The Kuolema

by Ben Jackson profile

Mystery
2023

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Number of Reviews: 8
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A high-quality effort in spite of its limitations, September 3, 2023
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)

The calling card of The Kuolema is how it’s authored in Google Forms, which is nutty and impressive in its own right. However, it’s no novelty act—this is a high-quality effort that doesn’t let up until the very last page (er, form). The Kuolema hearkens back to the great graphic adventures of the 1990s, but without changing CD-ROMs between acts. I needed two sittings to play through to the end, and found myself looking forward to getting back to the game in-between the sessions. It grabbed me.

You take the role of an agent dropped by helicopter onto the bridge of a science research ship in the stormy South China seas. The Kuolema, owned by a European corporation, is no longer answering radio hails and drifting into Chinese waters. You soon discover the ship is all-but-abandoned, and you’re locked out of the navigational controls.

It’s a tried-and-true setup: A lone adventurer in a compact map exploring their surroundings and piecing together the backstory via notes, memoranda, diaries, and so forth. The game offers a combination of solid, if workmanlike, prose, complemented by high-quality still graphics depicting rooms, found items, and other details. Together they create an atmosphere that is creepy and claustrophobic. Suspense drips out gradually, a steady accretion of developments that suggest all is not as it seems on this research ship.

Although the setup is a bit stock—echoes of Babel, or The Stanley Project, or numerous other adventures set in creepy abandoned laboratories, space stations, and so on—the pace of the game, the quality of the writing and stills, and the mild difficulty of the puzzles stoked my interest. There were a couple of unexpected plot twists along the way, which kept me on my toes. While the bulk of the game is exploration and solving puzzles, the endgame is more character-based, and asks the player to consider what they’ve seen and read since the beginning.

Google Forms is not an ideal authoring tool, but the author proves how much mileage can be had from it. That said, there’s a good deal of information that’s best tracked manually. You’ll want to have a notepad or a separate window open to keep notes. Fortunately, mapping is not an issue, as the game provides superbly-rendered maps to ease navigation.

I managed to set my progress back—twice—by pressing the browser “Back” button rather than use the back button provided within the forms. It wasn’t catastrophic, just slightly annoying (and required me to curb some browser muscle-memory while playing). Maintaining a full game state in Forms must have been crazy-hard to design, but it’s not perfect, and so some descriptions do not change to reflect changes to the game world. (Still, the fact that the game is thorough enough to maintain as much state as it does shows the amount of work the author put into it.)

From a story perspective, while there were some nice twists and turns, I found the ending to be telegraphed. There’s a side plot about evil corporations against a backdrop of world superpowers vying for technical superiority—it adds a little depth, sure, but unfortunately it’s all been done before. The ramifications of the research ship’s science is more novel, though, and reminded me of (Spoiler - click to show)Ice Nine from Cat's Cradle.

What can I say? I was enthralled. The Kuolema offers a ripping story about the best laid plans of men, and even ends with a blockbuster conclusion. It also asks for you to make a couple of thoughtful decisions along the way, which is refreshing too.

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