Last updated on December 14th, 2016
This game wants to kill you. Until it achieves this end, it is going to be as unforgiving and sadistic as possible. Kholat is set in an isolated part of the Ural Mountains, and is based on a real life mystery. By exploring the game world, you as the player uncover clues as to the events which transpired here, without the benefit of Resident Evil style guns and rocket launchers to take down anything which means you harm. So far, so walking simulator. Where Kholat excels is atmosphere. Seldom have I played a game which achieves such a feeling of isolation, exposure and fear. Playing on, the question is whether it can achieve the narrative ambitions it has set itself.
Developed by: IMGN PRO
Published by: IMGN PRO
Release date: June 9th, 2015
Platforms: PS4, PC (Reviewed on PC)
Launch Price: 19.99 USD
Not so much a walking simulator, as a dragging-yourself-half-dead-through-a-blizzard simulator. A DYHDTAB game, then.
Kholat was on my Steam wish list, so when I saw it appear on PSN my instincts had already bought the game before my conscious mind had caught up. As with other PC-port titles like SOMA and Layers of Fear, it is a joy to be able to play on a large screen TV from the couch (roll on 4K PS4 anyway, Sony). It looks gorgeous, and the sound design is excellent as well. Even on couch, the game is far better played with headphones firmly in place. Starting from a rural train station, the area is snowbound and deserted. Even here at the beginning, the sound design supports the atmosphere, the whipping of the wind around you augmenting the snowy visuals. Best pull a blanket onto the couch with you while you’re at it.
Are those burning footsteps? Well, that’s one way to avoid frostbite.
The game’s opening narration details what is known as the Dyatlov Pass incident. On February 2nd, 1959, nine experienced skiers from the Ural Polytechnic Institute set up camp for the night. They are never heard from again. Investigators later find them all dead, noting that their tents had been ripped open from the inside, several of the dead had trauma similar to a road accident, and one woman was missing her tongue. This incident remains unsolved. The mountain on which they chose to camp? Kholat Syakhl, which in the local Mansi language, means “Dead Mountain.”
Understanding the Russian for “north” and “south” will be an initial advantage. Walking off in the opposite direction to intent is not going to result in the most pleasant of outcomes.
A fantastic backstory for a horror game, and the developers really make the most of it. Following the exploration of the town, the player rapidly finds themselves further isolated. Following a fall, the protagonist struggles to a nearby tent. As the wind howls around you, with a blizzard battering the landscape, the tent looks meagre protection against the elements. The sense of exposure is really quite intense. In the tent, a map and a compass are recovered. A number of coordinates are marked on the map. There’s nothing for it but to go investigate.
Fortunately, this is Mansi for “definitely completely safe and not scary path.”
Kholat has no intentions of holding your hand, however. There is no automap, no convenient “you are here and facing this way” magic icon. You must navigate using the map and the compass. If you can’t, you will get lost, and die. The controls are well-designed to support this. You can pull up the map, but it’s not a question of map screen vs. game screen. You can drop the map to the bottom half of the screen, exactly as you would if holding a real map and trying to compare against the real world around you. You can also elect to hold up the compass to check your bearings. You quickly learn to try to find landmarks in the game world against which you can orientate yourself. No matter how flimsy that tent seems, setting out into the gale really feels like taking a huge risk.
Don’t worry, she’s fine. No, really. That’s jam on the picture. Or lipstick. That colour is Happy, Safe and Warm red. It’s a Russian brand. It’s her favourite.
Each of the navigation points to reach is in a different area, and again the developers have done well creating distinct sections in a cohesive whole, considering how bland a winter mountainside could be. Each navigation point has a document containing further information. Along the way, the player can also observe additional coordinates hidden on the landscape, usually written on rock in a mysterious glowing script. There is a core set of documents to find, which advance the main story, and optional additional documents, finding which adds more details in the form of reports, articles, and diary entries. Naturally, there is a trophy and additional ending for finding them all. Finding these and moving on is no small task however; in addition to the climate, there are shadowy creatures which hound you with increasing intensity, environmental traps, and even a collapsing mountain to contend with.
Underground Soviet bunker. Makes a change from the Nazis being responsible for all the weird shit, I suppose.
If the ultimate aim is to uncover the truth, however, this is where Kholat unfortunately falls a little short. I fully understand and agree that not every story needs to be fully explained right in front of the player’s nose, and figuring out what has happened from the clues can be an appropriate mechanism for a game shrouded in mystery (as well as snow) as this one is. However, the more you discover and examine the documents to reach your conclusion, the more you understand how each of the themes for the different areas was chosen. Inevitably, the real-life Dyatlov Pass incident has numerous theories around it on varying degrees of the fantastical. Rather than plump for one of them, Kholat is going for all of them. I’m fine reaching my own conclusion, but it would be nice to think that there was one that I might be close to.
When even the people made of fire are running away, you have to question your survival probability.
There is an awful lot that Kholat does right, and not just right but really well. Just a small innovation around controls really adds to the no-frills, no-help approach, itself part of a game which feels as unforgiving as the narrative setting should have. Ultimately, though, the narrative pay-off is unsatisfying, which probably has a disproportionately negative impact on how you will feel about the game. It is still a superior and mostly well-told horror experience.