If Firewatch and Alone in the Dark were to consummate, Kona would be their love child. Kona is a first-person, decision-based investigative exploration game set in Northern Canada during the 70s. Players are left to investigate a multitude of strange cases while simultaneously enduring an immense, even stranger blizzard that is ravaging Lake Atamipek. From the very first moments of the hands-on demo at E3, I could immediately tell that the chaos of the show floor was not a fitting environment to fully appreciate Kona‘s immersive qualities. Alexandre Fiset of Parabole was kind enough to give me a code to play the game at home, and phew – it is indeed immersive to say the least.
Kona‘s soundtrack by Quebec-based folk band CuréLabel was the first thing to capture my attention. A well-composed track sets the tone for the chillingly macabre investigation that lies ahead of players before the story even begins. Detective Carl Faubert, the game’s protagonist, travels to Lake Atamipek for a wealthy client. He’s not from around these parts – a mere sliver of Carl’s narrative backstory revealed by a consistent narration incorporated into the game. Kona provides narrated comments for everything from in-game findings to selections made from the game’s menu, and offers an omniscient wealth of narrative content without removing the player from the experience.
This specific blizzard is not for the faint-hearted. Telephone lines sway in the wind as erratically as the trees, cars swerve off the road uncontrollably, and visibility is almost completely absent due to the sheer amount of snow and ice blowing around every which way. With all the wintery pandemonium, the town has a perplexing quietness about it. Kona features an open world to allow players to explore to their heart’s delight, as well as a truck with extra storage space for items to cut down on traveling time – that is, if you have the gas to fuel it and the mind to drive it.
Four in-game meters constitute the survival aspect of Kona: Health, Temperature, Stress, and Weight. Health will degrade if, say, you run into a pack of wolves with no way to defend yourself (this does happen). First aid kits can be used to recover from any unfortunate circumstances that may arise thanks to the game’s violent wilderness. If you play your cards right with strategic navigation and an effective use of items, however, your health will mostly stay put. Temperature will continually go down if you’re too cold for the environment and often requires standing next to a fire source or inside a shelter to maintain it.
Stress can be tended to with the smoking of cigarettes found in-game, often supplying Carl with the only comfort he has when stuck in a shed with two wolves (and whatever else) lurking outside. If you find yourself in the face of danger too often, there may not be enough cigarettes to save you – the more stressed you get, the shorter distance you’re able to run, and that is a lame characteristic that Carl cannot afford to have. Weight is treated in a conventional way as holding more items in your inventory will weigh you down; inventory management quickly becomes important in order to prevent overburdening yourself in an unfortunate situation.
Crafting is incorporated into the game in a passively unobtrusive way. Your in-game findings will collect themselves within the specific categories of the main menu. If you find a situation where crafting can be utilized (such as starting a fire in a fire pit), the game will visually display to players exactly what they need in their inventory in order to perform the action. There’s no menus or recipe lists, it’s all live and in-game. Two mechanics, the Journal and Camera, are included in the game as well, but a disclaimer at the beginning of the demo warned that both mechanics are being revamped, so I’ll refrain from commenting on them at large. For what it’s worth, the current inclusion of both gameplay elements felt entirely befitting for a game of this style.
Interactivity is part of Kona‘s core identity, and the concept rears its beautiful head around every corner. Cabinets, cash registers, telephones, cans of food, trash, boxes, refrigerators, portraits, mailboxes – you name it, and you can probably interact with it. Objects that can be observed or interacted with are denoted by a small yellow dot (subject to change), and there’s an overwhelming amount of them pervading Kona‘s gameplay. Sometimes you’ll find a document that, with deductive reasoning on Carl’s part, can be utilized as a clue to head to a specific place, or to better understand a specific situation. Other times you’ll find useful items for crafting, while sometimes you’ll simply find nothing at all. You never truly know what you’ll uncover in Kona, and the more time you spend controlling Carl the more you’ll realize that things are not as they seem. Not at all.
Kona is far more surreal than I had originally anticipated. People can be found suspended in chunks of ice, and something about their location, position, and the ice’s design seems to imply that it happened all at once. Placing your hand on the frozen monument to a life far gone will initiate a sequence of visions for Carl, transporting players into a macabre realm filled with glowing footprints and ghostly, transparent figures reenacting events that transpired from around your current location. Illuminated handprints will appear to grant Carl some investigative direction while exploring these visions, ultimately leading players to a clue that will inevitably bring Carl back to reality armed with the knowledge and foresight gained from a seemingly ethereal plane.
Kona is beautifully cryptic in its presentation, and it never ceased to surprise me during my time attempting to survive in the wintery Canadian wilderness. For as realistic as it looks, it certainly contains enough surreal aspects to prevent players from knowing what to expect.
This is merely one of four parts to the episodic, bizarre adventure that is Kona. If the first part is of any indication, I’ll be strapped in my seat to see it all through.
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