Never Alone: Arctic Collection Switch Review
Never Alone: Arctic Collection is the combination of Never Alone and its expansion content Foxtales bundled together for the Switch release. The main game is coming to its eighth birthday this year, as it was initially released on PC at the back end of 2014, a big gap before it came to the Switch. With the number of indie games appearing on Nintendo’s most successful home console at this publication time, it makes sense for developers to bring their titles across to the platform – old or new – if it does not hamper the experience they were creating. Never Alone is a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer. Think of games like Limbo, Inside, Little Nightmares, mixed with an interactive companion, and you get an idea of how Never Alone plays.
One of the key elements about Never Alone is that the story is based on traditional Iñupiaq folklore. The Iñupiaq are a group of Alaska Natives, which is a big component of this game, as involved within its development was the non-profit organisation, Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Working with an educational company, E-Line Media, the two came together to think of a way to share the wonders of the Iñupiaq culture, and so the idea of Never Alone was born as a way to share the stories through popular entertainment. I have no knowledge of the Iñupiaq, but that does not matter, because the game is a learning experience. It is on a mission to educate the player through interviews and video footage of the Iñupiaq people and their habitat. There are plenty of these documentary clips unlocked as progression is made through the game or finding collectables, and these can be watched instantly as they are discovered to explain parts of the subject matter the story is currently showcasing. It is very fascinating for someone who has no idea about these indigenous people of north-western Alaska.
The story here is that an eternal blizzard is threatening the area around where Nuna, an Iñupiaq girl, lives. She decides to try to find the source of this blizzard after receiving help from an arctic fox from a rather hungry polar bear. This leads them to travel across snowy landscapes, destroyed structures and through forests, all acting as environmental puzzles for the two the solve. Never Alone features a lot of elements that require the two characters to be in different places. The game can be played with two players, one the girl and the other the fox, but it can also be done solo with a button dedicated to switching between both characters, with the AI controlling the other when it needs the duo to move forward.
During each segment the game is narrating the story with the native language of the Iñupiaq, along with the occasional art, to offer an authentic feel. There is a lot of love to make sure the Iñupiaq are treated with respect. The downloadable content, Foxtales, continues this trend as it introduces a new story to enjoy with the same two characters, but now they are travelling on a boat across the sea, stopping at certain points to get past the blockage and continue on. It might be known for snow, but this sense of adventure through the ominous landscapes contains more varied environments than you would expect for a game set in such a white and icy place.
Puzzle-solving is straightforward. It will be hard for anyone to get stuck, as these puzzles are the kind that wants the player to do the actions rather than sit around for minutes trying to solve the solution. Puzzles often involve pushing blocks, moving platforms and breaking the ice with Nuna’s special weapon, the bola, that can be thrown in a direction. The fox is more unique, because the animal has the power to interact with spirits that appear when they are close to him. These can be moved to a degree to create levitating platforms for Nuna and the fox to get across. Things become a little more complex in the expansion, due to the heavy underwater element of the gameplay. There are spirits that blow currents that need to be used to get to the next area. These require more interactions than in the main game, as the fox will need to avoid danger while getting to these spirits, move them into a specific spot and then get Nuna to travel the current. Puzzles fit the atmosphere and theme of the game, which itself is presented well with the cold and harshness of the Alaskan environment.
Problems arise when it comes to performing the actions, the actual gameplay part, as the controls are slow and unresponsive, sometimes having a delay that can be slightly frustrating. One example was interacting with the paddle in a boat within the Foxtales expansion, where it would not register my button press, or would activate and put it down again after I thought it did not register. The jumping is also stiff for Nuna. There were many times I died due to the unexpected behaviour of the jumping. The animations are slow, so when you would normally expect to turn around and jump in a typical platformer, in this, Nuna is still facing the same direction and so you think you are turning the character to the left and going for a jump when in fact she will still be facing right jumping straight up because the character did not have enough time to turn around to the left press of the stick. Playing lots of finely tuned platformers was probably the issue here, so after getting used to how slow the animation was turning I was dying less, but it does not feel good. The fox, on the other hand, is rather agile, having the ability to run up walls by tapping a button and even wall jumping for some fun platforming segments. I would often switch to the fox just for the fact that it was better to play as, but then sometimes AI Nuna would need to take control as she would refuse to move for some inexplicable reason.
Performance is mostly rock-solid 30 frames per second, with the occasional hiccup when special effects appear from breaking snow. Visually, its a nice looking game that benefits from great art and a beautiful environment with sound effects and a musical score that gels well. Spoiling this presentation is the weird animation glitches. I had the fox stuck in some sort of mid-transition from one direction to another making him look like a white ball with ears as he was violently shaking during movement; hilarious, but not ideal as it also slows down movement when this is happening. Checkpoints, which happen often, can lead to weird situations that send the player falling down to death. The only way around this was to awkwardly move or jump to touch something as soon as the game loaded the checkpoint to stop the death trajectory. The camera was also an issue, which is surprising for a game running from a side view, but it would often focus on the wrong thing, which in turn would hide elements of puzzles, cause issues with jumping, or lead to deaths.
I also had crashing issues that were only limited to Foxtales, four in total, where the Switch would bring up the error message and close the game. No idea why this is happening, and the fact it was only in the expansion part of the game makes me wonder if there is some optimisation issue with that content. These are a huge shame, because while playing the game is a mixture of fun and frustration with the controls, this adds another layer of issues that hopefully can be fixed, as no one wants to have a game crash so often like this, especially since the Foxtales element is just under an hour long. These issues make Never Alone unpolished, which hinders the overall experience that could have been magical.
Never Alone: Arctic Collection is an endearing attempt to blend a learning experience about the Iñupiaq culture and its folklore, and bring that to a video game. If there is one way for people to discover new things, it is certainly through modernising how you deliver this through new technologies, and what bigger audience is there to reach out to than the video game players. The developers can be commended for doing that component wonderfully, but frustration is a barrier that can hurt the learning experience. When it comes to video games, it is more than just a way to learn, it also has to have other elements to make it a good game. This is where Never Alone: Arctic Collection falls short; there are issues with controls and glitches that make this more irritating than it should be. I like what Upper One Games are doing here, but Never Alone is a great informative piece mixed with an imperfect video game hampered by mediocre controls and awkward glitches. Should this stop you from playing? No, but just be wary that this journey through the Alaskan winter might not be as cool as one anticipates.