Kôna: Day One is the first of four episodes that aim to combine the suspense and immersion of first person survival games with the narrative-driven exploration and mystery of adventure games. Players assume role of war-veteran-turned-private-eye, Carl Faubert. Carl’s been hired by a wealthy entrepreneur and industrialist, W Hamilton, who’s concerned that the local population of Cree people (part of the first nation population) have been vandalizing and otherwise disrupting his manor and copper mines. So, this is where we find Carl; heading north in his orange pick-up through the lush green forests of Northern Canada, ready to fulfil his contract and meet his mysterious new employer.
Before long, things take a turn for the worse. A vicious blizzard sets in, so Carl decides to make a pit stop in hopes of a rendezvous with his contact (a local storekeeper) while the storm blows over. Contrary to his plan, the store is empty upon his arrival; goods and boxes litter the floor. Upon investigating each item, text relaying Carl’s thoughts appear just inside the field of view. They’re usually stating the obvious, but occasionally they offer a clue. After reading some mental notes like “This place is a wreck”, and finding some clues left behind by the clerk Carl was supposed to meet, he notices glowing icicles scattered about. It’s the first indication that there are stranger forces at work in this town than he could have ever imagined.
Modestly armed with a map, flashlight, camera and journal, the player is saddled with the new task of surviving long enough to uncover who or what attacked this town and why. Survival gameplay and adventure narrative are blended well in Kôna. As beautiful as the environments are, the gameplay that propels the exploration of them is framed by a wonderfully minimalist presentation. This presentation begins with a superb user interface and bare bones HUD. The simplicity allows players to fully appreciate the beautiful scenery while simultaneously creating an interface that facilitates immersive experience, and gives the player the essential information they need without cluttering up the screen. This unobtrusive interface allows the team at Parabole to synchronize solid survival gameplay and a superb French-Canadian noir adventure while allowing the player to completely soak in the visual jewel that they’ve painstakingly crafted.
As you watch snowflakes drift through the air, trees swaying in the breeze as you follow wolf tracks in the snow, it’s obvious why Parabole has made this game Oculus compatible. Every part of the game is completely visually immersive. From the surroundings of a small cabin with a warm crackling fire to a dark shed illuminated only by lamp light, Kôna’s environments aren’t just scenery, but feel like characters in themselves. Just as each location has its own character so too do individual rooms, with their discarded dear John letters, or photos of loved ones long since past. They weave a tale that introduces players to those who once walked the floors that they are intruding on. Even larger environments have character, with their expansive dark green forests framed by the pearlescent snowfall; huts nestled into hillsides glow with the inviting crackle of a wood burning stove peeking through the window and smoke billowing from the chimney. Every detail of Kôna is artfully crafted. Every detail of Kôna beckons players to drink in the haunting isolation so alluringly unsettling to its core.
Continuing the trend of minimalism, Kôna’s gameplay retains only essential survival mechanics, trimming away the distractions that often muddle survival games; Instead of the endless crafting and grinding of titles like Ark: Survival Evolved and Minecraft, Kôna focuses on the essentials: warmth, food, and tools. Don’t get me wrong, there are no shortage of items to craft, but players won’t become bogged down in mindlessly scavenging for raw materials or crafting palatial structures. However, the reduced quantity of survival elements gives the ones that Kôna does choose to employ a lot more impact. With the blizzard raging, simple tasks like staying warm enough to explore and propel the story along before dying of hypothermia is a serious challenge. Players must be careful and conservative with resources, which are required even to save the game. Yes, much like the Resident Evil series of old, saving requires resources: in Kôna’s case, saving the game requires building a fire. Though simple in other titles, even gathering the resources to build a fire can be difficult here. Similarly, using the in-game map effectively is potentially a life and death challenge. After a few close calls with the cold, players will soon realize the map is far more than a record for places of interest. It’s integral for planning routes in advance that provide plenty of stop gaps to warm some life back into Carl without having to waste precious resources. Of course, staying alive is great and all, but players will have to keep their wits about them if they wish to do more than stay alive, and actually discover what’s haunting this town.
Discovering notes and circumstantial clues is helpful, but they only tell part of the story. You see, the able-bodied of the town may have fled, but those unable to escape are left to tell their story. Interacting with the frozen remains of those unfortunate few will trigger flashback scenes that reveal otherwise unobtainable items and clues about the fate of the town’s residents. Items are important in Kôna, and those that aren’t directly necessary to Carl’s survival are used as pieces of different puzzles scattered about the world. None of these head-scratchers are particularly complex, but they can still become tedious if players don’t inherently enjoy searching every nook and cranny of an adventure game environment. It wasn’t uncommon for me to miss items after the first couple of investigations in an area, which of course forced me to redouble my efforts. Luckily, when interacting with puzzles that require multiple pieces, it shows you what item is required once you’ve discovered it so players don’t have to continue wondering if they’ve got all the items they need. Keys and combinations can be a bit trickier as there’s no way to tell which keys correspond with what locks; luckily, the omniscient narrator offers help and keeps the gameplay chugging along.
The narrator in Kôna is more than just a voice. He’s his own personality, and his inclusion sets Kôna apart from other narrated adventure games. His voice is warm and soothing, but still authoritative and confident. The folks over at Parabole use him to exceptional effect too. Every time Carl finds a clue, he’ll make note of it. Each time direction is needed, he’s there to provide enough information to put the player on track without spoiling anything. Whether he’s acting as Carl’s conscience, simply describing the players surroundings or supplying hints about various clues and puzzles, he never becomes annoying and is always helpful to some degree. Above all, the folks over at Parabole give the narrator enough personality and charm that in addition to being narratively useful he feels like his own narrative subject.
Parabole tells us that players should expect one to two hours of play from each of the four episodes. However, after spending around 4 hours with the beta preview of Kôna’s first day (which isn’t even as long as the commercial first day beta) I think that’s an understatement. It could be that I was just too distracted by the beautiful snow-crowned cottages, or too enraptured by the charm of the narrator. Maybe I just like to waste my time looking for every last clue about these unsettling events. Whatever the case, Kôna has proven to be an alluring start to a journey that I can’t wait to complete over the coming months.