It's 1970 and Private Detective Carl Faubert is heading deep into the wilds of Northern Quebec on a job. Hired to investigate a spate of vandalism in a rural mining community, Carl's looking forward to getting out of Montreal so that he can do something that doesn't involve divorce and cheating spouses. Unfortunately, as soon as he arrives at Lake Atamipek, a car accident – and a blinding snowstorm – leaves him stranded in the wilderness with few supplies, and at the centre of a dangerous mystery.
While any good mystery should be packed full of twists and turns, the biggest surprise in KONA is how it manages to work survival mechanics into what otherwise might have been a straight up first-person adventure game. Survival systems have become de rigueur of late, and your immediate reaction to having them presented in a game that has more in common with the likes of Firewatch or Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is to worry that it might have a detrimental impact on the pacing of the story – especially if it leads to you dying repeatedly. In the case of KONA, though, these mechanics act more as a means of enhancing the atmosphere of being stuck outside during a heavy snowfall rather than to punish you for not playing cautiously.
The three things that you need to worry about in this instance are your health, warmth, and stress, and these can all be replenished using supplies that you've scavenged from around the settlement. As you investigate abandoned homes and campsites on your quest, you'll find yourself picking up way more supplies than you need, even having to go as far as using the storage capabilities of the driveable vehicles in the game to ferry your every growing inventory around. As a result, you never truly feel like you're at risk of falling foul of the elements, with the worst penalty for staying out in the cold too long being diminished vision and a reduced capacity for running – which both end up being merely a temporary annoyance.
While the survival mechanics turn out to more window dressing that anything, they do help convey the stamina sapping temperature effectively, and this feeling is driven home further by KONA's graphics. Considering the presumably limited budget of this indie title, it renders the snow swept forest well, with the limited visibility and bleak landscape forcing you to use your map to navigate whenever you need to stray from the roads.
While it visually impresses on other occasions – such as when it uses some nicely done effects to render the dust cloud kicked up by an explosion – it's much less successful when it comes to its character models, vehicles, and structures. In most cases these are disappointingly boxy, with some uninspired texture work, and while they aren't centre stage as much as the wider wilderness areas, they appear often enough that you wish the developer had found a way to make the most out of its budget here as well.
Structurally the game works like any number of walking simulators, with most of your time spent poking around the game world uncovering clues to help understand just what's been going on. Some of the information that you'll uncover will be relevant to your investigation, while some will provide background about the local residents or the community itself. Anything you uncover – whether it's a specific clue, an observation, or a Polaroid picture you've snapped – ends up collated in your journal for easy reference, which serves as a helpful way to review your progress. It also happens to be a good place to try and work out just what you need to be doing in order to move things forward, and while it aims not to spoil things by being too specific – choosing instead to give you more general direction – there are times when you'll be backtracking as you try to work out where to go or find something you might have missed.
This backtracking unfortunately ends up being an inevitability largely due to being able to go most places on the map right from the start. It also doesn't help that most of the puzzles fall mainly into the "find this item, use it here" school of design, and while its always very clear exactly what you need in each instance, it can devolve into an old school pixel hunt as you search for the hard to see white dots that signal a point of interaction.
Even with the backtracking, though, the puzzles do manage to be satisfying at times, which is more than can be said for the combat that makes an ill-advised appearance part of the way into KONA. While it thankfully only shows up occasionally, it proves to be neither difficult nor challenging – much like the survival mechanics – and instead only serves to break up the well-earned tension earned from exploring your eerily deserted surroundings.
Mechanics and puzzles aside, these sorts of story driven games live and die by the mystery at their core, and in this case KONA is only somewhat successful. While the answer to its mystery walks a very well-trodden and clichéd road, it's the background relationships and motivations that prove to be the most interesting, and while you can miss plenty of clues and still make it to its abrupt conclusion, you'll get enough of your questions answered to leave satisfied. It's a shame, then, that there's very little voice acting to help bring its characters to life, instead relying on a narrator – who sounds like he's performing in a second-rate Canadian radio play – to commentate proceedings.
While the overarching story in KONA will no doubt leave you cold, the tense atmosphere at the centre of its snowstorm setting will warm your desire to see it all the way through to the end. It should also be applauded for trying to add a surprising number of mechanics to what's ostensibly an adventure game, and while the survival gameplay ultimately feels superfluous, it at least works well in service of developer Parabole's presentational aspirations – which is more than can be said for the pointless combat and distinctly average collection of puzzles.