KONA Review

By Mark Delaney,
Perhaps the two fastest growing genres in independent video games are survival and the first-person adventure sometimes suitably referred to as walking sims. The Kickstarted KONA presents, as far as I can tell, a one of a kind mix of these two genres that results in some good, some bad, some revelation and some enigma. It's on and off in this chilly Canadian detective story.

LogoBaby, it's cold outside.

KONA is an entirely single-player game presented in first-person. A strong opening puts players quickly into the perspective of Private Investigator Carl Faubert. The year is 1970 and he's been hired by a wealthy businessman in the isolated Canadian village of Atamipek Lake to investigate a simple vandalism claim. Such an affront to lawfulness is seen by our protagonist as something a bit below his pay grade, but he decides to help nonetheless. It won't be long until he regrets that decision, although he never announces this himself; Carl is a silent protagonist. The game is narrated by a grandfatherly voice that initially seemed off, but after a few moments, the voice work seemed more at home.

After mere minutes in town Carl swerves off the road into a snow bank. Seeking refuge from the unkind blizzard, Carl builds a fire in a nearby shack. He can't stay there forever, though, and after borrowing some chains for his tires Carl returns to the dangerously snowy roads in search of his client. Detective stories always have the advantage of giving people something they all innately want — answers — and though KONA will offer many of them over the course of its three to four hours of playtime, it takes its time in doing so and doesn't shy from leaving a few to linger after the credits. This opening hook, a detective on the job, cuts more deeply when Carl finds a dead body at the local general store. From here the game descends into many threads that manage to tell several isolated stories that come together to tell one larger tale, which won't likely make complete sense to anyone that doesn't exhaust themselves in search of the game's many story-based collectibles.

Screenshot Saturday 4/2/17Answers are found all over the village, but you can miss most of them if you aren't looking.

The first-person adventuring, environmental puzzles, dozens of cabinets, fridges, garage doors, and loose documents with which you can interact are all right out of the walking sim playbook, but if you find yourself on the negative end of that spectrum regarding how you feel about such games, don't discount KONA just yet. The game does dabble with enough survival mechanics to place it squarely in the middle ground between Firewatch and The Long Dark. It's rarely unforgiving like the latter, but it's certainly more involved than the former.

You'll need to manage inventory, stay warm and healthy, and navigate a world that leaves you with very few clues as to where you should go next. The narrator will sometimes insert hints in his otherwise storyteller diction, but there are no quest arrows or mission markers in this modestly sized open world. You'll also have the opportunity to fight wolves with several different melee weapons and even a few guns, although you can avoid combat entirely if you prefer. The very few combat moments that do arise feel unnecessary or clunky. It feels as though the game may work best as one that asks you only to flee and never fight, due to the nearly zero times it asks you to do so. The survival mechanics are definitely secondary to the game's narrative roots — and thus not grueling — but it's a mix not often (or ever?) seen in games before.

Screenshot 2There's no day/night cycle. Rather the sun sets after a specific story moment.

Littered throughout the small village with just enough personal space to appease each of the eccentric (although mostly absent) townspeople are their homes. Much of the time you can enter these without difficulty, sometimes they'll be locked away or available only after puzzles. Inside each of them are story bits that help the sleuth unravel a mystery of a town that gets weirder every moment he spends shivering in it. With the game starting you on the bottom of your map in hand, the natural progression speaks to you heading north to "win" but you'll have to do some backtracking, especially if you overlook vital information or items.

KONA rests its head on its story, but sadly doesn't quite deliver in that regard. Granted, I missed some documents or story-related items, but so too will most people who don't use a guide. There's no deep connection to any of the small cast of characters and that's not for lack of trying. We learn quite intimate details of several Atamipak villagers, but it feels like it juggles too much at one time while never slowing on the more and more bizarre threads that crop up right through to the conclusion. Then, before you may ever wrap your head around all of the shifting information and dualing points of view present in the many environmental clues, KONA ends all too suddenly. Its run time of three to four hours is about what to expect for a game like this, but its use of that relatively short time is what's so lacking.

Screenshot 1Not in the history of the world has anything good ever happened in a place that looks like this.

That's not to say it's a total disappointment, though. The world and story both offer some bright spots, not the least of which are the literally bright whiteout conditions of the village. To affect the player's view of the world to the extent that KONA does is another unique component to the game. First-person driving is often a challenge due to the narrow and snow-covered roads, and the precipitation never stops falling overhead either. The story tries themes and subject matter that aren't often touched in games and occasionally handles them with maturity and intrigue. A lot of the goodwill the game's strong opening garners is eventually lost, but I still walked away from the frozen Canadian village thankful for having seen it.

On the achievement side, KONA will hand out a good amount without any help beyond a quick perusal of the list itself. It has several that can easily be missed, like to beat it without ever shooting a gun or traveling only on foot after the opening general store scene. There are plenty of collectibles to be found, but most of them are story-focused and worthwhile. Without a doubt a few days' or weeks' time will deliver the proper guides for finding them all to anyone interested. Once those are available, even the less than eagle-eyed players can find in KONA a quick, albeit infrequently challenging completion.

Summary

KONA wants to tell an interesting story within the construct of a survival-adventure hybrid game. It succeeds more greatly at doing the latter but even the story provides enough intrigue to merit seeing the brief game through to the end, as ultimately off-the-mark as it becomes. If you're a fan of either genre by which it's inspired then you'll find something to enjoy in the snow-topped Canadian forests of KONA, but pack lightly — it'll be a short and somewhat forgettable stay.
6 / 10
KONA
Positives
  • Great opening act
  • Interesting mix of two usually unrelated genres
  • Some story moments are intriguing
Negatives
  • Rushed final act that needs more build-up
  • Much of the story is unaffecting
  • Combat moments are messy and sparse
Ethics
The reviewer spent three hours in Atamipak Lake, collecting clues, rebuilding a snowmobile, and running from both the cold and a few predators. Along the way, 19 of 35 achievements were unlocked for 480 gamerscore. An Xbox One download code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.