Isolated and abandoned are two words that come to mind while playing Parabole’s first person survival adventure game Kona. These words would usually strike fear in a person’s heart—an emotion that this game creates through music and atmosphere–but when it comes to this game they are the whole reason you should play it.
The game is set in Northern Quebec Canada during the 1970’s. The story places the player in the shoes of Carl, a private detective from Montreal hired by a mining magnate to investigate a crime in a small mining town. However, when Carl arrives in the small mining town it has been abandoned due to the incoming blizzard and mysterious circumstances. He is left to figure out why as well as survive the elements.
By placing this game in the 1970’s, as well as in a small mining town in Northern Quebec, it creates a fish out of water scenario that works well to draw the player into the atmosphere created in Kona; which is the strongest and most engaging aspect of the game. The environments are tree covered landscapes in the middle of a blizzard that only allow the player to see short distances. I constantly found myself just walking through the snow and wooded areas that surround the small houses in the town and literally jumping when I ran into a wolf or when the game throws the name of a person’s house in the middle of the screen due to the lack of anything else to interact with. The snow falling and constant sound of the wind blowing creates this wonderfully unnerving feeling that kept me on the edge of my seat (I was literally sitting on the edge of my couch).
The sound design amplifies the atmospheric qualities of the game. The constant and consistent whistling of the wind becomes such a part of the game that when it drops out—a tactic other games use to set up something is going to happen—I became more tense thinking something was going to happen even though it never did. The environment made me uncomfortable without resorting to jump scares. This isn’t to say that there is no music in the game because there is a radio in the player’s truck as well as in some houses, but I found myself just listening to the wind more than any of the music being offered.
The gameplay is standard: locate these three items and then bring them back. There are a few puzzles thrown in to change things up, but there aren’t many nor are they overly difficult to solve. There is also some minor combat, which is to say there are three times when you either shoot something or swing a blunt object, but most of the time you just run away.
Even though the game mechanics are standard for first person survival adventure games, the unique mechanic that Kona offers is the warmth meter and this twist enhances the tension even more, because now the player is constantly on a timer. This bar is constantly being depleted whenever the player is away from a fire. This is an interesting mechanic and it does cause the player to think through their chosen path and how they wish to get to the different areas of the map. However, there is always an available truck that will keep the player warm and outside of two later areas, I never died due to the cold (but I did have a few close calls and the game engaged me enough that this mattered to me).
This constant tension is palpable due to both the atmosphere and the game’s narrative. Kona is like many other survival adventure games, but the twist here is that there is a clear purpose to the player wandering around this small mining town. Carl is a private detective and he stumbles upon a murder mystery. Normally, the creators would want this to be linear and well structured, but by using the gameplay tenants of a survival adventure game and remaining “hands off” as far as story telling is concerned, it actually feels like the player is a detective attempting to solve the mystery.
The majority of the story elements are offered through diary pages, letters, and other documents that are laying around within character’s abandoned houses. Carl has a journal, which allows for clues to be archived and reviewed at will, but the mystery can be approached based on the order in which the player chooses to investigate the character’s homes, because the game doesn’t state or imply where to go next, the player must choose for them self. There are specific points that must be located in order to pass certain areas, but these don’t feel arbitrary because the development of the narrative makes the player want to investigate every little nook and cranny of each area instead of sprinting for the end of the game.
However, this does create a couple of problems that relate to the story and gameplay. The first problem caused by the freedom to approach the investigation in any way means the player does a lot of back tracking…and I mean a lot. A quarter of the time I spent with the game was focused on back tracking. This means the player will see the same animations of getting in and out of a truck over and over again as well as dealing with the frustratingly annoying loading screen circle. Every time the player travels from one house to another the game pauses for 10 seconds due to loading. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if the houses were more spread out, but a couple are literally across the street from each other.
The other major gripe with the story is connected to the narrator. The narrator is useful for exposition early in the game, but after the opening ten minutes the narrator waffles wildly between obvious exposition and tone-deaf statements. The narrator makes statements that seem intended to be humorous, but that detracts from the isolated and downbeat atmosphere. These “jokes” just come off as out of place and unnecessary. At its best the narrator is ignorable; at its worst the narrator pulls the player out of the experience.
The story’s ending is also a problem, because it is abrupt and anticlimactic. The player spends all this time unraveling the murder mystery in the game and then when they confront the killer it basically amounts to the player turning around and walking away from the situation. It is abrupt and so anticlimactic that my first response was to watch the final credits all the way through assuming there would be more gameplay and when I was taken back to the main menu I then searched online to see if there were alternate endings (neither of which are true). It left me with this feeling of “that’s it?”, which is not the feeling a player wants at the end of a mystery.
Kona PS4 Review
Kona is the type of game worth playing purely for the immersive experience that it offers. It does have some technical deficiencies and narrative problems that detract from that experience, but when the wind kicks up and the snow slides sideways past the screen and all the player can hear is the crunch of snow underneath boots along with the whistle of wind, those problems disappear. Do yourself a favor and experience Kona…just make sure to stay warm and beware the wolves.
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*Reviewed using a PS4 Standard.