Kona was released back in March while I was trawling through the mediocrity of Mass Effect: Andromeda. I missed the game’s launch entirely and only chanced across it while looking for games to review for April. I’ve decided to review it now anyway because I really think you should play it. It is almost, almost everything I want from modern adventure games.
Basically, Kona is a first-person detective game. Set in 1970, it places you in the role of Carl Faubert. Carl is a private gumshoe who has been contracted to investigate a case of vandalism in Atamipek lake, a remote village in the Canadian wilderness. Upon his arrival, however, Carl discovers that a murder has taken place, while the rest of the village’s inhabitants have mysteriously disappeared.
Structurally, Kona bears more than a few similarities to Campo Santo’s Firewatch in that it provides players with a small yet detailed open world and places a strong emphasis on narrative and exploration. But there are some important differences. There’s considerably more slack on Kona’s storytelling leash. You can explore most of the buildings and campsites in Amitapek Lake in whatever order you choose. There is a specific route through the story, and one area is blocked off until the very end, but otherwise you’re free to roam as you please.
The other notable difference is that Kona is a much more interactive game than Firewatch. There are complex puzzles that require you to find items from multiple locations in order to progress, while a sprinkling of survival systems keeps you on your toes when venturing out into the fierce blizzard pummelling the village. To stay alive, you need to regularly build fires by gathering wood and firelighters and using them in a stove or firepit. You also need to keep your eyes peeled for wolves prowling in the snow,and find ways to distract them or fend them off at various points in the game.
Thankfully, Kona doesn’t go too far down the survival route. You don’t need to scavenge food and water or find places to sleep. Indeed, the survival elements of Kona aren’t so much core mechanics as a systemic way of hammering home Kona’s frigid atmosphere. This is complemented by the superb environment design, from the wind-whipped forests and glistening ice-caves of the outdoors to the detailed interiors of the village’s houses and log cabins. You can almost feel the biting cold of Kona’s perpetual snowstorm, and finding respite from it is always a relief.
What makes Kona so intriguing to play, however, is how it approaches the concept of a detective game. Kona drip-feeds its story to you through a complex blend of puzzling and interactive environments. Most of the game’s action is focussed around the various buildings of Amitapek lake, such as the general store and the homes of its residents. Each of these is crammed with objects of interest; letters, diary entries, documents, receipts, all of which shed light on the town, the people who live there, and the fate that befell them.