On a couple of occasions, I’ve dipped my toe into the survival game genre to see what the fuss was about, but never lasted long enough to see that toe get bitten off, frozen off or otherwise wither on the vine of my emaciated corpse because I didn’t gather enough berries in my hollowed-out chipmunk skull. The point is, surviving for survival’s sake is boring and I don’t understand the point of most survival games, other than to not die in the most banal way possible. A more imaginative or philosophical person might tell me that the point is to find a purpose in surviving, but finding purpose in life and not dying in the most banal way possible basically describes my day-to-day existence, so I don’t really feel like spending my free time doing the same thing for an imaginary character. I play games to escape reality, not underscore it.
And yet, the whole survival theme still vaguely appeals to me, in the sense that there’s something fundamentally adventure-like in the whole concept of exploring and overcoming the environment, if only there was a compelling reason to bother. For that reason, I’ve actually been anticipating Kona since it first popped up in Early Access a while back. To be fair, Kona isn’t the first game to try legitimately stirring together survival and adventure bits (Miasmata was an earlier noteworthy, if deeply flawed attempt), but it seemed like it might finally get the mix right by treating the story as a motivation rather than an excuse. Sadly, while Kona manages an admirable job of making a survival game that feels like an actual adventure, it ultimately comes up short on gameplay. But even if this isn’t the end of the journey, it’s still definitely a major step in the right direction.
The game casts you as private detective Carl Faubert, who’s been called out to a rural town in Northern Quebec at the behest of the local robber baron who wants to know why the oppressed townsfolk are cross with him. Straightaway, this is a nice departure from the typical survival game setup, in that you’re going into the wilds purposefully instead of as a castaway. Of course, no sooner had I marveled at this during the game’s short but rather serene introduction, than I got into a car wreck and woke up stranded on the side of the road in the middle of a blizzard. Fortunately, instead of forcing me to hunt down a bear to fashion a coat and craft a hut from pine needles, this was just a minor detour used to introduce the survival mechanics. Soon enough, I was back on the road, blizzard be damned, because I’m a professional, not a victim, and I had business to attend to.
Kona succeeds for me where a lot of similar games fail because the environment is only the setting for the story, not the story itself: I wasn’t trying to escape and I wasn’t even trying to survive, so much as I was just trying to stay alive while pursuing my investigation. To that end, anyone looking for a hardcore (or just plain hard) survival simulation isn’t going to get much out of the game. On the other hand, anyone intimidated by the survival hook shouldn’t have much to worry about. The only actual threats to your life are the cold and the occasional wolf. Although it is possible to die, the Canadian wilderness is surprisingly forgiving. Health and fire-starting supplies are abundant. Wolves are easily fended off by tossing them a piece of raw meat (which I recommend over dealing with the clumsy shooting mechanic or trying to beat them off with a crowbar) and places to keep warm (cabins, wood stoves, campsites) are fairly plentiful.
For what it’s worth, there’s also a mental state indicator that seems to deplete of its own free will. Supposedly, maintaining a poor mental state affects how long you can run or how well you aim a gun, but I honestly never noticed any real difference (and trying to aim sucked no matter what), so I tended to ignore it, but if you’re determined to keep Carl in good spirits, it’s easily enough replenished by sucking down a couple of cigarettes, among other things (the game is set in 1970, when smoking was still considered relatively healthy, and more importantly, made you look cool). In my entire play time – with the exception of the endgame, which is a whole other topic I’ll get to – I died exactly once from exposure, and that was because I literally sat outside in the cold to see how long it would take until I froze to death.
In other words, the survival aspect of the game doesn’t really exist to challenge you, just add a layer of atmosphere and urgency to the experience that I’m not accustomed to. Kona is really an exploration game at heart. Your progress is measured by the new scraps of information you add to your journal that ultimately piece together the strange goings-on at Atamipek Lake. But unlike a traditional exploration game, I couldn’t spend infinite amounts of time screwing around kicking over rocks; if I saw something from the road I wanted to investigate, I had to make sure I was stocked with supplies before wandering from the relative safety of my pickup truck; I had to decide whether to keep following the tracks in the snow past the point of no return, not knowing if I would find another place to warm myself on the way; and I would breathe an involuntary sigh of relief every time I wandered into a new campsite or stepped inside a cabin, knowing that my health meter was starting to drain from the cold. Instead of just going, I had to decide if, when and how far I could or should go.
Even if the 3D graphics aren’t top-notch (the models and textures, especially when you’re indoors, are noticeably simple), the overall presentation nails the high lonesome mood. The trees and brush whip violently in the wind, gusts of snow obscure your vision, with often nothing but the shrill pitch of the wind and the sound of your boots crunching in the snow to accompany you. There’s only one (living) character you’ll come across; otherwise your sole companion is an omniscient narrator who chimes in every so often to offer a bit of pointed, dry commentary. The sound of the radio when I climbed back into my truck, playing what I would classify as Canadian honky-tonk, was often a welcome relief (even if it wore a bit thin after a while, looping the same few songs, which actually doesn’t make it much different than real radio, if FM radio is still a thing).Continued on the next page...