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Puzzling (Mis)adventures Volume 14: Never Alone, Last Inua

Puzzling (Mis)adventures Volume 13: Never Alone, Last Inua
Puzzling (Mis)adventures Volume 13: Never Alone, Last Inua

How much do you know about the Inuit? If the first things that come to mind are igloos, dog sleds, and seal hunting, then the answer is clearly “not much”. That’s not a criticism. Neither did I. But that’s largely because the Inuit story is rarely told outside of their own circles. But now, not one but two new games hope to change that, and maybe just offer a little education about a fascinating culture that most of us know nothing about. In our latest search for missing puzzles outside the usual adventure genre boundaries, I headed north, then went north some more, and then still farther north until I reached the Arctic-based platforming adventures Never Alone and Last Inua.

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)

Let me tell you a story of the time I became a little girl who saved her Alaskan village from a terrible blizzard with the help of a white fox…

It might seem odd to frame a review as a “story”, but it’s only fitting since storytelling is at the very heart of the first videogame ever developed by an indigenous company in the United States. Inspired by the Inuit tale “Kunuuksaayuka”, Upper One Games’ Never Alone (or Kisima Ingitchuna in the Iñupiaq language) is a unique puzzle-platformer infused with elements of traditional Iñupiat culture and folklore. Its goal is not merely to entertain but to enlighten as well, about these fascinating people that date back millennia. Some touchy mechanics prevent the former goal from achieving the same success as the latter, but the overall package is certainly worthy of attention, particularly if you have even a passing curiosity about Aboriginal culture.

Never Alone stars two playable characters, a young girl (bundled in the warmest caribou skins, in keeping with Iñupiat custom) named Nuna and an Arctic fox who soon appears at her side. The game begins with an oral narration in native Iñupiaq accompanying moving scrimshaw (carved art) images, giving the game a distinct ethnic flavour right off the bat. Though the gender of the human protagonist has changed from the titular male lead in “Kunuuksaayuka”, the basic premise remains the same: an endless series of blizzards is afflicting a small village, threatening its people with starvation. From this group of experienced hunter/gatherers used to dealing with the most inhospitable of climes, it’s the least likely of heroes who takes it upon herself to venture out and find the source of the terrible weather.

Nuna doesn’t get far before being confronted with an inevitable fact: the frozen landscape is a dangerous place, especially for a child. A frantic polar bear chase seems to spell certain doom, but she’s rescued by a brave little fox in her moment of peril. From that point on the two remain companions, each assisting the other in overcoming obstacles such as powerful gusts of wind, cracking glaciers, seemingly impassable chasms and cliffs, and dangerous creatures of legend. Each protagonist has crucial skills that the other does not: Nuna can climb and swing on ropes, push crates, and hurl a bola (a kind of throwing weapon made of straps and bone), while the fox can scurry up sheer walls too high for Nuna and, most importantly, commune with the spirit world to call up traversable platforms.

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On a purely superficial level, Never Alone is a fairly standard side-scrolling platformer with some light puzzling along the way. Unfortunately, this is where the experience suffers the most, so let’s get the bad news out of the way first, clearing the way for all the good stuff to come. The game can be played either alone or with a friend, and I’d suggest co-op, partly because sharing the adventure seems so much more Iñupiat, but mainly because the partner A.I. can be somewhat dodgy. You can switch back and forth between protagonists any time, but the game is inconsistent in how it handles the secondary character. At times they’ll follow helpfully along, while sometimes they’ll need to be handheld to the other’s position. And sometimes they’ll make unintentionally suicidal moves that send you both back to the nearest checkpoint. As touching as it is hearing the fox yelp sorrowfully or Nuna gasp in despair at their companion’s demise the first few times, it gets old fast. Thankfully the checkpoints are very generous, but it’s still an annoyance.

Even the basic controls have some problems. You can play with either the keyboard/mouse or gamepad (or both, with two people), and while a controller feels much more natural in a game of this type, neither method is ideal. The standard running, jumping, and climbing are all rather routine, but the most critical element in any platformer is its responsiveness, and the characters in Never Alone sometimes react like they’re up to their knees in snow. (Well, sometimes they ARE, but I mean when they aren’t supposed to, like when sluggishly performing what needs to be a hairpin turn.) Conversely, while the fox is much nimbler than Nuna, at times it’s too light on its feet, making it difficult to gauge exactly how far it will leap. Usually this clunkiness is not a problem, as the game isn’t particularly punishing for the most part. But in areas with lots of precision jumping, expect to fall or die – a lot – more from finicky controls than actual dangers.

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Another questionable control issue concerns the bola. On a gamepad, you must move the analogue stick first backward, then forward to mimic the cocking back of the weapon and then the actual flinging. Great idea in concept, not so great in practice as it’s far too easy to misfire, sometimes ridiculously so. Again, just a temporary nuisance most of the time, but with a rampaging enemy on your tail it becomes much more serious. A simple backward aim with trajectory reticle and stick release would have worked much better. (And if that sounds too artificially “gamey”, nothing breaks immersion faster than your bola landing nowhere near when you believed you were actually aiming it.) This part is much easier using a mouse, as you simply click to hold, aim and release (your aim represented by the direction Nuna is looking).

The “puzzles” aren’t overly demanding, largely just requiring a bit of strategizing, like how to weigh down a platform so both characters can reach it, or how to flood an ice chamber to ascend ever higher. Often the planning is more tactical on the fly, like timing wind currents for best jumping results, coordinating movable tree branches to form a path, or darting through heaving icebergs between safe points without being crushed. This extends to a couple of “boss” fights as well, which are potentially deadly but more a matter of figuring out what to do to defeat them than having the physical dexterity to do so. In all, there’s nothing here that should leave you scratching your head in frustration, just enough to give the gameplay a slightly slower-paced thoughtfulness.

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You’ll appreciate the slower pace at times, as it gives you the chance to soak in the beautiful aesthetic. The colour palette is predictably muted and the environments aren’t overly detailed, but the heavy use of depth-of-field haze for scenic backdrops gives each location a kind of surreal, almost-dreamlike atmosphere. In navigating the blustery wintry tundra, you will make your way through crumbling cliffside villages on stilts, half-flooded frozen caves, serene mystical forests, and across whitewashed plains and treacherous moving ice floes, providing a surprising amount of variety for a game about forcing your way through a blizzard. Other than the subterranean locations, snow is naturally ever-present and used very effectively in creating the appropriate ambience. I could practically feel the chill from the perpetually swirling animated flakes.

While I’m anything but an expert in such matters, the game didn’t sound as culturally-specific as I expected, usually opting more for moody tonal backdrops than overt musical scores. There is no voice acting at all apart from the storyteller’s periodic narrations, but there’s very little dialogue of any kind. Nuna doesn’t speak to the fox, though she will stop to playfully pet him if left idle for a bit. That leaves the ambient effects largely responsible for the audio accompaniment, which is appropriate under the circumstances and handled decently here. There’s no mistaking the first growl of a hungry polar bear, the howling wind that threatens to blow you off a ledge if not suitably braced, or the soft crunch of footsteps on snow.

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So far so typical for the most part, really, but it’s once you start digging below the surface that Never Alone really sets itself apart, as its cultural influence isn’t mere window dressing but an integral component of the game. Along with the central story of “Kunuuksaayuka” and the irreplaceable Arctic setting (no lava, jungle, and desert levels here), every creature and character you encounter represents an ingrained part of Iñupiat culture and folklore.

Two key tenets of Iñupiat belief are the connectedness of all things and the spirituality of nature, both of which are essential to this adventure. The most tangible way these concepts are embodied here is the presence of spirit helpers, who appear in the immediate vicinity of the fox to act as platforms. That may sound conveniently contrived, but it’s hard not to feel a certain reverence for the playful pod of jumping dolphin spirits that collectively keep you from drowning in the frigid oceans below, or the wispy loon spirits as they gently stretch their white necks toward you, granting you otherwise-inaccessible passage. (At least until you sail past the vaguely-defined edge of one and plummet to your death, but that’s another matter.) Coordinating their positions is central to success; since they only respond to the fox, you’ll need to maneuver them carefully in order to guide Nuna to safety. This is easier said than done in the later levels, when the environment itself becomes a timed obstacle course whose spirits can only protect you for so long.

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Not all creatures are friendly. The short but powerful cave-dwelling scavengers, known to the Iñupiat as the “Little People” (which purportedly aren’t just myth, as sightings continue to be regularly recorded) will jealously protect their territory with rock projectiles. When day turns to night, the initially lovely Aurora Borealis quickly transforms from a majestic lightshow to a hazardous playground of patrolling green spirits (“Sky People”) that will snatch you up and carry you to your death if you get caught. Along the way, you’ll periodically encounter a fireball-hurling “Manslayer” who destroys all the villages in his path and apparently wants no witnesses (namely: you). Then there’s the ultimate source of the inclement weather, the “Blizzard Man”, a name that does absolutely no justice to the truly impressive sight (if somewhat frustrating obstacle) that you’ll need to see to believe.

While the gameplay, setting, and characters all do a fine job of bringing these intriguing Iñupiat elements to life, the one drawback is that there’s very little attempt to properly integrate them for outsiders. To an Iñupiaq player, seeing familiar themes on screen will surely be a welcome delight; for the rest of us, there’s a regular sense of “who’s this dude?” and “why is that happening?” There are answers to these questions, thoughtfully and expertly provided – just not within the game itself.

As you progress through Never Alone, you’ll unlock up to 24 different “cultural insights”, a collection of interviews of Alaskan Native elders and youths, photos, filmed footage, and other documentary-style offerings. Here you’ll learn all about the heritage, customs, and way of life of these extraordinary people, and much of what you learn will loop back and provide greater insight into the game itself. Instead of cluelessly wondering who the green sky spirits are and why they’re trying to kill you, now you’ll know that they are merely mischievous children at play who want your head for a ball (a remarkable tale that I appreciate all the more for its utterly amoral perspective). These insights are unlocked by owls as you encounter them throughout the game, and while most can be discovered in a standard playthrough, a few are a bit off the beaten path. Fortunately, the chapter select screen in the main menu shows you how many owls you’ve missed and lets you replay only the levels you want to revisit. There’s no in-game bonus for unlocking them all, but all 24 are worth seeing in their own right.

The cultural insights should take about half an hour to watch in their entirety, on top of the three or so hours that the main game will take to complete. If the subject matter appeals to you but the action elements put you off, many of the videos have been made publicly available. (I told you sharing was the Iñupiat way!) But if you can handle a little frolicking in the virtual Arctic snow, save them for the game and discover them for yourself. Whether you play it with a friend or on your own, it’s not a long journey into the land and stories of the Iñupiat, but it’s a memorable one. The platforming mechanics could use some refining, and a more complex puzzle focus wouldn’t have gone amiss in order to deepen the experience, but Never Alone is an otherwise charming fusion of culture and gameplay that you’ll want to get your mitts on.

Last Inua

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Glowforth’s Last Inua was created off the same design document as Never Alone. Both tell stories of an Inuit youth on a deadly quest through the Arctic; both are side-scrolling puzzle-platformers with two playable characters, each with their own skill; and a healthy dollop of mysticism along the way. But make no mistake: these are otherwise two very different games, and Last Inua quickly manages to carve out its own identity. And what it lacks in educational value, it tries to make up in peyote-fueled surrealism… Okay, I’m joking about that last part – wrong region, wrong culture, there’s no trace of drugs to be found, and I’m not making fun of Aboriginal spiritualism, which I genuinely find fascinating. But the fact remains, this is one psychedelic game.

Minds will be blown immediately when you’re addressed in the dark by a glowing triangle that speaks like Alvin and the Chipmunks recorded and played backwards in gibberish. These voices inform you (thank goodness for subtitles) that the world is being consumed by a dark infection of fear from Tonrar, ancient destroyer and enemy to the spirit Keepers, and that only young Hiko has the necessary gift to oppose him. The problem is that Hiko’s gift is overwhelming him, leaving him weak and vulnerable in the middle of his Rite of Passage. He’ll need his father Ataataq’s help in order to visit the Keepers, collect their spirit orbs to restore them, and defeat Tonrar once and for all.

Once father and son are underway, it’s clear that Ataataq will indeed need to do all the heavy lifting. He can jump, break down moderate-sized ice blocks and move larger ones, and climb walls with his trusty ice picks. The frail, red-scarfed Hiko can run, albeit slower than his father, but he can’t jump at all, only hoist himself to slightly higher ledges. Though physically inept, however, his spiritual gifts are impressive. He is followed by a bright orb that allows him to build bridges of traversable light over select chasms, and his  teleport – sorry, teleflight – ability lets him move instantly from predetermined light portal to light portal to reach otherwise inaccessible areas and escape imminent danger.

Surprisingly, this is far less of a co-operative game than it is two alternating halves that form a whole. More often than not, Ataataq and Hiko will separate and make their own way before meeting up again past the current obstacles. The son sometimes needs his father to smash or move ice that is obstructing his path, but then it’s back to more solo efforts. Only rarely does father depend on son, but when together Hiko’s bridge-making ability is occasionally the only means of passage.

In a nice touch, both characters will automatically stop when they reach certain points and call out to their partner, indicating that they can’t go any further on their own, either because of an obstacle that requires help or because they’ve gone as far as they’re willing to without the other catching up. Still, it seems an odd choice to have a game with two playable characters so frequently disconnected from each other, especially because the family bond is supposed to be an integral element in giving the story some emotional heft.

There are some dangers to beware, but the threats are fairly straightforward. There are black puddles that periodically spurt infected goo (only after giving a telltale warning of imminent eruption), lethal pits, crumbling platforms, the odd heaving walls, and a few different types of patrolling enemies. Whether the burly, red-skinned furry men (abominable snowmen?), transparent ghosts or skeletal wolves on hind legs, these enemies aren’t too numerous or fearsome. They’ll kill you instantly if they catch you, but they lumber rather slowly, can’t jump high ledges, and apparently aren’t very bright, so avoiding them or luring them out of harm’s way is generally pretty easy. Once in a while you’ll also need to avoid growing black infection spots in the sky, which will overcome you if you stay idle too long in their presence. In some scenes you’ll need to fend off the cold as well. Stray too far from a fire and you’ll freeze, though this seems designed more to add tension than actual peril, as I never succumbed to the Arctic chill.

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If you do die you simply start again at the nearest checkpoint, which is typically close by, though it can be annoying when you need to repeat both characters’ sections because one is killed. For the most part, though, the challenge (as lightweight as it is) is simply to figure out how to get both characters to the end of the level, rather than requiring a high degree of skill to do so. The exceptions are the three sequences within the realm of the spirit Keepers, in which Hiko must propel himself through a low-gravity environment lined with deadly spikes in order to collect light orbs. These aren’t overly difficult, but they may take a few attempts at first, and you must start over from the beginning each time you fail.

Regardless of the character, getting around isn’t too difficult given the minimal means of interaction available. The game uses the standard WASD (well, really only WAD) keyboard scheme, but a controller feels far more natural. Response time is fairly sluggish – both Hiko and Ataataq move quite slowly at the best of times, and you may curse how interminably long it takes them to pull themselves up a short ledge with an enemy hard on their heels. Both can survive surprisingly large drops, but Ataataq has a frustrating tendency to roll on landing. This may be good form, but not when he tumbles you right into harm’s way. Fortunately, fine precision is rarely needed, so progress won’t often be impeded by control foibles.

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The so-called puzzles won’t trip you up very much either. It’s often not really clear what you need to do, but the options are so limited that there’s nothing a little exploring won’t inevitably solve. Apart from some vertical maneuvering, the action moves constantly to the right, so if you keep making your way in that general direction, you’ll either reach your goal or an impasse that requires switching to the other character with a simple keystroke or button press. Each level is very short, but they start to feel very repetitive due to the lack of variety. While many games introduce new obstacles and new abilities as you progress, here you’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see in the first few levels.

Ataataq’s skills are fairly basic – he’s the muscle, so everything he can do has already been done a million times before. That leaves Hiko’s spiritual gifts, which are intriguing but ultimately underwhelming. The teleflight ability seems practically pointless. It’s vital for getting Hiko out of jams, but there’s nothing more to it than hitting a key or button to move quickly from portal to portal, which only appear in his immediate vicinity when needed. There’s no thinking, no aiming, no strategy whatsoever. A little timing is required in the later levels, but nothing of any consequence.

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That leaves the light bridges, which are very manual, almost to a fault. A mouse is preferable to a controller’s D-pad here to use Hiko’s spirit orb by physically moving it across the path you wish to create. If successful, it will sprinkle light into a bridge that you can then cross. Good idea, but two problems: first, bridge locations are entirely pre-scripted, so you can’t experiment and the orb will leap forward to indicate where one can be built, removing any question before it’s even asked. Secondly, the orb controls can be a little finicky, and if you don’t smoothly guide it from start to finish, you run the risk that Hiko will involuntarily rush headlong to his death by falling through a gap in the bridge. The bridge eventually dissipates, too, and Ataataq likes to stop before getting off, so you’ll often need to nudge him the rest of the way yourself. Even with its quirks I liked the bridge concept, but it’s under-utilized as an actual puzzle-solving mechanic.

Other than the spirit world levels, that’s it for gameplay variation, and there isn’t much more graphic diversity either. Last Inua is a very nice-looking game, just a little too samey for its own good, with a couple notable exceptions. The cutscenes are done exclusively through stylish still paintings, and the in-game cartoon aesthetic is very appealing at first, the white snow contrasting smartly with the turquoise-tinted skies with vague outlines of rock formations, stilt houses, bird skulls, and animal totems in the background. Whenever lightning flashes, sudden glimpses of the menacing giant Tonrar are illuminated in the dark. An hour and many levels later… you’ll be seeing the same things and won’t be nearly as impressed.

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There is some variety later on, as evening turns to night and a yellow haze descends from the starry sky to a stony land filled with polar bear imagery. Then the game really goes for broke as the protagonists enter a giant bear, the second of three spirit Keepers. Best not to question the dodgy anatomy, but it’s delightfully perverse to wade through the pinkish caverns, veins and pulsing globules lining the walls, burbling green acid threatening death (or digestion) below crumbling platforms. Your footsteps skoosh through the moistness beneath you as you dodge crushing teeth, a far cry from the usual sounds of wind and crunching snow outside. There’s also an icy blue-ish cavern to briefly explore, but then it’s back to more turquoise, punctuated only by different accents – some of them admittedly cool, like the fossilized remains of fish, crustaceans, and even a prehistoric water dinosaur.

One clever touch occurs when your character begins to freeze. The edges of the screen start to frost over with a very painterly effect, continually closing in on the protagonist in the center. There are even cracks that appear, as if the camera viewing the action is beginning to shatter from the cold. The sound, too, becomes increasingly muffled the colder you get. I’m not sure whether this is meant to suggest a physiological loss of hearing or the hidden sound equipment freezing over; neither explanation makes any actual sense, but it’s a neat effect to alert you that something is very wrong and only getting worse.

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Apart from the characters occasionally calling out to the other, the intermittent garbled sci-fi narration, and the ambient sounds of a frozen winter tundra, the rest of the audio is filled by periodic tonal music meant to provide atmosphere more than melody. Like with Never Alone, I didn’t find this to be particularly ethnic-sounding, so either the Inuit listen to very different music than I imagined, or the developers decided that a more traditional Native soundtrack didn’t suit the platforming experience.

With so few obstacles or dangers to pad out play time, Last Inua is a short game, taking well under three hours to complete. There are some collectibles in the form of “spirit runes”, which are simply white orbs tucked away in harder-to-find places. But there’s absolutely no incentive to find them. They serve no practical purpose, nor unlock any extras. A bell simply chimes to let you know that you’ve accomplished… something. If this pointless extra errand matters at all to you, you can replay any level you’ve already completed from the load screen, though I didn’t bother, so I can’t say for sure whether there’s a bonus for actually collecting them all.

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The ending is meant to have dramatic emotional resonance, but I’m afraid I felt almost nothing. There’s too little to foster the father-son relationship; too little exploration of the characters along the way. Heck, father and son don’t even react when the other dies in their presence as you play. That’s not to say the endgame feels cheap or manipulative – the game is clearly building towards its narrative climax throughout, and the outcome is not out of place. But without the requisite personal investment to that point, it just doesn’t have nearly the impact that’s obviously intended.

For what it is, Last Inua is a solid enough little game. It’s low on both challenge and variety, but it looks and sounds pleasant enough, and is steeped in enough surreal mysticism that the experience feels oddly compelling. Its simplicity perhaps reflects its mobile origins, but even on PC it’s a diverting way to spend a couple puzzly-platforming hours. You won’t learn much about Inuit culture from playing it, but you might just be intrigued enough to want to discover more on your own. It’s not a long journey, but it’s definitely quite a trip.


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