Genre: Adventure, Indie
Release Date: 9 Jun, 2015
A copy of the game was provided by the developer for this review.
Kholat is a very unusual game. It feels like one of those titles that could almost be described as art, were it not for some severe game design issues and functional problems. There is a decent game here somewhere, and perhaps some of you will find it. I personally had some trouble, as you’ll soon see.
Kholat’s mythology is rather heavily based on the Dyatlov Pass Incident. The Dyatlov Pass Incident is a real historical event that resulted in the deaths of nine hikers on the mountain summit of Kholat Syakhl, where the game gets it name. To this day, there is still no certainty to what befell the nine hikers that night. Two victims had fractured skulls and broken ribs while being absent of contusions. Five of the hikers had their skin turned a deep brown colour, with some of their clothing registering as highly radioactive. Strange orange spheres were reported in the sky about the same time as the incident, further adding to the mystery.
The game Kholat seeks to explore a possible scenario of reasoning for what happened to the hikers that one fateful night that lead them to such horror. The main character is sent in as a rescuer of sorts, also researching what happened to the hikers and looking for survivors. The main character never talks or has any characterization given to them oddly enough, with the only story being told via diaries that are scattered all around the summit. Upon collecting a diary, the Russian page is then translated into English via the dulcet tones of Sean Bean or one of the other voice actors.
The story is very open to interpretation and is up to the player to piece together from everything they find and experience in the wild white wasteland of Kholat Syakhl. This is sadly Kholat’s major downfall. For a game so steeped in real-life mythology, very little information is given and unless one pieces together the diary chronologically, the ending may elude them. Hell, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense once it’s pieced together. It’s a shame, since the story provides a lot to the atmosphere and adds to the horror of the title, only to ultimately amount to very little.
Kholat’s game-play at times can be equally confusing. The game does very little in the way of hand holding—usually a good thing in most other situations. The player is thrown into the world of Kholat without being told how to do anything but wander aimlessly. They will eventually find a map, a flashlight and a compass. The map has several coordinates scrawled across it. The player’s job is to figure out where those coordinates are in the game map, deciphering where they are from landmarks marked on the map and the occasional diary page.
Traveling to these landmarks reveals a little more of the plot, as well as more of the world. Occasionally camp sites will be found and these are essentially save points. Walking up to one saves the game and also acts as a fast travel mechanism for any other camp sites located. Finding locations on the map can occasionally be a pain as well as locating oneself. The game requires the ability to read maps fairly well, in order to locate the next point of interest and not waste hours wandering around aimlessly. Running requires stamina, which is limited. If the stamina is expended, a short period is required before being able to run once more.
Kholat is a horror game. Occasionally you’ll need to run and hide. The wilderness is not friendly and you will need to evade being caught by the perils you encounter. The flashlight can be used momentarily to blind your pursuers, but should not be counted on. The land is treacherous and you can’t fall from a reasonable height without dying. You also are unable to jump, frustratingly enough. This leads to many scenarios that will make you want to scream, just because you can’t climb or jump over a small rock only about half a meter high. You can crawl through spaces occasionally to evade pursuers, or hide within closets. The compass is useless, and you’re better off utilizing the coordinates and landmarks.
Graphically, Kholat uses Unreal Engine 4 and it looks great. The graphics look photo-realistic and help with immersion to a great degree. It really makes you feel alone in a winter wasteland with no-one to rely on but yourself. The downside is due to the setting, there isn’t a whole lot of variety. The colours are dull and grey, creating quite an oppressive atmosphere that after wandering aimlessly for hours, you will get bored with. On the occasion there is a fleck of colour here and there, it is all too fleeting and you’re thrust back into the boring dull white and grey landscape.
The landscape is littered with various summits to scale, trees coated in powder, and rocks with hyper realistic textures everywhere. The textures for the ground and the various landmarks are top-notch, as well as the occasional, frighteningly real looking pile of bones. Where the game really shines is when you look up. Casting your gaze upwards at the skybox is just awesome, with a full moon hanging low and clouds being rendered via particle effects. It really lends to the atmosphere. The one major complaint is in the instances where a wall or rock looks scale-able, or possible to drop from. Nine times out of ten this will result in a perilous fall to your death, or severe frustration at the fact your little character can’t jump. Really immersion breaking, especially when a fall looks humanly possible only to result in death. Further immersion breaking is the off-putting way that your character’s compass just floats there. Never mind the fact it’s useless in-game, but there’s no hand model there or anything!
The fire physics look great, as do the animations on certain objects. Trees sway, snow often obscures your vision, and the crackling of a fire is a welcome sight when you’re very lost. Where the immense amount of particle effects in the game becomes an issue is when being pursued. It’s often difficult to make out your pursuers through the snow before they have seen you, and this often ends with the music being the only cue that you have been spotted. In that instance, all you can do is run and hope you’re not heading straight towards your would-be captor.
The audio for Kholat is like the story, very hit and miss. On the occasions voice acting is employed, Sean Bean sounds quite dry, and bored. While the game made a big song and dance of having Sean Bean narrate the game somewhat, it feels like he has not been utilized to his full potential. There’s no soul in his voice, and it seems like it’s just another job to him. The female voice actor is fine, conveying the fear and excitement in her voice when appropriate. Other than that though, none of the voice acting is considerably fantastic.
While the voice acting is somewhat lackluster, the sound design is top-notch. The music is mostly ambient, giving way to natural noises like birds, or the howl of a wolf, the snapping of a log as you pass over it, or crossing a bridge. Everything sounds crisp. The paranoia whispers you hear on the wind are downright bone-chilling and this game does a fantastic job of utilizing sound to scare you stiff. On the rare occasion you are spotted by a hostile, the ambiance gives way to a fast paced tune echoing the adrenaline pumping, and boy does it pump! The sound effects are where this game really shines. There aren’t actually all that many instances in-game where you’ll find yourself endangered, but you will be kept on edge the whole time. The sound creates the atmosphere and I’ve not been genuinely creeped out like this since the Stalker series.
Overall Kholat does a few things right, in terms of atmosphere. The game is ultimately quite creepy, so it accomplishes its main goal. That being said, there’s many game design choices in it that are really frustrating. I wanted to like Kholat, I really did. The narration seems to hint at far deeper meaning than is ultimately paid off and the ending felt very abrupt and rushed. It sort of made sense upon further reading into the incident and the diary pages, but most of you will likely be hitting Wikipedia afterwards to gain a clearer understanding. The concepts in Kholat are interesting; I really liked the whole map baring concept, but not its execution. I ultimately found the last landmark after 13 hours of wandering aimlessly. The fact I had to hug the left wall everywhere I went however; is frankly unforgivable.
Kholat is a mess of good ideas thrown in with poor execution. It doesn’t have the sort of polish I had hoped it would have going into it, but the atmosphere is something it does create very well. If you’re looking for a game to creep you out, but not necessarily anything deeper than that, Kholat might be for you. At its current price it feels a bit much. If it had been a bit more polished, I would likely be raving about this game, but as it stands, I have to dock it somewhat. What is refreshing, is the game doesn’t scare you with cheap thrills or jump scares that everyone has grown accustomed to indie games dishing out. That is a big plus.
No jump scares.
Genuinely creepy atmosphere.
Some interesting ideas.
Very impressive audio that supports the atmosphere.
The set-pieces aren't varied enough.
The entire game is basically just snow. Very dull.
Brief moments of colour are too short.
Bored, and uninterested voice reading from Sean Bean.
Requires the ability to read maps really well.
Character's abilities are unreasonably limited.