If you've been following me online for a while, either through this blog or my stuff elsewhere, you know that I have a pattern with games that become my favorites. Typically, stuff that I like (Wet, Mirror's Edge, Murdered: Soul Suspect, and more recently, The Evil Within,) are games with immediately apparent flaws. Yet, because of varying things that make that these games stand out from the pack, I love them more than most.
That's where Never Alone comes in. It has performance problems. The platforming could have used work. All around, it could have stood from more polish. But? But it's not only one of my favorite games of the year. It may be one of my favorite of all time.
Why is that, though? For starters, it's just so different from what we get to see every day. Nuna isn't a grizzled dude, or a bodacious lady, or epic fantasy hero. She's a little Iñupiat girl in a parka. Her only weapon, a bola, isn't much of a weapon at all, and instead is used to solve puzzles. She and her animal companion, a white fox, have no real means of fighting the polar bears, malicious spirits, or murderous hunters they'll be threatened by.
And yet in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Nuna feels like a true hero. She doesn't achieve her goals through brute force, through "rising up" and becoming some stoic warrior. Instead, she survives with her wits. She learns how to overcome obstacles with planning and intelligence. And more importantly, she learns how true, deep friendship can help one survive in the harshest conditions. Nuna, honestly, one of the most compelling and interesting characters I've ever controlled... and she never even opens her mouth.
What does it say about modern gaming, that a silent indigenous girl is a better protagonist than most found in your typical big-budget game? I'm not sure. But I am sure that on top of having a compelling plot and an elegant presentation, everything else about Never Alone is also arresting. The gameplay, flawed though it may be, unfolds at a logical pace, cleverly introducing mechanics you don't know if you'll use again until a jarring plot twist forces you to master the mechanics. While the core platforming is imprecise at times, the amount of innovative ideas brought to the table makes up for that, I'd say.
The constant air of tension also makes up for it. One hit and you're out like a light. This makes encounters with enemies terse and terrifying, because you can't fight back. You have to either outrun or outsmart your enemies, oftentimes both, if you expect to survive. The only other game this year where I've felt helpless and overpowered was Alien: Isolation. I got the same kind of feeling here, only arguably more so. I didn't want to see Nuna or her companion hurt, ever. And every time I messed up, the weight of my actions came crashing down on me and made me feel genuinely awful. Perhaps the closest comparison could be some of the horrifying shit that happens in Telltale's The Walking Dead.
Horrifying, Captivating. Intriguing. Never Alone is just the perfect package. It's one of the most arresting games I think I've ever touched, and despite its flaws, it somehow feels perfect for what it's trying to do. A rare feat, indeed... and one everyone owes it to themselves to experience.