Pitched somewhere between the Slender's creepiness and Dear Esther's abstract adventure, Kholat is yet another entry in the 'narrative experience' sub-genre that has exploded on the PC indie scene in the last few years. You know the sort of thing: walk around, get scared, pick up notes and diary entries to add context to your wanderings.
As an example of this narrow seam of game design, Kholat has several significant advantages, but also some problems that make it hard to stick with in the long term.
Its main advantage is that it's based on a fantastic real life mystery. The so-called Dyatlov Pass incident happened in 1959, when a group of students hiking in the Ural Mountains failed to return home. They were found on the eastern slopes of Kholat Syakhl, their tent cut open from the inside. Something had led them to flee into the freezing night undressed. Some were found with horrific internal injuries but no evidence of a struggle. Needless to say, colourful details soon got added to the tale: the bodies were radioactive, or had strange patches of inexplicable orange skin. There had been lights in the sky that night, and the locals consider the mountain to be cursed.
It's one of those stories that likely has a mundane, though no less tragic, explanation but as the springboard for a horror game it's got everything you could want: mystery, terror and a desolate, inhospitable setting.
Kholat's other big advantage is that it's one of the first commercial games developed using Unreal 4, and purely as an advert for Epic's engine it's a rousing success. There are some rough indie edges for sure - blocky shadows that judder and flicker, most obviously - but it's also gorgeously detailed and dripping with atmosphere. From dark, dense forests to eye-popping snow-blasted vistas, this is a game that is a constant pleasure to look at. If a small indie team can make a game that looks this good in less than two years, it bodes well for Unreal 4's future.
Sadly, atmosphere can only ever provide the foundations for horror, and developer IMGN Pro struggles to build anything solid on top. Kholat is a triumph of art design over game design; an experience which quickly goes from immersive chiller to frustrating chore thanks to some odd design decisions.
Top of that list is navigation, which is strictly old school. Following a brief introductory section in which you set out from an empty town into the wild, you find yourself lost on the mountain with only a torch, map and compass. There are no waypoints or even a marker on the map to show where you are. You have to work that out for yourself, starting from your initial campsite. Every note you find gets marked on the map, and you'll sometimes come across coordinates etched into the rock, telling you where you are.
Unfortunately, matching these coordinates to the actual map is hit and miss, with winding pathways not always matching up to what you see. Too often, even when you do manage to get your bearings, you'll find your way blocked by irritating obstacles which are only impassable because you're playing as an explorer who cannot climb or even jump. Being stymied by a rock no higher than your knee, forcing you to keep calling up the map to reorient yourself, soon loses its appeal.
It's easy to get lost, and that's clearly deliberate. The idea, presumably, is to replicate the panic those students must have felt, and that's a fine idea - in a smaller, more experiential game that lasts only a few hours. Kholat is much bigger, however, and when getting through even the first act requires a headache-inducing amount of back-tracking and going round in circles trying to work out where to go, this lavishly designed world becomes significantly less inviting.
The map does offer one more bit of assistance, in the shape of coordinates scribbled at the side. These guide you to important notes or areas that trigger a chunk of story, but even this proves problematic. The inability to mark the map in your own way, or to leave signs in the environment to keep you on course, is a massive oversight. It becomes less about exploring at your own pace and more about deciphering a poorly drawn map, which is a much less interesting proposition.
Assuming you can find your way around, there's unfortunately little chance of making sense of what you find, since Kholat takes the abstract storytelling style of Dear Esther and drags it into the realm of the obtuse.
Of course, it's OK for a game to tease out its meaning gradually, or conceal the shape of its story behind a fragmented structure. But those fragments should at least start to come together and offer some hint as to where it's all leading. In Kholat, you'll find the usual spread of lengthy text logs, you'll trigger some mind-boggling supernatural event involving levitating boulders, or you'll run with ghosts through a forest filled with orange mist, but it all feels disjointed and random. The game too often mistakes being weird for being interesting, and assumes that the absence of answers is the same as posing a question.
Poor old Sean Bean takes the brunt of this, delivering some painfully written voiceover in his familiar brusque Yorkshire tones. His casting is a real coup, but there's an emptiness in his delivery that suggests even he has no idea what he's actually saying or why. In fact, it's worth transcribing one of his speeches verbatim so you can get a sense of what passes for narration in Kholat:
"Eons. That's how long I spent suspended in nothingness. And then this one time a pale, dim glow filled it. I felt as if some consciousness started soaking through an orange cloud into my brain. Dripping with heavy drops, not letting me pass away nice and peaceful. I fought with myself. I had no strength to open my eyes. And finally, after processing the situation on and on I realised...I have no eyes."
Polish developer IMGN Pro obviously isn't working in its native tongue, but it's not so much the awkward construction and bizarre metaphors that are the problem as the fact that it's essentially meaningless. At this point, the player has no idea who they're playing, and no idea of who Sean Bean is voicing. These big soggy lumps of ponderous prose are dropped into the game, but they provide neither useful exposition nor thematically coherent poetry. It's just distractingly pompous guff.
Kholat's other main gameplay mechanic is where the horror elements come in, but these are even more troublesome than the narrative aspects. You are, unsurprisingly, not alone on the mountain but the early spookiness falls to pieces almost as soon as you encounter your first enemy - which can be as soon as the first ten minutes.
Sometimes visible only as a trail of glowing orange footprints, or sometimes as a glowing orange figure, these creatures will run up to you and kill you instantly with one hit. You have no way of fighting back, and nor does the game feature any kind of stealth system to help you know if you're hidden or not. I've crouched in bushes and still been slaughtered, and I've stood in plain sight and been completely ignored. You can, in theory, out run them but true to "narrative experience" formula, your default movement speed is a casual stroll and you're only able to sprint for a few seconds before your vision swims and you're forced to stop.
And that's not even taking into account the other instant death hazards you may encounter. There are deadly pits filled with spikes, invisible but for the faint circular shape of the snow texture that covers them. At one point I emerged from a cave onto a rocky outcrop, which promptly collapsed and dumped me into a ravine below. The game didn't end, but I was stuck in place and had to restart.
Your game is only saved whenever you find a new note, camp site or location of interest and that means that you can spend ages trying to find your way to a new area, only to have all that progress thrown away for the sake of a cheap shot. Camp sites also act as fast travel points, but this isn't the sort of vast sandbox game where such mechanisms should be necessary. Their presence on such relatively small maps seems like a tacit admission that wandering around in this world isn't actually much fun, and is something to be skipped when possible. For a game that is almost entirely exploration driven, that's a big drawback.
Ultimately, despite its cool concept and lush visuals, Kholat falls between two stools. As a horror game it's just not scary, and the heavy reliance on cheap instant death quickly grows tiresome. As an atmospheric exploration adventure, it stretches its story too thin, buries it under layers of purple prose and squanders the pleasure of its attractively bleak environment thanks to fussy, frustrating navigation.
As a lifelong fan of Fortean mystery and atmospheric adventures, Kholat is a game I really wanted to love, but it left me out in the cold in more ways than one.
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