difficult – they’re grounded in logic enough that they’re never massively taxing – but because doing so affords greater control over both characters.

The alternative is to switch between the two characters with the press of a button while playing alone, and since the characters like to stay together, there are some teeth-gnashingly frustrating moments where one character will follow the other into danger or straight off a cliff when all you want them to do is stay still so you can finish the puzzle you’re working on. Attempting jumps over a large gap can be particularly troublesome, with your partner sometimes jumping too early because YOU’RE jumping off a ledge, leading to the other character falling to their death. Thankfully Never Alone is pretty generous with the number of checkpoints it hands out but these frustrations certainly can mire the experience at times.

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Combat doesn’t occur often and when it does you’ll often be fleeing from large enemies such as polar bears, but sometimes you’ll have to use your trusty bola – a projectile that can be used to fend off threats and destroy chunks of ice to clear a path. By holding back on the right analogue stick and then pushing forward in the desired direction, Nuna will fire the bola in her chosen direction. Controlling it can be tricky, frustrating and definitely takes some getting used to but when it works it’s a really handy little tool. It’s just a shame that directing it isn’t a little more smooth.

Never Alone was reviewed on PlayStation 4. 

 Winter Wonderland

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