Every Monday, Rob Zacny braces himself for the chilly wastes of Early Access and attempts to find warmth by the side of a worthy in-progress game.
From its opening on a park-bench at a roadside rest stop in northern Quebec, Kona tantalized me with a combination of period detail and immersive-sim mechanics. Before my character, private detective Carl Faubert, even finished his cigarette, I’d made sure to stash his extra smokes, Instamatic camera, and map in my inventory. Then it was time to hop into a carefully recreated ’65 Chevy pickup and drive up a narrow ribbon of backcountry highway, while a gentle snowfall turned into a blizzard outside my windows.
Kona is a wonderfully atmospheric game, though atmosphere isn’t hard to come by when you’ve turned the blizzard effects up to 11 and marooned the player in the wastes of northern Canada. With nothing but howling winter winds and a mysteriously deserted village for company, it’s easy to get caught up in the setting and its feeling of menacing isolation.
The problem is that once you get beyond the evocative art and sound, there isn’t a whole lot that’s interesting or exciting about Kona’s setting: a tiny logging and mining community. The problems start with the narrator, who sounds a bit like an actor on old radio dramas as he attempts to inject drama into boring lines and trite observations: “The eyepatch: the preferred choice of the one-eyed and those with other eye conditions.” Most of what the narrator says is gruel-flavored flavor text that turns the narrator into an atonal, grating presence through much of the game.
Even after a few hours playing the first chapter of Kona that’s available on Early Access, I still couldn’t tell you anything interesting about my character or the client that I was supposedly there to help. A list of credit accounts at the local general store told me who lived in the area, but further investigation failed to turn up a single reason to care about them.
That’s partly down to Kona’s large, slightly empty world. You can open-up practically every dresser drawer and kitchen cabinet in the game, but most of them don’t have anything of interest inside them. The feeling of impending discovery begins to wane as Kona starts to feel like an extended rummage through a kitchen junk-drawer. While the rustic homes of the 1970s Québécois are charming and beautifully rendered, the environmental storytelling is confined to some hastily-packed luggage, abandoned cookware, and random diary entries from characters I struggled to keep straight. The village feels less like it’s been deserted and more like it was never inhabited in the first place.
My confidence in developer Parabole’s storytelling did not increase when I got to the first major plot-twist: at the northern edge of town, the highway had collapsed into an impossible chasm, where a side-trail lead to a mysterious, glowing rock-face. Approaching it, the world vanished and I could see a series of neon ghosts standing by the cliff. Always ready to ensure that a big moment lands with a thud, the narrator remarked that “Carl wasn’t surprised to see the spirits, but he couldn’t figure out what they wanted.” Silly me, thinking that Carl would be surprised or interested by a spectral quartet hanging out in the woods.
The fact that Kona almost always struggles to fulfill its narrative ambitions would bother me more if it were just a narrative exploration game, but it’s also a survival adventure. This is where that atmosphere I mentioned earlier starts to show more potential than serving as window-dressing on semi-competent ghost story.
Carl Faubert’s current condition is measured by a series of meters showing his current health, warmth, and stress. Leave Carl out in the cold too long, he takes damage from it. Get him inside and light a fire, and he’ll be right as rain.
If this implies that that Kona is operating in the same territory as fellow Canadian survival sim The Long Dark, you’d be correct. The difference is that, at least in this first chapter, those meters are mostly there for show. Warmth and shelter are never far away, and Carl’s quick to rally from a walk through the snow. Occasionally I spotted a wolf dashing across the snowfields, but never felt menaced by potential predators. Where The Long Dark is constantly asking you where your next meal is coming from, and where you can safely sleep, Kona’s environment exists as a potential threat, not really an active one.
That said, there are lots of hints that survival and living by your wits will be a larger part of future adventures in Kona. The first location you visit, the general store, has you solve a little puzzle to repair a torn power-line from the backup generator, then use the circuit breaker to restore power to the main building. Each home and cabin usually has a wood-pile that can fuel the cast iron stoves in each kitchen, and there’s a precious small amount of firearm ammunition and healing items to be had.
Kona is stubbornly hard to assess. It’s a much more substantial offering than I’d expect for a game that just hit Early Access: after about four hours of play, I’m still not sure I’ve seen everything there is to see in this build. Yet what’s there is also very rough: not only is the writing and storytelling fairly clunky in places, but there are also a lot of little issues like somewhat obscure interface and a save system that doesn’t always seem to want me to save.
While I’m thrilled that Kona has an entire chapter ready to play right now, I’m also not sure that I like the direction of its overall narrative, or that my issues with it can still be corrected. As much as I enjoyed searching and exploring throughout this snowbound Québécois community, I kept waiting for the revelation or discovery that would make that search worthwhile. Right now I’d still say that it’s packed with potential to be a terrific hybrid of The Long Dark and Gone Home, but this first act hits so many flat notes that I’m wary (though still hopeful) about Kona’s ability to deliver on all that potential.