Kona VR review

If you haven't yet had a chance to play through Kona on a standard monitor (colloquially known as the pancake version), it's the story of Carl Faubert, a Korean War veteran who's been hired to investigate some shady goings-on in the barren, cold land of Northern Canada. Since its release into Early Access in 2016 and full release in 2017, Kona has racked up an overall "Very Positive" score on Steam, with most people agreeing that it's well worth the money if only a bit short on content. We even covered an early version of the standard Kona, stating that "Kona mixes exploration, puzzle solving, and story to create a compelling narrative."

Kona has now been reworked to include VR support, officially working on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive and not seeming to work at all on Windows Mixed Reality (WMR). This DLC doesn't come free, costing about $5 for those who own the standard game already and about $16 for a complete bundle. Let's take a look at whether or not Kona VR is worth the extra money based on how well it performs in VR.

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All suspense is returned tenfold

One thing that Kona gets right is suspense. After a brief introduction in which there are plentiful cutscenes, you're mostly left on your own to explore the area surrounding Atamipek Lake. Yes, there are certainly more cutscenes to come, but for the most part it's up to you to drive or walk around and find clues in the mostly-deserted settlement.

The design and atmosphere are spot on in the pancake version — I played through a good chunk without VR to get a sense of what the standard game is like — and once you don the head-mounted display (HMD), the suspense is turned up exponentially. Creeping through abandoned houses only to hear a crash downstairs will cover you with goosebumps, and it really does at times become an effort to open yet another door for fear of what's behind.

When outdoors, blowing snow contributes to a claustrophobic effect, and you never really know what's just beyond your vision. Combined with the stellar original soundtrack, Kona VR delivers when it comes to immersion and suspense.

Mechanics work well for a VR port

When porting a standard game over to VR, things can go awry in a hurry. Luckily, Kona seems to have started out with a pretty solid base, and the VR mechanics added later actually work, for the most part, quite well.

Locomotion, by default, is a node-based system where you can only move to certain predetermined spots that light up when you look at them. This removes most of the nausea-inducing movement, but it also breaks immersion. Thankfully, you can switch over to smooth locomotion, where natural walking is better represented. You can also choose free teleportation, where you point anywhere and teleport instantly. However, snap turning doesn't seem to be able to be turned off, but a room-scale setup removes most of the need except for reorienting yourself.

In the standard game, objects you can interact with have a small diamond appear above them when you get close enough. In some cases, you have to be jammed right up against, say, a drawer in order to open it, and it can be sort of tedious. The VR version instead has the diamond appear when you're in the vicinity and looking at the item, at which time you can point your controller (both which appear as hands in-game) and hit the trigger to interact. The laser beam you use for pointing does break immersion, but I actually prefer it.

As for equipment — flashlight, camera, map, axe, crowbar — you hold them in your virtual hands, and their use feels natural. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for driving, in which you control the direction with the joystick on the right Touch controller. There's likewise no option to use your gun in the VR version, and, come to think of it, I don't think I had to deal with any roaming wolf packs while wearing the headset.

There are a ton of documents to read through within Kona, but there's nothing to worry about. Writing is just as legible within the headset, and there's still the option to see the English translation in typed text rather than handwriting.

Kona VR review: Conclusion

Kona VR review

Considering you can switch between VR and pancake mode on any of your saved games whenever you want — you do have to relaunch the game — without losing any progress, anyone who already owns Kona and happens to have an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive lying around should give this a go. The VR DLC costs only about $5, and you'll get a good four hours of playtime if you start a fresh playthrough. If you're coming at this game completely new, you're still only going to pay about $16.

VR mechanics are solid for a port, and though there's no longer the roaming wolf packs on which you can take a few potshots, the suspense is still here and is ramped up by the fact that you feel like you're walking around this frozen wilderness. Add the beautiful soundtrack by Quebec band CuréLabel and excellent spatial sound effects, and you'll regularly get hit by goosebumps. This is one of the better thriller-mystery VR games I've played, and if you're a fan of either genre, I recommend giving this one a go.

Pros:

  • Suspenseful atmosphere heightened by VR.
  • Different locomotion options.
  • Price is right.
  • Using equipment feels natural.

Cons:

  • Can't disable snap turning.
  • Wolf encounters removed in VR version.

4.5 out of 5

See at GMG