When first announced, Kholat was presented as a horror exploration game. Somewhere among Dear Esther, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Slender: The Eight Pages, the developers wanted this game to be an exciting adventure where careful exploration, note taking, and a touch of paranormal activity seamlessly blended together and resulted in the “most terrifying journey of your life”. Set in the Ural Mountains, following the real-life events surrounding the Dyatlov Pass incident, the game has you play as an explorer on your quest to discover what happened to the members of that failed expedition from 1959. It’s a great premise for a horror exploration game based on real events, but sadly Kholat doesn’t manage to do any of the above properly.
After a short, beginning cutscene, narrated by award winning actor Sean Bean, who voiced all of the narrations in the game, you are dropped off at a train station not far from the Dyatlov Pass. The first thing you’ll notice is just how beautiful the environment looks and sounds. The great use of Unreal Engine 4, and probably developer IMGN.PRO’s firsthand experience of the areas surrounding the pass, make for an incredibly detailed environment which adds to the overall feeling of immersion this title attempts to deliver. The great sound effects, which aim at reconstructing the bitterness of a Russian winter, further increase this feeling. Kholat should absolutely be played with a VR headset if you have the chance to do so. It’s also notable that the game has no UI whatsoever, presenting itself as a realistic exploration sim more than a classic horror game.
somewhat limited level design
You are then free to begin your journey by walking around the station and the surrounding village. This is where Kholat’s first flaw shows itself. For a game that heavily relies on observation, the possible interactions you have to analyze the environment are very limited. It’s understandable that the developers wanted to accentuate the inhospitality of the Ural Mountains, but the village is nothing more than a series of houses surrounded by inaccessible courtyards. While you expect to be able to manipulate your surroundings in order to get clues and hints on how to progress, the interaction button only works when picking up notes. All you’re left with is the ability to zoom in on anything you might find interesting, which besides being useless most of the time, reveals some rather disappointing texture quality and the almost total lack of reflections–even at higher settings. A series of locked doors, a few invisible walls and some areas, which look easily accessible but are somehow blocked off, make this introductory level quite linear as you’re pushed to continue toward the forest and into the next part of your journey.
Through the loading screen that precedes your arrival at the pass, you’re introduced to the navigation system and to the map and compass, as the game features no tutorials. These are the only items you’re able to use in order to find your way through Kholat. Sticking with its choice of a realistic representation of the dangers that lurk beneath exploration, the developers opted for a static map that doesn’t show your current position and a compass that you use to navigate the pass. A set of coordinates is scribbled on the upper-left corner of the map and getting there will allow you to collect notes from the previous rescue teams, journal entries, logs, and articles that are supposedly there to shed some light on the incident, although it is still unclear how these pieces of paper manage to remain intact while blizzards and howling winds rage around you.
The map will also update, marking the position of points of interest you’ve already visited. In theory, this system would have been a great way to force you to further explore their surroundings and to pay greater attention to details, but the developers forgot how observation in a video game doesn’t always reflects its real life counterpart. The fact that the compass is, for some reason, shown sideways and that you can’t mark a point of interest on the map or do any other kind of note taking regarding dangers or paths you’ve already explored (did our hero really forget to pack a pencil before starting his journey? How does he take notes on his journal then?) makes for an excruciating navigation that will find you running in circles and, most of the time, relying on backtracking or the position of the moon rather than your tools to find your bearings.
The story manages to be both a niche and a CLICHE one
Once you finally manage to get a hang of how to move around, Kholat’s last and biggest flaw rises through the thick Russian ice and hits you right in the face. The story surrounding the game manages to result as both a niche and a cliche one. It is a niche story because it is clearly tailored to only appeal to those who have a genuine interest in Russian history. The game makes little to no effort to get you involved with the events unfolding in front of you. Kholat’s story is also a niche one, as it relies on jump scares, military conspiracies, and creatures from another world that will, most of the time, appear out of the forest to help you meet an early demise. The game encourages exploration, claiming that narrow passages and hidden paths might lead to secrets but at the same times punishes you for going off the beaten track. Concealed traps and pits, enemies appearing out of nowhere, the lack of a jump button, areas that seem to be easily reachable but are somehow blocked, the lack of a saving system, and checkpoints that are only activated upon retrieving a note or visiting the camp, all make for a frustrating experience that seems to work toward keeping you off Kholat more than getting you into it.
If you consider the above, and manage to get through the cranky exploration and finish the game, Kholat can be completed in less that four hours, including the time you spent backtracking and the run-of-the-mill finale. This game could save itself, and be worthy of a quick look at least to see how Unreal Engine 4 performs, if it wasn’t for the fact that the price is a shocking $19.99, a price that, for Kholat being what is it and being IMGN.PRO’s first creation, can only be considered as the final nail on this title’s coffin.