I first encountered Parabole’s Kôna back at PAX and it was one of the most intriguing games I played at the show. With only a short amount of time to wander across the game’s wide open map I didn’t really manage to discover much or make any progress, but I was hooked on the unique setting and eerie, atmospheric presentation almost immediately. We recently received access to the game’s closed beta, which presents a part of the first episode, and I was very eager to get more time with this captivating title.
Carl Faubert is a private eye summoned up to a remote mining community in Northern Quebec at the behest of wealthy mining magnate, William Hamilton. Hamilton believes that recent thefts and vandalism against his property are the work of the local Cree population, upset over his decision to reopen a mine on their sacred lands. Carl arrives in the isolated settlement as a massive blizzard covers everything in white, and there he discovers that the residents have disappeared. The blizzard rages, the wolves are howling… With only a handful of notes, a books of matches and his wits, Carl must traverse the rugged, snowy terrain to locate his missing client and discover just what happened to this tiny hamlet.
At its core Kôna is an investigative, narrative-driven title. In order to find Hamilton you will search for clues in the remote Canadian north, piecing together the mysterious circumstances around the disappearance of its residents as well as some of their own personal stories. This is accomplished through clues in the form of notes, diaries, newspaper articles, etc. For those who have played other investigative games you will know the drill for that part. What makes Kôna unique, and quite exciting, is the locale you’ll be doing it in.
Kôna puts you in a place where the terrain is cruel, civilization is sparse and survival is hard, where a trip from one house to its neighbor will require some considerable trekking, either down lone country roads, or through the ominous woods. Carl is tough, but he’s still human, and he needs warmth to survive; spend too long out in the storm and you’re done for. You arrive in town in a pickup truck, which you can use to navigate the road which runs across the map, but on foot you’re going to be vulnerable. You can find wood and supplies to build fires which will keep you alive, and in the beta I don’t think I ever found myself struggling to keep warm (In fact the current build actually won’t kill you no matter how long you stay out), but I find that this simple addition goes a long way to add to the game’s tension, as well as abate some of the blasé feeling I get when I play other titles in this vein.
I don’t want to touch on the game’s plot any more than I have because I feel like it would verge into spoilers, and how much Kôna succeeds is likely to come down to how well it delivers that story, but I will say from the outset the concept is very intriguing. In the beta I only was able to sample a very small portion of the plot, but I like most of what I’ve seen, and the parts I weren’t so thrilled by still have the whole game to prove themselves. What I can say is that the isolated setting and the blizzard taking place place the entire time really do a great job enhancing the unease and stress of the setting. This isn’t a game where cars are exploding left and right or hordes of demons rise from Hell (In fact, other than a few benign wolves I didn’t encounter another living being the whole time), but one where the setting, the harsh conditions and just general sense of something being wrong goes a long way to make for unnerving atmosphere.
I’d be compunctious not to briefly touch on the production values as well. There’s something eerily lovely about the empty, snow-burdened Canadian forest, branches flailing in the fierce winds and sheets of snow coming down without end. Kôna probably won’t win any awards for best graphics, but for indie studio I think they’ve done a pretty great job. There are some areas that I hope they will spend a little more time with (the only time you’ll see a human character model it looks cartoonish and dated) but for the most part it looks pretty cool. The sound is also mostly great, with haunting, simple ambient music accompanying your investigation. The voice work of the game’s disembodied narrator could use some work in some spots, but overall it could be worse.
For an early access build the game seems to be pretty solid. I hit an occasional graphical hiccup and one game-breaking freeze while I played, but overall things went pretty smoothly. I’m told there are more improvements on the way for the beta, so take anything said here with the understanding that they may have changed since then. Overall, Kôna has really struck a chord with me. I wonder if Parabole will be able to stick the landing on the overall title, but so far I’m eager to see what more they have to offer.