Investigate strange disappearances in the Russian wilderness.
PC Release: June 9, 2015
By Ian Coppock
In 1959, a group of Russian college students disappeared while hiking in the Ural Mountains. It took three weeks for investigators to find the hikers, and when they did, they beheld a grim scene. Something had caused the students to cut their tent open from the inside and flee barefoot into subzero temperatures, where they all succumbed to hypothermia. Some of the hikers had also sustained major injuries: one woman’s eyes, tongue, and lips were missing. The bizarre circumstances of the incident have kept theories flowing for over half a century, and Kholat, named for the mountain on which the students died, has its own idea of what happened.
Designed by the Polish indie confectioners over at IMGN.PRO, Kholat is a first-person horror game that attempts to explain what befell those students in 1959. Players assume the role of an anonymous mountaineer who arrives to the region to conduct their own investigation, though whether the game is set in the 50’s or contemporary times isn’t made clear. Why the player’s heading into the mountains to find out what happened is also left ambiguous, but they head into the mountains nonetheless.
The region that players explore in Kholat is visually stunning. The game was built in the Unreal engine and boasts a stylish, haunting winter visage. Wind ruffles tree branches realistically and sudden gusts of snow brush across the screen with impressive motion blur. Combine this with eerie fog effects, and the result is a winter nightmare-land that’s as gorgeous as it is forbidding. All told, it makes for an ideal horror setting. What better way to chill the blood and goose the bumps than setting off into an icy valley of death?
IMGN.PRO ices Kholat‘s world with creepy sounds and scary strings. The former is a mix of noises that play out in the player’s peripheral hearing, like distant rock slides and the constant moan of the wind. Sometimes the sounds will abruptly mute, particularly when the player nears the edge of Kholat‘s map, but they come through in otherwise crystal-clear quality. If previous horror game reviews haven’t beaten this point to death already, sound design is crucial to establishing atmosphere in a horror game. Kholat‘s apt mix of foreboding wilderness noises is up for that challenge.
The game’s soundtrack uses violins as a base, layered with low strings and exotic percussion for good measure. Kholat‘s score lends the game a primeval feel, one that assails the senses with gradually building strings and what sounds like rocks clacking together. These movements sometimes accelerate when an enemy creature shows up. Other times, the music will simply die down and leave players alone with the sounds of the mountain. It makes for a cloying sense of isolation… and vulnerability.
What was that in the last paragraph? Enemy creatures show up? It seems that Kholat‘s winter wonder(not)land is populated by unfriendly beings. Strange, shadowy wraiths stalk the trees waiting for uncaring players to slip up and trigger their thirst for blood. Sometimes players will wander the mountain paths only for one of these creepy ghouls to pop out of the trees just in time for brunch. Kholat gives players no means of self-defense; their best hope is to run and try to break the creature’s line of sight. The AI that went into these creatures is questionable though, as sometimes they stand right in front of the player and seem content to idle rather than murder.
The rest of Kholat‘s gameplay is much more in line with Gone Home than, say, Outlast. Players complete the game by wandering around the region gathering notes as to what happened. How these notes weren’t discovered by previous investigators or blown away by the winter winds is anyone’s guess, but they contain pieces of a larger story. Sometimes Sean Bean will step in to provide additional musings on the player’s quest. He serves as Kholat‘s narrator, and he and the other characters’ voice acting is superb.
Less admirable than Kholat‘s voice acting is its script, which is one of the most scattershot and nonsensical horror game plots in recent memory. As players make their way through Kholat‘s chilly world, the notes they find lying around raise more questions than they solve. Some notes are diary entries left behind by the missing students, while others make various hints at supernatural activity, government cover-ups, and other tired cliches. It helps even less that all of these notes (and the subtitles) are riddled with countless spelling and grammar errors.
Kholat‘s narrative had an easy job: take one of the 20th century’s most mysterious stories and expand upon it. The result is a fragmented mess that tries to be sci-fi, fantasy and so many other things at once, only to fail. No indication is given as to who Sean Bean’s character is, and as the game goes on, it starts to become unclear who the player‘s character is, too. There’s nothing wrong with a game narrative being vague, but Kholat tries so hard to be vague and mysterious that it ends up almost completely unknowable. Indeed, the game seems disinterested in its original premise, preferring to wallow in shallow what-ifs about the 1959 incident.
Going the distance for a sub-par story is inadvisable, especially when given Kholat’s gameplay and level design. The game starts players out with a minimal navigation toolkit: a map, a compass, and a flashlight. The game marks the player’s camp and the locations of discovered notes on their map, but doesn’t tell players where they currently are. While this sort of minimalist navigation is refreshing from a survival gameplay standpoint, it makes it difficult for players to find specific coordinates. It’s also not always easy for players to discern their location, because while Kholat‘s scenery is beautiful, it’s also samey in places.
How samey, one might ask? Well, Kholat‘s mountain trails are often loop-shaped and can make it easy for players to get turned around. Some ledges can be safely traversed while others will cause players to fall to their deaths, in what seems to be a very arbitrary distinction on Kholat‘s part. A game that’s loaded with unfair deaths means that checkpoints are vital, but in Kholat they’re an endangered species. It’s easy to lose half an hour of progress because the player character hopped one ledge just fine only to suffer a fatal fall on the next one… somehow. Kholat‘s enemy creatures love causing unfair deaths too, as they’ll often just pop up without warning and send players back to their last checkpoint thirty minutes ago.
If Kholat is unnecessarily punishing and too vague for its own good, at least it runs well. The game’s system requirements are not baseline, but Kholat keeps a consistent framerate and suffers almost no performance issues. Some players have reported the occasional crash, but the other facets of the game run just fine. Kholat‘s options menu is pretty middle-of-the-road; players can expect detail levels and the other usual suspects. It’s not a ton of stuff, but it should be more than enough to scale down processor demand.
Kholat‘s smooth performance and jaw-dropping winter world are really all the game has to offer. The gameplay is mediocre and the narrative (if one can call it that) is a jumbled mess that grossly mismanages everything from the mystery story that spawned it to having Sean Bean as a narrator. It takes a true, terrifying story and ventures off into its own wilderness of half-baked sci-fi and aimless character development. These narrative missteps only make Kholat‘s failure to expand upon the 1959 incident in a meaningful way more glaring.
Players who like the idea of traversing a haunted mountain will like Kholat, but the game demands a lot of suffering for fans of even that very specific niche. If Kholat has anything to teach other game developers, it’s that a horror game can’t just get away with using a popular ghost story to mask a bland experience. A well-written premise isn’t enough to disguise the taste of a poorly written narrative. Any horror game can spend its entire length flailing at theories and regurgitating jumpscares, but only a select few titles can weave exposition and narrative into a truly terrifying story.
Kholat is not one of those titles.
You can buy Kholat here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.