- A very neat combination of survival and adventure;
- The atmosphere of chilly winter;
- Very nice locations;
- Music and audio;
- Decent driving model;
- A proper crime story underpinned by a mystery.
- More or less flagrant technical issues;
- Quite short.
Walking simulators can get our hearts racing and suck us in; it’s a well-known fact. Games such as Kholat or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter had already proven it well; taking us to God (and men) forsaken places, both games depicted weird, unsettling events – just as Kona does. Goosebumps, the feeling of being watched and closely followed is an integral part of the entire journey. This is some genuine Stephen King stuff.
At the same time, Kona doesn’t overdo it, pretending to be a full-blown horror game. It’s a mystery tale, evoking the best episodes of the X Files. It’s a trip to a shabby lumber village, where nothing awaits you but solitude, uncertainty and withering cold.
The year is 1970. Carl Faubert, a private investigator, expects a quick, routine case in the countryside. He has been dispatched to investigate a call from a W. Hamilton, whose summer house had been vandalized. Hamilton is an owner of a copper mining operation, conflicted with the local population. And so the protagonist hits the road in his red pick-up truck. It’s October. Leaves are falling, the light is soft, and the area is charming. Nothing like a scenic route to Quebec.
This all ends in an instant. Carl miraculously dodges a head-on collision with another car, just to lose control and crash into an embankment. When he regains consciousness, he discovers the landscape changed beyond recognition: the gentle, red-golden forest turned into an apocalyptic wasteland covered with a thick layer of snow, ravaged by a howling blizzard. Upon arriving at the first houses, it becomes apparent that the job will be nothing like Carl had imagined. The protagonist is “welcomed” in the settlement by a corpse and some mysterious footprints and traces. That’s how this gloomy and bloody mystery begins.
The main driving force behind the adventure is its atmosphere: intense, keeping you on your toes, and woven with an unspoken threat, always complemented by a subtle, sorrowful overtone. By combining all this with quite an engaging plot, which unravels with every new discovery and every new lead, Kona offers an approachable and captivating gameplay, and compels the player to explore the region. The game features a 3rd person narrator, who – while not as good as in Bastion or Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – does spin a captivating tale, contributing greatly to the mood of a proper interactive mystery novel.
In terms of gameplay, the title doesn’t deviate considerably from the genre’s standards, but all the solutions have been sufficiently polished. Solving simple riddles allows us to unravel the story and gather valuable resources. Although the riddles don’t pose a terribly exciting challenge, they’re still pretty satisfying – mainly because they’re logical and because they don’t depart from the themes established by the game, thanks to which the transition between subsequent bits of the story is seamless.
The survival elements are more demanding. The most dangerous enemy is exposure to the omnipresent, relentless, biting frost. Since at the very beginning of the game the protagonist doesn’t have any warm clothes, we have to search for and use sources of heat if we don’t want him to end up as an ice cube left at the mercy of wind. Apart from that, we must take care of the physical and mental condition of the detective – nothing soothes his nerves better than a shot of brandy and a smoke. Other hazards include wildlife – wolves, to be precise, which are a deadly foe if the player has no gun. The survival aspects are a welcome diversification, which remains in a very natural relation with the adventure-game riddles, adding a touch of realism into the mix.
The protagonist roams the area on foot or uses a car or a snowmobile. The car can be used as a means of transport or Carl’s private locker (also, occasionally, a jukebox). The driving model is quite good; it probably won’t provide any Gymkhana type of thrill, but it’s another nice enhancement of the gameplay, and one that complements Kona’s atmosphere perfectly.
We don’t know much about the protagonist, Carl Faubert, and Kona barely sheds any light on his personality. We know for certain that he was a well-trained military, and – as depicted in the game – he’s drawn to bizarre, supernatural phenomena. We might learn more about him in the promised sequel…
The dead of winter
Graphics in Kona are not bad, although the textures fall behind, say, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but we can still enjoy the landscapes. The ambience of the Canadian wilderness and the sporadic, abandoned wooden houses radiate a quaint and austere charm. Similarly, the cars, house interiors and rare human models maintain the same reliable yet far-from-extraordinary level..
Associations with Alan Wake are totally understandable, with the one difference being the snow, covering the whole game world – and it does look great. The visibility is always limited, but that’s a stylistic solution, meant to unnerve and reinforce the sensation of being lost.
Obviously, we encounter some glitches and mistakes along the way. Some of them we’ll wave off with a smile and quickly forget; others may prompt us to tap into the vulgar sections of our lexicons. The greatest bug I experienced was the vanishing of an item from my equipment – the thing is that it was necessary to finish one of the puzzles. That happened after I loaded a game one time, and rebooting it didn’t help at all, so… I had to start all over. Fortunately, that happened quite early into the game, which – by the way – is pretty short. You can finish Kona in around 3-5 hours.
Other glitches were purely cosmetic – still, they can jeopardize the immersion and spoil the tension. I couldn’t help cracking a smile when, during raking one of the houses, I heard noises coming from downstairs. I went there to check what was going on; it turned out there was a stray wolf poking about the kitchen. Upon spotting me, the unlikely visitor took to his heels, but… didn’t forget to shut the door on his way out. Now that’s what I call good manners. The protagonist’s movements sometimes seem pretty sluggish despite there being no conditions that would warrant it, such as very harsh weather or difficult terrain, for instance. Sometimes I just felt I was controlling a rusty old mech, not an experienced private investigator with an army record.
The sound design, on the other hand, makes up for most these shortcomings. The sounds of nature create a genuine impression of exploring a remote area, and the snow squeaks under our feet. The soundtrack completes the mix with a set of nice folk-rock tunes, evoking a ‘70s feel.
A couple words of closure
Kona stumbles a couple of times, and its low budget is pretty obvious, yet it manages to be a satisfying experience for everyone who likes to see atmosphere and underlying tension dominate a game. The journey to Quebec is a great opportunity to face the majesty of nature and a couple of local spooky tales. Tying all the loose ends and solving the mystery proves quite enjoyable and reveals an interesting part of the history of the small town.
Winter has, once again, officially ended in the Northern Hemisphere, so if you feel that the season was a little too mild and gentle, why not plunge into Kona? And if you’re not easily spooked by technical shortcomings, you can go ahead and add a half, or even one whole point to the final rating.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I rarely play games like these, but I appreciate their charm. I missed the surge of popularity of Firewatch but I managed to get aboard the The Vanishing of Ethan Carter hype train. There’s a certain hypnotizing quality to these long, slow strolls through abandoned areas full of secrets. Finishing Kona took me some three hours of walking about (the time needed to catch up after the corrupt save not included).