Kholat: A Disappointed Player's Review
Dark, frozen terrain, shrieking wind and an inhuman presence constantly stalking me as I search for the solution to a disturbing mystery, all the while listening to the chilling narration of none other than Sean Bean. This is generally what I hoped I’d experience during my playthrough of Kholat. Technically, I got my wish. All of these ingredients were present. Kholat is essentially a pile of indie horror ingredients with full potential to make something great. Unfortunately, a pile of ingredients is no good if it lacks a recipe.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, let me give you a briefing, spoiler-free. Kholat is a new horror/mystery game in which the player explores the “Dyatlov Pass Incident”, a real event involving the deaths of a group of hikers in the Ural Mountains. “Kholat” is a reference to the mountain Kholat Syakhl, which means “Dead Mountain” in the language of the Mansi people. The possibility of extraterrestrial or otherwise supernatural involvement in the deaths of the hikers has been discussed at length since the event, due to the irregular physical state of the hikers’ corpses, and this is (vaguely, as much of the game’s story is left up to the player’s interpretation) the approach taken by Kholat.
The beginning of the game features an introduction similar to that which I just gave you, and little other information. The player is quickly thrown into a first-person exploration of the Dyatlov Pass area, involving simple mechanics and limited controls. Your identity is unclear, as is your purpose, and you must wander through the icy world picking up clues along the way, presumably toward the explanation of Kholat Syakhl’s mysteries.
The beginning of this review sounds pretty negative, so let’s go through the high points of Kholat before getting into its problems. I bought this game based mostly on the enthralling premise, but also on the beautiful screenshots I viewed on Steam. The game certainly delivers in terms of its graphics and attention to detail. For an indie horror game, Kholat’s environment is gorgeous and immersive.
All poetry aside, this game looks and sounds really, really good.
Even more impressive is the fact that the game matches each detailed set piece with equally precise sound effects. Shadowy, snow-covered hills are brought to life by footsteps crunching and padding through ice and powder. The ominous, claw-like appearance of tree branches silhouetted across the moon is amplified by the creaking of wood and the rustling of nearby shrubbery. Dark skies envelop the landscape while the wind whistles through the frozen forest. All poetry aside, this game looks and sounds really, really good. On top of its visually and aurally stunning atmosphere, the game receives a serious boost in quality from Sean Bean’s narration, another reason I was intrigued by this game. Navigating an environment such as this one while listening to a tortured Boromir describe his horrific experiences seems like a great idea for a game. Bean’s narration is great. The navigation, however, is not.
The first Act of the game is fairly straightforward and maneuvering through it is easy. As the game develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to get where you’re supposed to be going. The map is medium-sized, and fits the game decently well, provided you know where you are at all times. Unfortunately, a complete lack of direction from either clues or the narrator result in constant backtracking and confusion, steadily detracting from the immersion of the first Act. This wouldn’t be the end of the world if the sprawling environment had anything in it. Anything at all. This game is plagued by a shortage of secret locations and extra clues that could serve to maintain a player’s interest as they mindlessly backtrack and wander through the mountains, gradually getting more and more bored of snow and wind.
The player is provided with a map and a compass, both apparently designed to somehow help you reach the objectives. It seems logical. A compass and a map are the perfect pair of navigation tools, right? Kholat says otherwise. Both tools, though conceptually simple, are annoying and confusing to use. The map does not explicitly mark the player’s location, and merely allows you to vaguely figure out where you are based on the latitude and longitude grid, not that mastery of finding one’s current location does anything at all to help one figure out where to go next. The truly annoying thing is that the intention was to make a fairly linear game. A few extra hints and tips for direction would do wonders for Kholat. As it is, immersion is quickly broken unless the player happens to choose the right path at the right time throughout the entire game.
The fact that your character has perhaps the weakest stamina of any creature alive, even for the likes of an explorer of a blizzard-swept landscape makes it a whole lot worse. Having to walk extra-slowly after short bursts of sprinting while the character’s vision blurs and he breathes heavily for several seconds AND having to constantly backtrack is not a good combination, especially for a horror game.
Perhaps the main character's outrageously low stamina is an attempt to extend the game beyond its otherwise very short completion time.
You might be wondering, if the game is not quite linear and is not by any means an open-world adventure, what exactly is it? Good question. Kholat’s main weakness is in its ambiguous identity. The horror aspect to the game mostly dissipates after the first half-hour spent backtracking and wandering, and from there on out, for me at least, the mystery of Dyatlov Pass became the mystery of where the hell I was on the map, as I really wanted to finish the game before writing a review of any kind. Luckily, even with the solid 30 minutes of backtracking I must have done, I managed to get through the game in around three hours. Perhaps the main character’s outrageously low stamina is an attempt to extend the game beyond its otherwise very short completion time.
Regardless, the main reason I finished Kholat so quickly is because the “enemy” in the game, an ever-marching, glowing being that activates a clichéd “rage mode” upon spotting the player, is never even remotely difficult to avoid/escape. By the time I first encountered the enemy, I was fairly certain that my character couldn’t exactly run a marathon, yet even he had enough stamina to escape the angry, speedy mode, which times out after only a few seconds. Aside from this lightbulb with arms enjoying a long walk, the main enemy in the game might as well be your own map and compass, as getting places is far more difficult than avoiding the monster in this game. Oh, wait, I take it back. There is one other obstacle. Occasionally, (and I’m not making this up), the player must also face a giant, orange (fart) cloud that sweeps over the hills. I assume that cloud stinks about as bad as Kholat’s AI.
Well, that all sounded depressing, and it was meant to! As a big fan of horror/mystery and Sean Bean, I wanted this game to succeed. I was rooting for it the whole way through. Kholat nails the atmospheric horror element, but immediately buries it under crappy enemies and constant backtracking, in a world disappointingly devoid of content. Interestingly enough, the few reviews I’ve seen on this game criticized its story pretty heavily. The way I see it, the story is one of the only enduring strong points of the game. At the same time, I’m much more content with an ending that, (semi-spoiler alert, though I kind of already said it), doesn’t actually solve the mystery, than some people.
Perhaps given an opportunity to look over each of the clues, including those I never found due to my backtracking and constant confusion, I could come up with my own ending, and this seems to be the goal with Kholat: The end is open to interpretation.
This review represents my personal disappointment as well as a warning to others considering this game. Unless you have an incredible in-game sense of direction, you might want to skip this one. Kholat has a great premise and some impressive graphics/audio, but just doesn’t quite use them effectively. After one misstep, all engagement with the game and its world is easily lost, and a lot of your steps will probably be missteps. The story is short, if the player has the will to find his way through it at all, but I do not fault the game for that, since it is not especially expensive. Because of the beauty of the game, as well as Sean Bean’s exceptional narrating job, I’m going to give Kholat a 5/10. Its missing points are the untapped potential of the game. At this state, you’d be better off sitting down and watching Devil’s Pass (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1905040). At least there are no fart clouds.