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Never Alone review: The Reading Rainbow of video games

Hayden Dingman | Dec. 3, 2014
Never Alone is a fairly ho-hum platformer with an intriguing hook—the culture of the Alaskan native Inupiat people.

It's like Ubisoft's World War I tribute earlier this year, Valiant Hearts, except the level of polish on these Cultural Insights puts the written historical notes in Valiant Hearts to shame. I watched all twenty-four Cultural Insights and I would've watched twice as many without getting sick of them. Hell, I would've watched an entire documentary film from the Never Alone team. The speakers are lively and tell great stories, the production value is gorgeous, and it's a genuinely interesting context to what is otherwise a fairly ho-hum platformer.

Half as high
It's this latter portion that's problematic. You know, the game portion. Like Valiant Hearts, Never Alone is a puzzle platformer. I'll leave aside the fact that puzzle platformers on the whole are an incredibly played-out genre. (It's true--they are.) However, they're also an easy genre to dabble in, and if it means we get games concerning a broader range of topics (World War I and the Inupiat people certainly aren't standard game settings) then I guess bring on the damn puzzle platformers.

Of more concern is the fact that Never Alone lacks the polish of, say, a game created by a small team within mega-developer Ubisoft. Never Alone is a puzzle platformer, but it's also a janky puzzle platformer. The controls are not as tightly tuned as they need to be, the difficulty fluctuates at random, and it falls into some game design traps that a veteran studio would avoid on instinct in 2014.

Most frustrating is the fact that the game is designed to be played either in co-op or singleplayer. In singleplayer mode you flip back and forth between the two characters to solve puzzles. However, the AI companion still counts as a person who can "die," so if the computer screws up a jump or falls behind or gets stuck through no fault of your own, you still might find yourself forced to repeat a section for the dozenth time because of the no-good-stupid-computer-character-that-can't-stick-the-damn-landing.

Sorry. It's really frustrating, especially because I want to enjoy Never Alone so much more than I actually do. It's just such a teeth-gritting experience to get through some sections of the game that at many points the promise of another documentary tidbit was the only thing keeping me going.

And keep in mind I'm playing the game after the release of Patch 1.1, which specifically says "In single-player mode, the character you're not controlling will behave more intelligently." If that's true, I shudder to imagine what the companion AI was like upon release because it's still utterly moronic.

It's so easily solved too. The dumb companion AI wouldn't be a big deal if Never Alone took a cue from modern game design and just had the computer-controlled character blink back into existence whenever it died--you know, the way Tails would float back onto the screen whenever the computer was too dumb to keep up in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 two whole decades ago.

 

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