Version Tested: PC
Available On: Windows, Mac
Genre: Mystery, Survival
Official Site: https://konagame.com/
Release Date: March 10, 2015
Last E3, after seeing the trailer for the indie darling Firewatch, I was hooked on the mystery and intrigue of the game. Development team Campo Santo did an impressive job keeping the lid on the project, refusing to spoil the experience for anyone. While Firewatch is a game of many strengths, I found its sense of exploration and mystery left me wanting something more. That games abundance of red herrings felt cruel to me, seemingly denying me any real revelation or puzzle to put together. Firewatch never satisfied my mystery itch. In ways, you could argue that’s the point of that game, but an itch still needs to be scratched. Thankfully Kona: Day One, developed by Parabole, has satiated that yearning of mine. A game, just oozing in Twin Peaks and X-Files inspired mystery and suspense.
Kona takes place in the 1970s in Northern Canada, Atamipek Lake to be exact. In typical mystery fashion, nothing is ever easy, and the protagonist, a detective named Carl, arrives during a blinding blizzard. What’s even more strange is the small community is seemingly abandoned. Stores have been ransacked, cars have been left buried in snow, and suitcases have been haphazardly packed. Carl was sent to investigate an act of vandalism involving the wealthy leader of the town. Someone with enough power to be both loved and feared, and maybe even loathed. Yet, what he finds in the small community of this reclusive Northern Canada town, might just be his biggest case yet.
The most immediately impressive thing about Kona is how large and fully realized Atamipek Lake is. It’s easy to get lost once you go off the beaten path, and the barrage of the blizzard will make it hard to get a bearing on where you are. Although I was never frustrated with being lost, I felt genuine relief when I found safety and warmth in a cabin, car, or store. It adds to the role-playing of Carl, as well as the alienation and isolation he feels. You are able to explore the frigid wilderness non-linearly, and developers Parabole deliver on that freedom. Every area in Atamipek Lake is dripping with clues and character. Given the large size, it’s notable that you rarely feel lost or overwhelmed. If a particular area or puzzle doesn’t quite make sense to you, leave and explore another part, gather more details and clues, and the answers start to become more transparent.
I particularly enjoyed how Parabole eases the player into the puzzles, as well as subtly guiding the players to the solutions. Very early in the game, Carl stops at the general store to refuel his truck, but that turns into a problem due to the power going out. Through exploration of the surrounding environment you’ll find the generator, realize you have to fix the damaged wire, and you think to yourself something like tape and pliers ought to do the trick. The games crafting menu notes you need just that, so you set out to find them. The games puzzles don’t rely on ludicrous trial and error adventure game logic, and it’s a beautiful thing. So I searched the general store for some tape, found it, then searched the neighboring garage for the pliers, and viola, simple fix. Then on to the next area. Say I didn’t feel like turning the power back on, I could have left the general store entirely and walked off into a different direction to find somewhere else to ransack for clues. In this particular case, it would mean leaving the truck, and braving the freezing cold alone.
Players are not only tasked with piecing the clues of what happened at Atamipek Lake together, but they must also brave the elements. Carl has a stress meter, a health meter, a weight meter (for carrying things), and there’s also a temperature meter; all of these add to a sense of urgency while being out in the cold. Players can keep those meters up by turning power on in buildings, starting fires, or resting in Carl’s truck. Without spoiling any of the story, or the games surprises, Carl will also have to fight for his life in this storm. Along with monitoring the various meters, players need to make good use of flare guns and ammunition, because the forest isn’t safe, and it’s not just the cold hampering Carl’s trek. Combat is functional, but has a loose feel to it. Don’t expect tight combat here. Yet, I wouldn’t call it a weakness of the game. It feels appropriate given the atmosphere and tone. Carl has experience shooting a gun, but it’s not something he does with any regularity. That coupled with the freezing temperature, the loose combat feels more right, supporting the character of Carl and the tone of the game.
As the player searches the environment as Carl, their interactions will trigger commentary from a narrator. Think something like Bastion, or the Delilah/Henry dynamic in Firewatch. The voice acting is solid, yet there is a breeze of camp to it. Some of the lines are cringe worthy, but in a way that brings a smile to your face. I think the dialogue and writing are a love letter to the mystery novels and films of yesteryear. With lines like “Carl the professional vandal laughed to himself at the irony.” as he breaks the lock on a chan link fence. You can’t help but chuckle either, and the voice is welcomed in the otherwise lonely setting of Kona. Another cool touch to the exploration, puzzle solving, and clue gathering is, Carl’s thoughts will appear on the surfaces of the items you interact with. It’s been done before, but it’s extremely useful and appropriate in a game of this nature.
What isn’t a welcome addition is some of the performance issues I had. Anytime I was driving Carl’s truck, the game would hitch and freeze a bit, and sometimes even crash. The frame rate would go between silky smooth and jarring, even without anything performance demanding happening. I eventually turned off the depth of field, and although it helped, the game still had similar issues, even continuing when turning everything on low. I’m running a GTX 770 2 gig so it is a solid rig, and while Kona’s storm effects and light shafts are admirable, it’s no Witcher 3 or Metro 2033. Both of which run a heck of a lot smoother on the same computer. However, that is to be expected of a game in early access. What isn’t expected is some odd design choices like having to equip your flashlight in the menu every time you need it, instead of just pressing F, the accepted standard for a game with a flashlight. Also, it’s hard to really determine if the story will be worth the payoff as this is one game in a planned four-part series, and that could work against the title’s digestibility. I personally don’t love getting invested in things I can’t see to completion, however, Kona got its hook in me, I simply had to find the answers. There’s something about exploring every crevice in a richly detailed game environment and piecing together a story, that feels great to me.
For a game in early access, Kona has raised the bar for these “in progress” projects. Launching practically feature complete, with 3-4 hours of game for you to digest, for a $9.99 asking price, there’s not a lot to risk to give this unique and impressive game a try. Fans of Firewatch, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and even Deadly Premonition will be in love. I’ll be eagerly awaiting Day 2, I just hope it isn’t two to three years between the next additions.
Author Note: I will be doing a more in depth review when the game releases.