It’s tough to pull off a good mystery in a video game. Players’ actions are hard to predict unless you force them into a scripted sequence of events, and that tends to dampen any sense of discovery or exploration they might feel. What detective gets led around by the nose?
In Kona, a forthcoming episodic game from Canadian developers Parabole, you’re a private eye set loose in a remote village in northern Quebec. Set in October, 1970, you play as Carl Faubert, called upon by wealthy industrialist William Hamilton to investigate vandalism in a tiny Cree community deep within Canadian logging territory. Heading to the designated meeting place with Hamilton, you hit a freakishly early snowstorm, and eventually arrive to find that Hamilton seems to have stood you up. But as you start poking around Hamilton’s general store, it starts to become clear that he’s not the only one missing. And there are some unnatural-looking blocks of ice dotting the area…
The preview build of Kona I’ve been playing provides a pretty decent taste of the game’s tone: It’s an open-world adventure in the vein of 2014’s The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, with several additional game mechanics added. In Kona, you’ve got to collect and photograph evidence, as well as find gear that will help you stay alive and warm in the punishing blizzard.
Built in Unity, Kona doesn’t have Ethan Carter’s lovely looks, but it gives the player a ton of free reign to explore a well-crafted and realistic wilderness area. You can set out on foot into the woods if you feel like it, explore logging camps, or drive your old pickup truck up and down the mile or so of road on the game’s impressively large map.
And for such a large area, there’s a remarkable level of attention paid to the tiny prosaic details that gives the setting a very lived-in feel. Notes are handwritten in French, there are crates of beer and cereal boxes lining the shelves of the general store, and in one house I visited, I even found an LP of the Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed. Faubert’s hand shifts his truck into reverse when you back up, and rubs his hands together to warm them if you’ve been outside too long. The sense of physicality, of being present in a real place, reminded me a bit of Alien: Isolation.
That comparison was reinforced by the gradually-mounting sense of tension the game creates through ambience and storytelling. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory, but like a good horror film, little details begin to come together and point to an unseen menace.
Kona is still in early beta and the build I played is clearly unfinished. Menus aren’t fully implemented yet, the journal doesn’t quite work, and there’s a fair amount of refinement that needs to go into the control scheme. Without these features working properly I had a hard time knowing what I was supposed to do or where to go.
But it’s clear it’s a game worth keeping an eye on. Few games have even attempted to pull together mystery-solving, puzzles, exploration, and survival-horror, and Kona looks like a respectable effort. The developers plan to launch officially some time in March, but starting today you can buy early access via GOG.com’s new “Games in Development” program.