Ever since Dear Esther, Amnesia, and Slender first popularised the genre, first person mystery adventures have spread like wildfire. I’m not typically a huge fan of these so-called “walking simulators”, but developers have recently begun to experiment with the format. For example, last year’s Virginia used snappy jump cuts and non-verbal interactions to bypass the usual tedious filler.
With Kona, Canadian indie developers Parabole have taken a different approach. While immersive storytelling remains a cornerstone, there’s an emphasis on survival as players trek into its frozen frontier. Set in 1970, the game casts you as private eye Carl Faubert, a war vet summoned to the sleepy lakeside village of Atamipek.
Things don’t go so well for our daring detective, however. Minutes into the game he’s run off the road, almost totalling his trusty Chevrolet, waking up hours later to find himself engulfed in a blizzard, the lush greenery now blanketed in snow. Upon entering the village he discovers the body of William Hamilton, his employer, and possibly the most hated man for miles around.
As with most entries in this genre, Kona gradually reels you in with a foreboding atmosphere, steadily unspooling its mysteries the further you explore. However, unlike its contemporaries, there’s an emphasis here on exploration instead of being led down a linear path, triggering one story beat after the next.
Upon leaving the first area, players are presented with a literal fork in the road, free to explore whichever region of Atamipek takes their fancy and in whichever order. Kona’s play area is also surprisingly large for a game of this type. The term “walking simulator” was conjured up in response to their typically sluggish movement speed and penchant for focused storytelling along a prescribed path. Luckily, to cover the distance, Carl can sprint for short bursts with the Chevrolet on standby for longer trips. It feels robust and somewhat more akin to first person shooters. My surprise at Carl’s ability to jump and crouch is telling of how rigid character movement typically is across the genre. Even the Chevrolet handles nicely, but don’t expect to pull any sick drifts around Atamipek.
As you explore, stumbling upon empty homes, abandoned campsites, and rundown facilities, you’ll slowly add to Carl’s journal – a compendium detailing the various intertwining narrative threads. Although completely optional, there’s a wealth of hidden diaries and notes that help to fill in some of the blanks. While raiding cupboards, sheds, and other secret stashes, you’ll also gather a series of items, gear, and crafting components.
As previously mentioned, Kona touts a layer of survival mechanics that help add some flavour. There are three primary gauges to keep track of: Carl’s health, warmth, and stress level. Naturally, if any start to dwindle, players need to respond with the appropriate item or action. Kona’s constant blizzard will force you to seek out heat sources between long stints in the wilderness. Meanwhile, an abundance of painkillers, first aid kits, and other consumables help to moderate Carl’s vitals and mental state. Although not particularly groundbreaking, these survival elements provide a clever distraction and some added immersion. Without them, players would simply be hopping from one area to the next, interacting with every point of interest before moving on.
Kona also features a number of puzzles that need to be solved in order to progress the main story. These are mostly observational, requiring you to find certain items scattered throughout the frontier and combine them together. Although not particularly challenging, you’ll feel pangs of triumph when the pieces come together. If you happen to miss any of the key items, however – and they’re pretty well hidden – then that feeling can turn to one of frustration. There’s nothing worse than hitting a roadblock, being forced to backtrack and scour every nook and cranny for the tiniest object.
There’s a point in Kona where the path narrows, leading you towards a final sequence in which the mystery is solved. It’s also here that the supernatural undertones throughout the game suddenly come to fore but, overall, the pay off isn’t all that satisfying. Even more disappointing is the lack of an option to tie up any loose ends in Atamipek after the credits roll. With no option to manually save between different profiles, you’ll need to start over if you happened to miss something before the non-evident point of no return.
Visually, Kona manages to sell its depiction of the frozen north. Beneath the whites, blues, and greys are a smattering of subtle motifs that invoke the 70s, Canadian culture and Cree folklore. In certain stretches of wilderness you’ll stumble upon some very basic textures, though these are easily overlooked. An unpredictable framerate may be slightly harder to ignore, however, dipping whenever you enter Kona’s larger, busier areas. Parabole’s use of audio marks another highlight, adding tension and atmosphere through its adaptive soundtrack and narration.
Spanning several hours and sporting a number of more traditional game features, Kona feels far meatier compared to your average walking sim. The combination of nonlinear design and survival mechanics certainly help to dispel some of the issues I have with the genre. That said, the vagueness surrounding some puzzles, frequent backtracking, and a somewhat dissatisfying finale left me with mixed feelings despite introducing some welcome changes to the formula.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro