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, Konatantalized 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.
date of release:11.march 2016.