Kholat, developed by Polish studio IMGN.PRO, is based on the infamous Dyatlov Pass incident that occurred in the Ural Mountains in 1959. A group of explorers went missing, and when their bodies were found, a number of questions began to arise on exactly how they died. To this day the exact cause of their demise has never been fully understood. IMGN.PRO have taken this decade’s old mystery and used it as the platform for their own spin on how the events played out.
The game starts with a brief introduction, offering up theories on what might have happened, all narrated by the somber tones of Sean Bean. As intros go, it piqued my curiosity, and offered a sense of tension and fear. So far, so good.
With the narrative formalities done, I was left to begin my journey in the deserted streets of a Russian town devoid of human life. Graphically the environment is impressive, presenting a sense of frozen bewilderment, demonstrating the developers have utilised the Unreal Engine 4 to bring about an immersive and spectacular experience. Eye candy quota satisfied.
After some further wandering, the game offers up it’s primary tools of exploration; a map containing some scribbled references, a compass and a flashlight. Stood alone in the centre of the map, the sounds of the harsh wind, coupled with that aforementioned eye candy creates a sense of desperation and drove my human need to find a way out of this perilous situation. A quick glance of my map, and the realisation that those numbers are a clear indicator of where to go, I begin my journey…and it’s downhill (both literally and metaphorically) from here.
You see Kholat is a game that starts like many great journeys, full of heady excitement, and a promise of unknown gifts (or terrors), but soon becomes an arduous trudge, hampered by an unforgiving landscape and frustrating dead ends. Yes, I know, the whole idea being offered up by IMGN.PRO is one designed to offer minimal assistance, a sense of abandonment, of being hopelessly lost, but in doing so, the game drowns in frustration instead of fearful exploration.
The environment begins to feel ‘samey’, and whilst I did discover some items of interest (notes that expand the story) through reviewing my map and following the coordinates, I soon began to wander aimlessly, unable to distinguish some of the subtle variances in the landscape, despite looking at my map for unhealthy amounts of time. I’d forgotten all about impending terror at this point and was checking the price of a new controller, walls and dead ends don’t mix.
cue the fake tanned cousins of Casper The Friendly Ghost…
Yet, the perverse desire to see if those poor explorers had been mutilated by a hideous beast drove me forward. Even if the environment was baffling, surely that promising introduction would reward me with a gaming evil of pant wetting proportions? Nope, cue the fake tanned cousins of Casper The Friendly Ghost. Floaty orange ghouls are the enemy found in Kholat, and they are about as scary as a slightly irritated tortoise. These satsuma inspired apparitions have an annoying habit of randomly appearing and at times, were simply too close to evade, so before I could even scream uncontrollably, I was dead and back to a checkpoint for yet more aimless wandering…oh joy.
I’d love to tell you that I progressed to the end, but in all honesty, a few hours with Kholat finished me off. Perhaps my sense of adventure has dwindled with age, maybe I need guns to get my buzz. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the recent “Everybody’s Gone to Rapture”, which offered a slow, mysterious walking adventure in a stunning landscape, all be it one which was infinitely easier to navigate. OK, maybe it’s not as terrifying, but the example demonstrates that if a player is left to their own devices, they still need a well-crafted environment to reward their exploration and drive them forward to discover the plot. Kholat simply fails to deliver this and whilst those of you who seek adventure might wish to persevere don’t blame me if you get lost between anger and an icy rock. Oh, did I mention I got stuck in the scenery on a few occasions? Still, your choice.
It’s such a shame that a game which promised so much, was let down by poor design choices and a lack of cohesion. Whilst the horror/mystery genre has always relied upon a limited pool of resources to assist players in their pursuit of the truth and safety, Kholat takes too much away and gives little back to draw you across the tightrope of tension that great games deliver. Kholat is a game of unbalanced contradictions, lost and found, safe and afraid, intensity and boredom. It is a game that never feels like it’s really discovered itself (no pun intended).