Ever since Dear Esther plodded onto the PC scene back in 2012, the glut of similar ‘walking simulator’ styled first-person adventures has been both steady, and for the most part, uninventive. Starting life as a Kickstarter-funded effort, Kona looks to address that latter concern, infusing a sense of natural peril and freeform storytelling that the genre rarely bares witness to.
Winter is coming
On a basic level, Kona feels like what would happen if you took the dynamic narrator from Bastion and Transistor, stuck them in Firewatch, covered the place in snow and sprinkled some of the Coen Brothers seminal Fargo on top for good measure. Set in the frigidly harsh rural expanse of Northern Canada, Kona puts players in the well-worn soles of Carl Faubert, an eminent private detective who finds himself hired by ruthless industrial magnate W. Hamilton to uncover the architects of a conspiracy against him.
Upon arriving in the repressive, snow blotted deep north, a near collision with another car forces Faubert off the road and knocks him unconscious. Upon awaking some hours later, an especially savage blizzard has taken hold and nobody, least of all his client W. Hamilton, can be found in the maelstrom. Narratively-speaking, Kona definitely pulls deeply from the inspiration well, emulating the likes of Fargo and the X-Files with aplomb, but still manages to successfully coalesce those influences into a creation that feels singularly fresh and compelling. So begins the odyssey of Kona, a first-person detective adventure that on the strength of its setting alone, does some refreshing things not usually seen in the genre.
From the off, while there is the mystery of Hamilton’s disappearance to solve, it is entirely up to you how you go about doing this. Quite unlike either Dear Esther or other similar fare, Kona willingly and somewhat bravely gives up a surprising amount of freedom to the player, encouraging them to wander the town of Atamipek to discover clues and evidence in a thoroughly non-linear order. For the most part this involves cutting about the place, going into people’s homes for a spot of home invasion and of course, rummaging through the various bits and pieces of furniture once you gain entry.
Desk drawers, cupboards, fridges, wardrobes and more can often be interrogated to give up the documents and evidence that you need to proceed, the former doing double duty as handy lore filler for the game world itself and thus providing that extra bit of incentive to be more thorough in your searches. As well as the various houses, garages, cabins and more that you find yourself in, Atamipek actually turns out to be a deceptively large chunk of land and one that often proves easy to get lost in. Luckily, a handy paper map can be unfolded and used to orient yourself; helpfully pointing out areas of interest that can be trekked to in short order.
One nice little touch is how the narration works in Kona. Much like how it is handled dynamically in Supergiant Games Bastion and Transistor, a disembodied voice chronicles everything that Carl Faubert does, from the mundane to significant, and actually turns out to be properly helpful, too; letting the players know if there are any undiscovered clues or items of interest in the location that they are about to take flight from.
A far cry from the guided walkabout tours that Dear Esther and Firewatch largely are, Kona actually has the player using their brains for once to solve puzzles that often require a combination of logical thinking and exploration in order to be successful. A paranoid old man locked in his cabin with just a shotgun for company might, for example, hand over some much needed winter clothing so long as you are able to find the ingredients to make some potent alcohol for him; a feat that requires you to scout the island for the appropriate reagents (and machinery) to make the magic happen. Quite honestly, it’s good to have the old grey matter taxed like this in a genre that has, in recent times at least, been more than happy to let us stare agape at the pretty visuals and little else.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself
Aside from the decidedly non-linear approach to progression, Kona’s frosty setting isn’t merely there for kicks; quite the opposite. Though the game does not lack in an eventual big bad for you to bump heads with, it’s actually the environment and Faubert’s own well-being that present the most significant adversary that the player will encounter throughout Kona’s duration.
Invariably, Carl’s state of mind has very real ramifications to his agency in the world, too. When particularly stressed by enemies (wolves are a constant threat should you venture off the beaten path) or traumatic events in general, the good detective will find it difficult to keep a decent running pace for very long and will become less accurate when using firearms. To calm his nerves, our troubled sleuth can puff away on a cigarette, chug down a beer, or, stand by a heat source to get himself warmed up.
Speaking of warmth, in addition to matters of mental and emotional fortitude, the player must also ensure that Carl is kept nice and toasty in the frigid North Canadian countryside; with heat sources not only keeping him warm and alive, but also doubling up as handy save points, too. Of course most heat sources, such as stoves and camps, are dormant and require the requisite reagents — matches, fuel and wood — in order to be set alight, providing the player with some much needed warmth so long as they have necessary supplies in their inventory to pull it off.
Poor combat and framerates leaves us cold
If there’s one thing that Kona could have done better, or done without entirely, it would be the combat system. For a game so concerned with fostering a sense of atmosphere and perceptible gravitas, fighting things in Kona feels so comparatively utterly unsatisfying. Whether you’re swinging an axe that feels like it’s made of plastic, or shooting a rifle that has all the pop and crack of a discount store BB-gun, it’s fair to say that violent confrontations in Kona hardly enthral.
Worse still is the fact that you only fight a single type of enemy in Kona; wolves. And fight them you will, over and over and over again until you’re sick of doing it, and though a reprieve comes in the form of simply avoiding them altogether (stamina permitting), the fact still remains that you shouldn’t have to do that if a decent combat system was there in the first place. Crazily, Kona’s final act literally has you doing nothing but this, fighting wolves over and over as you make your way to a particular location, and it arguably leaves a bad taste in the mouth when all is said and done. A crying shame given the great and commendable strides made by the game elsewhere.
Another issue, albeit one that is felt far more keenly throughout Kona’s duration is the framerate, or rather, its almost total lack of consistency. You see, one second everything can be buttery smooth while the next, the framerate plummets through the floor for no apparent reason; seemingly regardless of whatever is happening on screen at the time. The upshot of having an uncapped framerate such as this, is that the game has a lot of visual stutter which noticeably detracts from the responsiveness of the game, so yeah, not good.
Adding some further stink to the technical shortcomings of Kona, is how the traversal to the various areas of Atamipek are handled. Basically, each time you walk towards a property, building or another part of the countryside, the game pauses and just sits there loading for three to five seconds. Worse still, it does this with no loading screen or anything of the sort – just a no-frills, rotating loading icon to keep you company while you wait for the game to gather itself. Honestly, we shouldn’t be seeing this sort of thing on a PS4 console in 2017.
Though it can take a while to hit its stride in the early going, Kona can be almost overwhelmingly atmospheric. The sound of your feet crunching through the snow as the blizzard batters you in the face, constantly seeking to wear you down en route to your next clue, is a tonal device that feels very unique to Kona and lends the game a sense of oppression that few of its peers possess.
Though it is fair to say however, that the game has some problems, at least in its current form. The yo-yo’ing framerate does little to inspire confidence; hitting 60fps one moment and dropping well below 30fps the next, while the combat just feels clumsy and unwieldy; a seeming afterthought to a game where exploration and atmosphere are held at a premium.
Nonetheless, Kona still stands as a success. A compelling first-person adventure steeped in Canadian tradition and folklore, a commendable focus on survival elements and cerebrum stimulating conundrums both serve to meaningfully separate it from its immediately comparable peers.
Kona review code provided by the publisher.