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Wot I Think: Survival meets adventure in Kôna

Chilling

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Survival-meets-adventure Kôna [official site] feels like a game that admirably comes in the wake of Campo Santo’s wilderness wonder Firewatch. But it’s worth noting the Kickstarter for the game launched years before Firewatch released. Still, I suspect lessons have been learned and added in the last year, and they’re very welcome, as this proves to be a fascinating game.

Rob Zacny took a look at the Kickstarted project last year during its early access, but much has changed since and now it’s out for real. I’m really pleased to report it’s well worth a look. And, as I always seem to be saying as I launch into these reviews, if you want the experience as I had it – going in completely blind, knowing nothing other than it was a scripted adventure using the techniques of survival games – then take my word for it that it’s a top-notch experience with a slightly damp ending. Otherwise, I’ll give away a little bit more context below because to not do so would make it impossible to talk about in any depth.

Set in late 1970, a private detective called Carl Faubert is called to a small Northern Canadian village in the middle of the wilderness by a local businessman. The case seems odd – one W. Hamilton has requested that he investigate a case of vandalism, which is hardly his usual territory. On arrival, Faubert is involved in a car accident, and after coming around at his wheel discovers the other driver has run from the scene, and heavy snow has fallen along with terrible cold. Too cold to be out and about when injured post accident, certainly. And so kick in your survival game instincts: look for equipment, figure out some first aid, and get your car working again.

That’s the first sign that something’s different here. Pretty much none of the eternally early access survival sims give your character a working automobile. Faubert, armed with a road and trail map of the area, is going to need it however, if he’s got any chance of trying to find help, shelter and warmth.

From this point on you’re afforded a really impressive amount of freedom for a game that’s so tightly scripted in terms of where it’s heading. Progress beyond where it wants you to reach is blocked off, but in a satisfying, narratively justified way, and in my experience the choices I made seemed to rather perfectly match the ideal order in which to encounter everything. Perhaps I got lucky, or perhaps the game used subtle and not-so-subtle direction to push me into picking the right fork in the road – it’s obviously hard to tell. Either way, it worked splendidly, and I was very gladly funneled down its pathways.

So much looks like it plays like, say, The Long Dark, with buildings to find and enter, explore, loot, and shelter inside. Getting a fire lit is absolutely essential if you’re going to keep Faubert alive, and he’s going to need tools, a hammer, a crowbar, and most importantly, light. However, he’s not going to need food and drink, and there you’ll see the biggest step away from the traditions of the genre it’s more aping than following. Because this takes place over a single day and night, and because normal humans outside of video games don’t need to eat a seven course meal every 45 minutes, you’re just fine when it comes to sustenance.

Quickly the story escalates into a murder mystery (because let’s face it, a vandalism investigation might not have been the most riveting story – “It was him.” “Okay.”), then there’s the matter of these strange glowing ice formations that appear on the ground. And why are the local wolves acting so strangely?

Something odd is happening in this small town, and that rather pleasingly affords you the ability to root through people’s houses, go through all their drawers, and read all their private correspondence. Who doesn’t enjoy that? And as you go, Faubert keeps detailed notes in his notebooks, collating the gathered information and helping you put it in order despite discovering it in your own pattern.

This is aided further by the completely sumptuous narration by Forrest Rainier, his mellifluous delivery adding a depth of charm to the story. The only downside of this is a tendency for this commentary to over-explain, especially toward the game’s weaker ending where it culminates in a clumsy exposition dump. (The sort that feels like it should have been more game, but perhaps ran out of time or money or energy. It’s probably relevant that the game was Kickstarted as episodic, but has eventually become a single release.) There are also a few translation issues from the game’s original French, especially with the on-screen text occasionally making little sense. Not a big deal overall, but definitely shows why you should always have a first-language speaker do your proofing whichever language you’re translating to.

The game is packed with lovely details, a favourite being the way some descriptive text is written onto the surfaces of the rooms you’re in (although here the translation is at its worst). It also does spooky extremely well, sneaking up on you when you’re not expecting it, with a good few moments that made me laugh out loud at my own reaction. (Not jump-scares, I should add, for those who avoid such things.) Houses are packed with detail about the people who live there, and there’s a strong sense of place about the whole thing.

I do wish the ending didn’t feel so rushed, somehow at once feeling like it explains far too much, and yet resolves far too little. But the journey there is absolutely worth it – this is a narrative adventure that smartly pretends to be a survival game, while not shying away from wanting to tell you its story. It doesn’t have the slick perfection of Firewatch, it’s a rougher game (and again let’s remember it was Kickstarted years before FW was released), but it understands the same ideas that made Firewatch work, and that’s damned important.

It’s tremendous at creating its distinct atmosphere and then drawing you deeper in. It’s witty, spooky, and achieves an ideal sense of urgency. Weird, clamant and intriguing, this is well worth a look.

Kôna is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux on Steam and GOG for £15/$20/€20.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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