Zere’s no Canada like French Canada! All ze other Canadas are really lame!
Kona: Day One – Parabole’s first episode of their planned survival horror series – appeared in my Steam Library like a ghost when I got the preview code. When I searched for it, I couldn’t find it, but when I scrolled down, there it was. Funnily enough, this sums up Kona: Day One – it’s a game about searching for things that are hard to find. Kona: Day One is set in a remote village in the Quebec region of Canada, apparently sometime in the seventies. As Detective Carl Faubert you’re tasked with finding William Hamilton: a wealthy industrialist who is raising the ire of the native Creole people by re-opening mines on sacred grounds. With an unnaturally intense snowstorm rapidly covering the land, Carl has no choice but to rev up his Chevrolet pick-up truck and drive on.
Two things were very quickly apparent exploring Kona’s world. Firstly, I was taken aback at how much freedom I was immediately given to explore. I was able to to drive around wherever I pleased in Carl’s pick-up truck as if I was playing GTA, free to get out and look around at whatever I pleased, with scarcely any overbearing direction of where to go. When I started wandering out into the wilderness it was disconcerting how wide open the surroundings were. I had gilded my loins for a more standard horror game experience where I’m more tightly funneled through a haunted house full of monsters jumping out, rather than being allowed to explore freely. The second thing that became obvious quickly, from the glowing blocks of ice encasing various members of the village, was that something had gone very, very wrong.
Kona’s visuals are strikingly unique. The landscape is tinted with a lovingly created retro aesthetic, from bulky CRT televisions with a wood finish to rounded gas pumps, there’s no mistaking this is a time long before the culturally levelling internet. Not unlike Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – another retro post-apocalyptic simulator – events of the past are related through interactive visions where ghostly figures re-enact what has come before. Also, similar to that Rapturous forebear is the strongly communicated idea of a small town, tightly knit by religion, with its own intricate web of interpersonal dramas to slowly unravel through reading diaries and newspapers. Text is written in an authentic French, helpfully subtitled for us poor folks who can only parlez Englais. The story is also narrated in the third person by a wisened old voice with an oddly stilted delivery (in the great tradition of survival horror games from the days of Silent Hill).
Kona: Day One builds immersion not just with its intimate first-person perspective, but also with its survivalist trappings. A quick tap of the pause button will reveal bars for health, stamina, warmth and encumbrance. Sometimes, the only way you can search for items is to go – quite literally – off the beaten track and into the snowy forest. As the snow crunches beneath your boots and the wind obscures where you’ve just been with white, your warmth will start to rapidly decrease, resulting first in blurred vision and eventually death. To keep yourself alive, you’ll need to move quickly to the next source of warmth whether it’s the cosy confines of your chevrolet, a house with a lantern or a campfire in the woods. To light a fire however, you need some logs and some matches. The problem is that logs are heavy and take up a lot of your weight allowance, forcing you to make difficult decisions about what to carry before going on a trek through the woods. This really helps ramp up feelings of vulnerability and makes your chilly surroundings seem just as dangerous as they’re advertised.
There’s a notable lack of cutscenes and a greater emphasis on interactivity. There’s no HUDs or waypoints to point you in the right direction of where to go. You have to figure things out yourself, and that’s what makes solving puzzles that much more satisfying. One puzzle I solved required reading a child’s diary in a house at one side of the map, and then attaching a magnet to a piece of string all the way across town. Of course, it can be quite easy to miss things in Kona’s sprawling world. I was often left wandering around areas scratching my head.
Despite being an early preview build, Kona: Day One does an excellent job creating tension. The game eschews cheap jump-scares in favour of a more powerful building of dread, and a greater emphasis on the fragility of your life. By the time I did hear something like a power line snapping or see the silhouette of a wolf nearby – it was much more scary for the threatening atmosphere Kona builds.
There were a few bugs with the preview build such as items sometimes disappearing when you combine them with other items at a table, and the in-game journal still doesn’t function properly, but that is to be expected. Hopefully, by the time the full game rolls around, there will be a more functional journal to provide some hints, as it’s very easy to get stuck in Kona with no idea of where to go next. Still, what Parabole have accomplished so far with a shoestring budget of $44,000 is more than enough to make me very interested in how the full version of their chilling French-Canadian thriller turns out. Check out the trailer below to see a bit of Kona in action, and listen to an excerpt from the halting school of voice acting.