Kona Review

Title: Kona
Developer: Parabole
Publisher: Parabole
Released For: PC (Windows 7+ , MAC OSx 10.8+ , Linux)
Reviewing: PC (Windows 10)
DRM and DRM Free Versions Available
Released On: March, 17, 2017
MSRP: $19.99 Steam Link GOG Link
Copy Provided by Developer or Publisher

 

There’s an interesting veneer to Kona. Ignoring the overtly obvious Silent Hill related paraphernalia, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter-like detective skills of the main character, and the almost insultingly naive half-baked ending, there’s something about Kona I like. Maybe it’s the winter atmosphere, the charisma of the concept, or the alluring nature of playing a 3D detective adventure that harkens me back to the early days of fully 3D adventure games. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the game for the price the game demands from its consumers, but I can, if nothing else, analyze why it comes moderately close (and misses) to being the winter-detective-adventure-horror game I’ve been wanting for over a decade.

You know, for a genre like adventure-horror-detective game in winter, you’d think that there’d be less games being cast about. Removing the ‘detective’ part of it all, there’s actually quite the number of horror games set in a winter atmosphere. From Silent Hill: Shattered Memories to Cursed Mountain [anyone even remember this game?], there’s actually a number of horror games set in winter, and for good reason. Winter and snow are great catalysts for natural isolation from the world, and coming from someone who lives in New England, is also far more likely a scenario than the Invisible Wall Gods or zombies. Some of my favorite memories were being stuck in a snow storm, which probably says something about what I value. For all the snow-filled horror games out there however, and all the ones that try, desperately at times, to mix in some kind of horror-themed detective bits, there’s not one that I can recall that does it well.

If you ever wondered why walking simulators like “Gone Home” and “The Old City: Leviathan” avoid making 3D models of actual people, this image should just about summarize why.

This is partially due to the nature of a horror game. Unless your definition of a horror game includes jump scares, and only jump scares, there’s quite a few other factors involved. Most notably, seeing the spooks and the thing causing said spooks as little as possible. Most of the detective bits of a horror story are reclusive, only strapped on to the narrative path of the story, or inventory bits. You know the kind. A journal entry here, a bit of scraped bark off a tree there, some bullet casings near a door, a magic clue-tracking sense that protagonists and only protagonists apparently hone. You know the deal by this point. It’s standard, and Kona has largely the same tricks. Carl Faubert, the detective, is hired by Hamilton, an industrialist who owns a lot of land in Northern Canada. After acts of vandalism on the property, Carl is called in to help figure out who is behind the vandalist acts. After Hamilton is discovered dead, with no way to get back home beyond the clear and obvious open paths Carl could take at literally any point but doesn’t because the Invisible Wall God and Broken Tree in Road God has spoken, it’s up to Carl to discover who is behind Hamilton’s murder.

Carl will explore a nearby abandoned village, collect clues with information about the town’s inhabitants, and figure out who is behind all the frozen bodies. There’s the survival aspects of the game, the detective aspects of the game, and the combat. Carl will travel around the world space in a pseudo-open world environment, collect notes, and find clues in order to find Hamilton’s murderer. The pseudo open world is nice, but it leaves a lot of aspects to be desired. Particularly, there’s a bit of loading when going to different sections of the map space. This would be fine, but it’s not clear enough where the loading will happen, which often results in interrupting the gameplay. I threw the game on an SSD to see if the 5-7 second loading time would go away or at least diminish, but neither occurred, which suggest this has something to do with how they made the game, rather than data pull rates. Maybe LODs are too much to ask from a game with the equivalent budget to two cans of beans, but they could have at least made the barrier where loading will take place more obvious or noticeable. It’s distracting following somewhere on a map, only to be greeted with a spinning loading icon.

I refer to the world as pseudo-open, because the story itself is linear. Just like Silent Hill (the first one), the detective can go through and explore the world at his leisure for the most part, along with finding things that aren’t required to finish the game, but the story itself still requires the player to do certain tasks in order to progress. You can, for example, find the different frozen bodies in any order you like, and go to any of the houses in the small worldspace that you like, but you’re still required to go to all the frozen bodies in order to progress. Essentially, it’s a flowchart that always starts and ends the same. The player has to explore different houses, and will eventually find out more about the inhabitants of the town. I like this style of narrative and free exploration, but it doesn’t work as well here as in Silent Hill. Particularly, it doesn’t work because there’s crucial bits of story that are required in certain houses you just might not pick up. This is partially avoided by having a selection of houses have things in them that you need in order to progress, but it always felt tacked on, and there’s still bits of story you can and will miss if you don’t explore every inch of the map. In comparison, that didn’t happen in Silent Hill, because the world itself was part of the over arching narrative into what the town of Silent Hill and it’s monsters represented to Harry Mason. Some notes were casted about, but most of them were in places or areas you needed to be, and they weren’t essential to understand the story. In Kona however, the detective isn’t part of the story, the town doesn’t have any inherent meaning, and the notes ‘are’ crucial to understanding the characters and their story. Or, at least, that’s what the game would like the player to think. The ending doesn’t make sense even if you find all the notes.

Frosty the Snowman is really pissed off it seems. As long as Frosty doesn’t freeze any more people, we’re good.

The story still ends on a very sour note for me. Even getting all the notes and exploring all the worldspace, I don’t get the ending. Okay, correction, I do ‘get’ the ending, but the game never implies that it could have ended the way it does, and some of it doesn’t make sense within the context of itself. At one point in the story, it’s heavily implied that it’s either aliens, or the some type of forest god angry at the town for cutting down all the trees and disturbing nature, that ultimately end up freezing all the people, and Hamilton is killed to try and appease the magic forest god. I won’t say if I was right or not, but I will say that my terrible train of thought crashing into an abyss, was at least twice as good as the real menace behind everything. The real ending and literal actual monster is only 2 tiers above Slenderman levels of stupid. That should tell you something, when my Captain Planet and Uncharted levels of storytelling, were still somehow more competent than the game developer’s ending for the game. That’s mostly due to the fact that, unlike The Vanishing of Ethan Carter where it’s implied early on that you’re simply exploring some child’s fantasy story, Kona forgets to do the whole ‘implying’ bit of foreshadowing. You know, the important bit of foreshadowing. Every sequence of foreshadowing in Kona, up until the ending, is heavily implying that the monster in the game is going to be some angry forest god. The actual monster is commonly associated with cannibalism and greed. So, you’d think that the monster would be Hamilton, but nope.

There’s even a mysterious magic wolf with glowing paw prints only visible to the detective’s camera that appears at least several times in the three to four hour experience of the game. That’s a whole lot of foreshadowing, and yet, it all leads up to the magical equivalent of smoke and mirrors. Somehow, the evil monster at the end is controlling them, even though throughout all history of this creature in folklore that I could find, controlling magic spirit wolves, isn’t one of his few powers. And, how the game ties in the folklore monster to the death of Hamilton, is about as contrived as possible. The story has enough red herrings, that you’d probably confuse the story for a fishing event. The problem with red herrings, is that once you put enough of them in the story, all the story begins to look like collections of red herrings, and it’s not clear what is or isn’t just there to steer the player off track. There’s a book for example laying around about the mythical creature, but there’s also totems, magic ghost wolves, the Cree people, a rich monopoly man, a bunch of people who leave town, angry vandalists, god-fearing people, and an insane guy who believes in aliens. You try figuring out which one isn’t the red herring. To quote my first impressions of the game:

“…we’ll end with the hope that they go for the more human route and not the ‘and this was all done because of magic from the Cree people, the end.’ route.”

So effectively, they didn’t listen to my advice. In fact, the ending was even worse than what I predicted, though still on the same vein. Which then, begs the question, why bother with Early Access, if you’re not bothering to take the advice the people you gave the game to, told you? Did you really think a buggy boss fight chase sequence, that lasts all of five minutes, with effectively a tall blue humanoid with antlers, who does nothing but chase you, was better than an ending about the possible consequences of industrialism or something about preservation of nature? That maybe if they hadn’t cut down so many trees, the wolves wouldn’t have come closer to people because they wouldn’t have been scared and thus, angered the wolf spirit thing? Yes, my idea is was cliche, but at least it would have wrapped up the story in a nice and neat package.

Frosty! What did I just say about freezing people?

I’ll also add that while I found the narrator interesting, I didn’t like the fact that the narrator wasn’t the detective himself. Remember that if you have a narrator in your story, the narrator should ‘always’ be one of the main characters. Otherwise, it’s not the main character who has the personality at the point, but the narrator. The narrator in the game has plenty of personality. The detective? Not an ounce.

The survival aspects of the game, boil down to managing a warmth meter and mind meter. Carl can drive around and carry a selection of inventory items, and using them in specific places can result in creating a fire to warm up our lone detective. He can also craft a few items, pick up weapons, and get items to restore his health.

There’s only one type of creature in the game you can actually shoot at and kill, and that’s wild wolves. Canada is apparently full of them (and Red Herrings) that the detective can shoot and swing an axe at. And when I mean that Canada is full of them, I mean that there’s like, six. Ten if you count the red-herring magic wolves that totally aren’t the cause of everyone being frozen even though it’s implied that’s exactly what happens on three separate occasions. The combat is slow, clunky, and half the time the wolves wouldn’t even attack me. They’d bug out as I’d be standing right in front of them and they’d glitch on some terrain, wobbling about like living jello that occasionally growls. There’s at least three different weapons you can use, but none of that matters. All the weapons take 1 or 2 hits to kill enemies, and 1 of the weapons the player will never find ammo for again, and you’ll only ever find 3 rounds. Thus, you only ever need to carry one weapon, negating the point of the other two. Calling it terrible, would be an exaggeration. I think, if done well, the combat could have done the same thing combat did to Silent Hill. However, done poorly, it just looks like a cheap distraction.

Again, to quote my first impressions of the game when it was in Early Access: “…As for the combat… It needs refinement. It’s clunky and rather place-holderish from our time with the game…The combat isn’t downright horrible or unplayable, just rather bland and boring as-is. Hopefully, future updates will also add other wildlife to shoot like bears or moose.”

So, it effectively got worse since Early Access. At least in the Early Access version, I didn’t have any of the wolves bug out on me like growling jello. My first impressions were published nine months before the game was released. They had time to address at least some of the issues, especially since 2/3rds of the game were locked off when I played Kona, indicating that they were still being developed and thus, entirely fixable.

Carl is the worst detective ever. Caaaaaaaaaaaaarl, leaving Wendigos to feast on helpless victims kills people!

There’s also a few (meaning, two) puzzles in the game. They’re annoying, and they feel more like they’re in the game ‘because it’s a game’, rather than the puzzles being used effectively or purposefully.

Visually, the game reminds me of, shockingly, Silent Hill combined with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. It’s not great looking, but the snowy atmosphere makes up for the graphical limitations of the game. The whole game reminds me of the look of small New England towns in winter. Living in all small towns in New England all my life, I can attest to the comparison as wholly accurate. The fact of it being set in Canada in the 70s works well enough, and it does, at least in some ways, remind me of small 70s towns in Canada, so good going there. The English translation also seems spot on. Kona never dipped below 120 FPS, which is impressive in it’s own way, often staying more towards the 200 FPS mark on our system with the highest settings. So that’s a plus, if nothing else.

As for the audio, it’s okay. The problem comes in parts where the player is trying to find something, and the 30 second melody just keeps playing. There’s one part in the game where the player can get a snowmobile. Since the game, at no point whatsoever, explains what inventory items are and aren’t needed, the player is forced to assume that ‘everything’ is needed. So, I looked around for the snowmobile parts I needed to fix the snowmobile. I found most of the parts easily, but one part blended into the background objects for the game. And, since it’s not obvious what can and cannot be picked up when it comes to the puzzles, I was stuck walking around for twenty minutes hearing the same exact melody ten or twenty times finding a part to a vehicle I didn’t even need. All this, because the game isn’t clear on what inventory items are and aren’t essential or even useful. Sure, I could now drive the snowmobile, but it just acts as a faster version of the truck that Carl already gets at the start of the game. The sound effects themselves are acceptable, and the music by itself is okay, but it quickly got on my nerves when I realized how repetitive it was. Despite how stupid this might sound, some the melodies aren’t generic enough. They’re too repetitive, which, if you’re spending a span of time looking for something, just makes the music annoying.

As for the controls and settings, they’re all fine. Keyboard keys are rebindable, unlocked FOV, unlocked frame rate, etc. All good things to see.

Overall, do I suggest buying Kona? No. While the setup for the story is great, and really reminded me of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the game simply hasn’t received the polish I expect at this point for a game that costs $19.99. Too few of the issues I had in Early Access nearly nine months ago were addressed, and the game itself feels flaccid and weak. Like a lot of walking simulator-type games, if the story isn’t blowing my socks off, and the entire or majority of the game hinges on a good story, then I just can’t recommend the game. How can I? What else do I have to suggest this game for, if not the story: the established central focus of the game? How can I recommend a story-based game, if the story’s so-so at best? There are some, that would argue a bad ending doesn’t make a bad story, but I disagree. That stance is a piecemeal stance, where they presume that everything can be (and should be) analyzed in parts, rather than analyzing everything in both ways. It’s one of the reasons why a poorly made game can still get a 5/10, solely based on the graphics or music, even if the core parts of the game are broken or severely flawed, and it’s one of the reasons why we don’t like the numerical score system. Kona would do fine in a scoring system, but like a lot of ‘almost there’ titles, it’d be hard to realistically justify the score in an actual conversation. Cursed Mountain, like Kona, despite receiving very average to above average review scores, isn’t justifiably playable. It’s nice to look at, and probably interesting to analyze, but isn’t reasonably worth the price of admission, no matter how low the price is.

The magic exposition ghosts are here to save the day from bad pacing.

 

Ultimately, unless you’re looking for an X-Files style story with a boring protagonist and a half-baked ending, give this a pass. If so, buy it on sale. At least if the game ended with the magic forest god route I thought up, it’d make sense based on the foreshadowing the game presents. The way it ends, however, just makes me feel sour. Which I suppose, is the problem with telling a mystery. A large point of a mystery, is to see the ending unfold and see who the man under the mask really is. When you were seven and watching Scooby Doo, you didn’t watch it for only Scooby Doo or only the mystery; you watched it to see Scooby Doo and crew catching Miner Forty-Niner or the phantom. You want to see the detective(s) solve the mystery. It’s a two-part story. If one part flops, so does the other. If the detective is boring, who cares if he solves the mystery? On top of that, the detective in Kona never actually does anything. He leaves the town with the human-freezing monster still roaming around freely. He’s the worst detective I’ve ever seen.

It’s close, and I mean really close, to getting the concept of Silent Hill meets The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. It’s this close to being the game I’ve been searching to find for over ten years. Kona, however, isn’t going to be the game I’ve been waiting for, unfortunately. Like Kona, there was a reason no one remembers Cursed Mountain, which incidentally tried to do the same thing, by combining real folklore and mythology with survival horror in a winter atmosphere, all in eight years prior to Kona. Thanks to a few minor issues that quickly became nightmarish, Kona, like Cursed Mountain, quickly lost it’s essence. It was controls and terrible ‘combat’ that ultimately banished Cursed Mountain to the realm of mediocrity. For Kona, it was parts of the story. The detective elements were cute, but without a solid story to follow, and an interesting detective to enjoy, it’s ultimately a saddeningly forgettable romp with an atrocious ending and borderline unacceptable combat that unravels the otherwise beautiful crochet blanket. Kona falls prey to the one pitfall that will damn any game with a mystery and a detective to solve it: the mystery was unsolvable based on evidence the story provides, and the detective was uninteresting. It took my hopes, dashed them across the sky in a big plane, then accidently crashed into a nearby forest because the pilots were drunk, catching the whole forest on fire, killing a bunch of wolves, and Kona along with it.

Good

  • The concept (if that even matters)
  • The beginning
  • Pacing (in the beginning)
  • Voice acting
  • Detective tools similar to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
  • Visual presentation
  • Performance

Meh

  • The narrator’s presence
  • Loading between areas
  • Foreshadowing issues
  • Survival mechanics
  • Vehicle controls. Not bad, just not incredible at handling.
  • Music

Bad

  • Pacing (the middle and ending)
  • Glitches
  • The ending
  • The ‘boss’
  • Combat
  • Boring detective

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