Investigate a deserted town and the whereabouts of its inhabitants.
PC Release: March 17, 2017
By Ian Coppock
Horror games can be a great way to beat the heat. That assertion may seem premature with the first day of spring having only been a few days ago, but between summer’s rapid approach and the appalling disinterest in combating global warming, hot temperatures will be here quicker than split infinity. Ideally, though, a horror game’s thrills and chills should be much more than a means of temperature control. They should be the result of a spooky world with a thick atmosphere, something that gamers can get rapidly sucked into. It’s time to see if Kona, the subject of tonight’s review, has a spooky world going for it.
Kona is a first-person mystery horror game developed by a small French Canadian studio called Parabole. It’s the rarest of video games in that it started out in Steam’s Early Access program and was actually seen through to completion. Few are the Early Access games that actually make it through the front door instead of being left to languish in a half-completed state. The first 30% or so of Kona was available in Early Access for the better part of a year, but with the finished product now on the market, it’s safe to review.
Kona is set during the winter of 1970 and casts players as Carl Faubert, a private investigator. The game begins as Carl makes his way to a remote village in northern Canada at the behest of local businessman William Hamilton. Someone has been vandalizing Hamilton’s businesses, and Carl’s been hired to catch the culprit and bring them to justice. Carl eventually makes it to the town, but when he gets there, he finds it abandoned. The townsfolk have vanished from their village and from what Carl can tell, they left in a hurry.
As he travels around the village, Carl makes a far more disquieting discovery: a few villagers flash-frozen in ice as they were fleeing from an unknown threat. Indeed, unnatural formations of glowing ice dot the entire village, and are incredibly cold to the touch. With his investigation into vandalism having grown into something much more serious, Carl sets out into the fierce Canadian winter to solve the mystery of the missing townsfolk, and what they were fleeing from.
Kona‘s icy tale is a suspenseful story that combines elements of adventure, horror, and survival gameplay. Players progress in Kona by exploring the village, gathering clues, and solving simple puzzles. It’s up to Carl to figure out why the town is abandoned and how the flash-frozen villagers he encounters met their fates. He can also spend time learning the villagers’ stories and investigating buildings off the beaten path. Carl doesn’t talk much, but the story is narrated by a grandfatherly Canadian whose wit and suspense-building are well-written.
As one might expect of a game that has such an eerie premise, Kona is a spooky title. The entire production is cloaked in an atmosphere as claustrophobic and foreboding as the blizzard that rages through its town. The game’s horror comes from investigating the blacked-out buildings and who knows what awaits inside, as well as avoiding the ravenous wolves that patrol the wilds outside town. Of course, wolves can’t freeze people in ice or drive an entire town to flee, so players can bet that there’s something far worse skulking around in the trees.
Kona also incorporates light survival elements into its production. Players have to stay alive by lighting fires and scrounging for supplies, as Carl can easily freeze to death or succumb to injuries if players aren’t careful. Supplies are usually pretty close at hand, though, so while playing Kona does require some survival aptitude, the game isn’t a hardcore wilderness simulator like The Long Dark. No, Kona‘s focus is much more on story and atmosphere than ransacking cabins for granola bars (though players can do that too).
The meat of Kona‘s gameplay comprises exploring the village for clues. Kona is set in a small but vibrant open-world map, about the same size as that of Firewatch. It’s easy to get lost or freeze to death out in the snow, but luckily players can also drive from house to house in Carl’s truck (be sure to gas it up first). Investigating surroundings is usually pretty simple; just walk up to the item of interest and touch it or take a photo. It’s not the most interactive of gameplay setups, but similarly to Firewatch, the point is more what the item or narrative step represents than the gameplay involved.
That said, Kona still has lots of gameplay to offer in and around the story points. The exploration of abandoned homes is definitely the tensest part of the game, especially when Carl’s in the bedroom sifting through drawers and hears a loud crash from the kitchen. Carl has an inventory that players can slowly fill with the tools and weapons necessary for getting around, and can store excess supplies in his truck. Combat in the game is pretty straightforward; pull out a weapon, pray hard, and aim low. Usually, it’s best to avoid confrontations with wildlife and… whatever else is out there. Apart from these core components, players can also expect to have to solve a few puzzles.
Kona‘s exploration-heavy gameplay will sate fans of open-world and mystery games, but there’s something a bit tedious about how it’s all set up. As the game unfolds, players may need to return and re-comb the same areas over and over to pick up items they now need. It’s a bit dull to get to a certain point, realize Carl needs a previously overlooked item, and then spend hours combing houses the player already spent hours combing to find that now-essential item. The best way to head this little issue off is just to be as thorough as possible and leave no stone unturned. Don’t have room in Carl’s pockets? Pop the extra item in the truck.
Apart from that potential snafu, exploration in Kona makes for some spooky fun indeed. There’s an unbeatable tension in driving through blizzard weather, pulling up to an abandoned house, quietly opening the door, and creeping from room to room in search of supplies while wind and wolves howl outside. More than that, Carl’s after a story, and the game does a good job at leaving tantalizing clues behind. Carl picks up on everything from the minutia of everyday life to major clues about the mass disappearance, and all of it is masterfully narrated by the aforementioned grandfatherly Canadian.
Kona‘s mysterious atmosphere is further reinforced by smart art direction. The entire game was built in the Unity engine, but it has an actual in-depth options menu instead of that pitiful little resolution panel players usually get when booting up a Unity game. Some of the visuals look dated, especially the clone-stamped patches of dirt, and the textures could be sharper, but the game’s blizzard weather is absolutely beautiful. Parabole’s designers did a good job of creating a foreboding winter landscape, where winter winds rip realistically through pine trees and one can almost “see” the cold inside every abandoned building. The interior and exterior lighting are both very well done, though character animations on both animals and… other things… need a touch of work.
The open-world map sports a mix of buildings and open wilderness, both teeming with dangers unseen. Carl can make his way up and down the map and weave through both deserted houses and copses of pine trees in relatively quick order. Straying too far from the road can be hazardous, what with all the wolves running around, but there are rewards out there for the discerning private investigator. In addition to the plot-essential areas needing exploration, Carl can deviate to “side locations” and uncover optional treasures and story points. The map is in pretty good shape; the one drawback is that it seems to have an awful lot of loading screens. Four or so loading screens over a relatively small open world isn’t exactly seamless.
Despite ending on a rather abrupt note, the central narrative of Kona does an apt job of tying several subplots into an overarching, terrifying story. Carl doesn’t exactly abandon his original assignment of investigating vandalism when he arrives, as it seems to be tied up in the disappearance of the townsfolk. As Carl makes his way through the village, Kona introduces more characters and plot threads at subtle, well-paced intervals. Even though these characters are being introduced post-disappearance by the narrator, Kona ensures that the player feels some remorse for their disappearance through a combination of well-written documents and more physical show-don’t-tell exposition.
Kona also provides a plethora of exposition on the local area. The village holds a lot of history on Quebec, and makes most of it relevant to the plot in some way (especially the spate of Quebec independence movements that were active at the time). Much like the documents and other exposition helps tie players to the characters, this material similarly provides some endearment for the setting (even though it’s a grim, forbidding, cold, and quite possibly haunted setting).
In the end, Kona largely succeeds at providing that grim atmosphere that both delights and terrifies. It offers a haunting setting and forbidding central mystery to chase after, and it taunts players with deathly obstacles all the while. Cap it all off with a heart-pounding, climactic encounter with an insidious foe, and Carl’s assignment to investigate graffiti becomes one of the most suspenseful capers since last year’s Firewatch. Horror, mystery and adventure gamers alike will find much to enjoy in Kona. In an industry teeming with developers who misunderstand subtlety, Parabole’s new game (and future productions) bear watching with great interest.
You can buy Kona here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.