Kona review

April 12, 2017 by Kent Sutherland

This indie thriller turns you into a Canadian cop and sets you loose to solve a cold-as-hell crime.

Kona is a murder-mystery survival game set in northern Canada in 1970. You’re a detective and something spooky is going on, but you brought the perfect camera and clue notebook for the occasion. It’s part The Long Dark, part Deadly Premonition, and (bizarrely enough) part The Stanley Parable. (There’s a voice that narrates many of your actions in the past tense, often with jokes.) You are a private detective named Carl Fauber, and you’ve been hired by a rich British landlord in a small and isolated Canadian town. Your employer, Hamilton, wants you to investigate a case of vandalism, but when you show up, you discover that someone has been murdered. The phone lines are all dead, so solving this mystery is up to you. Of course, all is not as it initially seems – there are strange glowing ice formations in the woods, and the body count is about to rise.

Kona quickly establishes its premise, then sets you loose to investigate in any direction. There are maybe a dozen potential crime scenes, each riddled with clues that you piece together in your notebook, leaving spaces for the clues you haven’t discovered yet. Do you enjoy searching through houses? What about sheds? Kona has you covered. There is no shortage of drawers to open or diaries to read. Each scene tells a little story, partially through environmental details, and partially through written ones. These small stories are each a piece in the greater puzzle of the overarching narrative. The large majority of the game is spent figuring out what happened here. There’s only one conclusion to reach, but there are many ways to get there. It’s good fun.

So, that narrator. He seems like an odd fit – he’s snarky, and this is a tense murder investigation. It’s surprising at first, but after a while it becomes clear that unlike the narrator in The Stanley Parable, which is the clear reference for this sort of voice-over, he isn’t often at odds with Carl. Instead he acts almost like the narrator in a Dashiell Hammett novel. His sarcasm is decidedly hard-boiled. The narrator provides context when it’s required – for instance at the beginning of the game when you’re driving into the middle-of-nowhere, he tells you why you’re there. His most welcome contribution is to make your investigations more interesting, because he has a quip about half of the things you look at. For instance, you inspect a picture of a doctor and his estranged wife, and the narrator croons, “the good doctor, flanked by his beautiful spouse. Pure happiness captured on cardstock.” He also summarizes documents shortly after you pick them up, so you don’t have to read all the details if you don’t want to. Sometimes twenty minutes of driving and boreal exploring are interrupted by his voice. The game informs you that you’re cold with a comment from the narrator, not with an on-screen prompt.

Your character, Carl, is also an occasional narrator, but he doesn’t speak out loud; he chimes in with thoughts in yellow text near the items he’s searching. Investigate a shelf full of rations: “no thanks, I ate too many of these in Korea.” See an ashtray on a bedside table: “only the tormented minds smoke in bed.” Find a desk flooded with messy papers: “a secretary wouldn’t be in luxury here.” The translation from French is clunky, but I find it endearing. I enjoy these asides even more than I enjoy the audible narrator.

Despite the plentiful humor, Kona’s tone is generally lonely and dire. You spend a lot of time trudging through snowy woods, listening only to the crunch of your boots. There are a couple of jump scares, but Kona isn’t scary. It is eerie, though, walking through all of the empty houses and finding frozen bodies in caves. The mood of the game shifts between funny and tense, and it does this very well.

Kona flirts with a lot of interesting themes. There are Communists, Canadian separatists, Catholic hypocrites, and post-colonial musings. It’s flavorful, and it makes reading the miscellanea that bracket the game’s clues more compelling. A famous First Nations legend plays a major role in the game, and there are a few First Nations characters living in the town. Their portrayal is less successful. Kona does little to explore the origins or nature of the myth that they’re using as a core plot driver. It’s treated like generic native mysticism – ‘whatever. It’s magic.’ The main First Nations character is not a shaman, but he is an alcoholic. It feels like the game was probably made with little input from First Nations people.

The survival elements in Kona are relatively sparse, and that’s for the best. You have three meters: health, sanity, and temperature. You don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about them, though. You mostly just carry a health pack, smoke a cigarette when you’re feeling unsettled, and don’t stray too far from a heat source.

Compare this with the other Canadian winter snow trudge simulator, The Long Dark, where basically everything you do is about conserving your energy, establishing reliable heat sources, and finding enough calories to survive. In Kona, you never eat anything, you never sleep, and the liquids are only for slightly improving your health and sanity. First and foremost, Kona is about its mystery. If you want to feel the frozen air of northern Canada blowing through your screen, go play The Long Dark. But if you want to smoke a cold cigarette every time you see something freaky, Kona’s got your back.

Unfortunately, the item balance and inventory management in Kona are bloated, and do not feel carefully considered. There are multiple items that are only used for distracting wolves, several fundamentally identical items for improving your health, heat or sanity, and a whole bunch of situational items that you’re never sure when you’ll need. There is no good reason for so many redundant items to clutter up your “equipment” and “consumibles” tabs; the game would be better if half of the item types were removed. Coupled with weight management, the inventory system is just frustrating – finding a broken bridge in the woods only to realize that you left your “hardware” item in the car because it’s too heavy is decidedly unfun. Weight management makes sense in some games, but this is not one of them. They should have removed it, like they did with hunger.

The clue journal is great, but the “notes” screen where the letters and leaflets that you collect are stored is comically bad. It’s a radial menu that quickly becomes crowded with junk, and there’s a bug where your cursor position doesn’t even line up with your selection. Sometimes you have to look through thirty nondescript document titles to find the treasure map you picked up an hour ago.

Near the final act of the game, I got lost in the woods. There were seven adjacent 3-way intersections, and everywhere seemed the same. I walked in a circle five times, and that was while consulting the map. This wasn’t a part of the story where getting lost had any relevance to the plot – it was just bad level design. I also encountered a frustrating bug that most people won’t see. I’d explored the entire map, but I had failed to do one required action at an early mechanic’s garage. I entered an unskippable scene without all the requirements fulfilled to exit it, so after some confusion I had to load an old save. I fortunately knew what I was missing, but I had to go all the way across the map to find it.

My final complaint: the ending of the game is a letdown. Kona spends so much time doing mood and exploration and storytelling right, but you’re ultimately forced into a linear combat sequence. Combat was all but a non-factor for everything leading up to these final scenes. Ultimately, the narrator gives you a giant info-dump to tie up all of the loose story threads, and it’s a bummer. Kona was pitched as an episodic game, but they released it as a single stand-alone product. The ending feels like the developers ran out of money and time-– like a TV finale for a show that was unexpectedly cancelled.

All in all, Kona is still worth playing. I’ve detailed a lot of gripes, but the strengths of the game still outweigh its weaknesses. I enjoyed driving back and forth through the snowy streets, learning my way around well enough that I didn’t have to check the map. Rummaging through people’s houses and reading clandestine notes is intrinsically enjoyable; deep down, everyone loves snooping. The two wise-cracking narrators were good company for a chilly murderer hunt. Kona is a flawed, but worthwhile way to spend 5-10 hours.

Verdict: Yes