By: Mike Chen
A deserted mountain passage with a real-life mystery featuring nine dead people: sounds like a ripe setting for a gripping survival-horror game. Kholat, based on the infamous Dyatlov Pass incident, offers beautifully detailed environments and a harrowing tension as you unravel a supernatural take on what happened to the nine victims. However, major technical and design problems prevent the game from ever getting past the first step.
Kholat is a pretty bare-bones walking simulator. That means that you’re essentially walking and the controls involve the ability to turn on a flashlight, activate your compass (an optionally permanent fixture), look at your map, crouch and check out your logbook.
There’s also the very occasional “Press X to interact.” But since the game essentially involves walking around the wilderness, what you see is what you get.
Though mostly dimly lit, Kholat features some pretty spectacular environments with weather elements. This is probably achieved because of the game’s solo experience — there’s no enemy AI to eat up processing power, just pure graphical output.
However, most of this takes place at night in a snowy mountain rage, so the exquisite detail only goes so far. Plus, you’ll catch bits of staged asset loading here and there, particularly after saving or dying/reviving.
Kholat is narrated by Sean Bean, who delivers a somewhat monotone performance. Half the time, he feels like he’s reading from the Wikipedia page on the Kholat incident, so it’s not like he had a ton of material to work with. There are other voiceovers, too, though those simply read log entries.
The game’s true strength is environmental sound and associated music, as both strongly emphasize the game’s creeping tension and sense of isolation.
From a conceptual level, Kholat has the potential to be very cool. It revisits a long-standing real-world mystery about nine experienced hikers who disappeared in a snowy Russian mountain, only for their bodies to be found featuring weird injuries and circumstances. Theories abound as to what happened (seriously, look up the Wikipedia page on it), and the game posits a supernatural twist.
Thus, there’s the foundation for a cool survival-horror experience. What you get is a vague walking simulator, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except there’s no narrative to propel you forward. You are literally thrown into the wilderness with a compass, flashlight and a map.
On one hand, this allows the game’s mysteries to unfold organically; on the other, you have no way to identify where you are on the map except by trying to read the topography. The map has significant coordinates on it, and the game’s goal is essentially to reach those locations. It’s just really hard to get there when you have no idea where you are, particularly when you walk very slowly and can’t infinitely run.
There are hidden in-game bonuses, from notes and journal entries by the survivors to secret locations found by discovering coordinates inscribed in the landscape. Oh, and there are also death traps (like hidden pit of spikes) that cause you to reboot with long load times.
A few simple tweaks and it could be fun for the average gamer thanks to the cool environment and detailed location. But as it stands, Kholat really only works for those with a lot of patience for trial-and-error combined with exploration.
Kholat starts with a cool concept but severe design flaws will frustrate all but the most patient gamers as you walk across a beautifully detailed but empty environment.