Wednesday, 26 November 2014

NEVER ALONE: Gamertroll Review - XB1, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PC

There's something exceptional about Never Alone, it has been developed by 'Upper One Games', The first (For profit) game studio ever in the U.S. to represent the indigenous peoples of North America. They have been been formed by and operate in conjunction with the non-profit Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The game has been Made with an aim to "Share, celebrate, and extend culture". High ideals indeed, which certainly got Gamertroll's attention and will no doubt contribute enormously to the game's popularity with the masses.

At time of writing Never Alone has already received sky-high 10/10 scores elsewhere in the Gaming press. One sensationalist 10/10 score came from a teary-eyed reviewer professing to hail from the native Alaskan peoples...

Let's get one thing straight right away, Gamertroll is not affiliated with the tribal 'Inupiaq' of Alaska so you can expect no amount of sentimentality to cloud the final verdict here. Fine ideals are to be commended but how good is the actual game?

Put concisely, Never Alone is a formulaic side-scrolling platform-puzzler featuring dream-like Arctic art direction, stuffed with superbly observed references to Native Alaskan Lore and culture. It's like the Classic 'Flashback/Another world' games re-imagined as a cultural education tool. Today's E-learning module is the 'Inupiaq tribe'... Only joking - the Cultural elements of the game are actually by far the best thing about it... 

Right, you play as Nuna a young Inupaiq girl separated from her tribe during a blizzard who is saved by an Arctic fox. The two become inseparable, mutually relying upon each other for survival. Nuna can later use a ranged weapon in the form of a Bola (not Ebola, nearly topical) and the Arctic fox's proximity will activate spirit guide platforms  - other than that, they each have various respective skills to complement their counterpart such as rope climbing or squeezing through gaps etc.. you get the picture, neh?

Never Alone is playable both in Co-op and single player (where you push a button to switch between characters) which brings us to the first of many crippling problems with the game. Nuna and the Fox have a symbiotic relationship and the game mechanic reflects that by killing them both when either one perishes; it's by the Shonky implementation of this mechanic that when playing in single player you will die a million stupid deaths, mostly through no fault of your own. Whichever character you are not playing is taken over by one of the most stupendously thick buddy A.I.s Gamertroll has encountered for a generation. 

You will think you're leaving the fox standing on a platform in relative safety and swap to Nuna only to watch on, mouth agape with incredulity as it leaps down a chasm killing you both for no apparent reason. Other times the A.I. character appears to move just to get squashed by environmental hazards or nonchalantly ponce into the path of murderous enemies. Then you have the 'hilarious' moments where that little bastard fox will just edge out of range as Nuna is using a spirit-summoned ledge, causing it to disappear leaving her/you to fall to your doom. Both dead. Do it again. Rinse and repeat.

'That's terrible about the buddy A.I.', you might be thinking, 'But I'm going to play co-op with my significant other and that'll be problem solved right? -WRONG.

The game's platforming element is so shoddily constructed as to give every jump an unwelcome element of randomness. Random jumps= more random deaths. Then you've got entire portions of the game which are simply knackered, glitching and clipping errors abound here. 

The 'thick Ice' chapter stands out in particular as a mess of bad clipping, often killing the player for merely touching the ice roof even as it is retracting from a crushing movement. Deaths frequently result in comically incompetent rag-doll physics with the hapless character's body spastically elasticising like John Carpenter's 'The Thing'. 

The game is never intentionally challenging, but you will find yourself repeating countless prat-fall deaths due to intrusive character animations which rob control from the player at crucial moments. The too long 'OOh I am stuggling to maintain balance' animation that occurs when approaching ledges is the worst, often preventing the player from simply dropping off to a completely safe area below. Daft. 
Don't make the error of supposing Gamertroll the heartless Philistine, quite the opposite is true. He can always be found at the vanguard loudly applauding any thoughtful, emotionally engaging or creative games PROVIDING they are good games. Never alone is a Platformer with broken Platforming mechanics, which in turn bring down it's Puzzle elements. As a game it's a fail. A similar game could be made featuring Aborigines and their 'Dream time', pulling at the same heartstrings of cultural extinction, hardship, marginalisation in a modern world and exploitation. Gamertroll would be first in line to play it just so long as it was a good game, otherwise why make it a game in the first place?

The visuals and audio combine for a poignant and emotionally involving experience. The story's mood and direction genuinely pulls at the heartstrings, the tiny child and a cute fox fighting adversity and a heartless environment makes for a heady mix, but with the main gameplay as bad as it is, you have to ask yourself just how much of a damn do you really give about the plight of the Eskimo culture? Be honest now. 

If you do want to be touched by the unique culture and plight of the Native Alaskans, read a book or watch a decent documentary because despite the good intentions of the developer Upper One Games, Never alone is a poor example of it's gaming genre.

With all the best intentions in the world a bad book can be written about a fantastically interesting subject - so it is also with video games. Never Alone is one of these sad cases.

Don't imagine that buying this game will somehow save the Native Alaskan culture from a tragic end in obscurity either, because it won't. Gamer's should run for the hills at the sight of it and don't even think to fire it up to encourage non-gamers into the hobby because you'll only put them off for another decade. Gamertroll would love to forgive the game it's transgressions but it's simply too far gone.

'Never Alone' is exactly like Communism: romantic and idealistic in principle, In practice criminally tragic.  3/10

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