Some games make you feel like you’re on a little holiday. Recent titles like Rime made me feel like I was on a beach, feeling a light breeze on my face and drinking a large gin and tonic with a fancy umbrella. Now if you were going on holiday in the world of Kholat, you would need a strong stomach, fourteen layers of warm clothing and a brilliant sense of direction. You’d also want to ignore the strange orange footsteps following you in the snow… I need to have strong words with my holiday rep.
Kholat has been out on other formats for about a year, but it’s now time for the Polish developers IMGN.PRO to bring their supernatural experience to Xbox.
The game is based on real life events that took place on the Dyatlov Pass in 1959. A camping expedition by some Russian students who ventured out into the cold Northern Ural Mountains ended in disaster, and has become a mystery that has been talked about and chewed over ever since. All nine students died in strange and unusual circumstances that have yet to be explained, seeing the incident inspire a number of conspiracies across both film and literature.
In Kholat, your job is to find out what the hell happened. It’s a first person story driven experience very much like Dear Esther or Gone Home. You walk around, have a limited run button, can load up a map and compass and pick up journals, all whilst opening the odd door. You start the game in a small town just outside the event location. There is no tutorial or marker about where to go next, it’s completely up to you to explore the surroundings. It doesn’t take long to get accustomed to the cold and beautiful bleakness, which really makes you want to put the heating on. It is after this when the strangeness begins and you start to question what is real and what is imagined…
The world ahead of you is explored using a map found in the first camp, and a small compass. There are non linear coordinates for you to follow, but that’s about all the guidance you will get. When you venture out into the wilderness you might get clues about where to go by seeing brightly coloured ghosts of the past victims running or standing in a certain area. You can find and collect multiple pieces of journals and information that provide an insight into what has happened to the expedition and the possible causes of their disappearance. There are things out there in the wilderness that are hunting you as well. If you see some orange footsteps and a strange invisible being in the white snow, then well, simply put, run away… because that’s your only defense you have.
Kholat plays well but the pacing is a big issue, and you have to have a great sense of direction. That’s not necessarily something unique to this game though as much of the pace of many of the walking games like this is a problem – it’ll all boil down to whether you love or hate this type of game. It works better when you’re in a place that is pleasant and the fear of death isn’t around every corner, allowing you time to relax and take in the world. In Kholat though you feel like you’re going to die at any moment and the landscape, however bleakly beautiful, is oppressive and frightening. The run button does thankfully work, but at time it feels like hard work and only has a limited use, which is entirely realistic and in keeping with the game’s nature.
Getting lost is something you have to get used to while exploring Kholat. If – like me – you can’t leave the house without the sat nav telling you how to get to the shops, you might be in a spot of trouble. It’s meant to be difficult and hard, like the environment you are moving across, but there are times when snow blindness kicks in and will leave you wanting to lie down and have a little sleep. The game’s set pieces are done superbly well though and are exciting as well as being brilliantly designed. It’s just with the bits around these magical moments that I had a spot of trouble with.
Visually, Kholat is, as I highlighted above, stunningly dreary. The landscape looks great with the Unreal Engine 4 being used well and the more supernatural elements can be very effective indeed. The journals and maps are great as well with tremendous levels of detail.
The soundtrack is wonderful with some amazing sequences that become really dramatic, combining fantastically as they work in tandem with the gameplay. The voice over work is superb, as you would expect with it being led by Sean Bean, and the other actors are also on par with his solid work. I did have a problem with the balance and mix of the sound, losing some of the voice over with the soundtrack, even after mucking around with the audio settings in the options menu. But overall, sound-wise Kholat delivers some excellent work.
In final conclusion I have mixed feelings about Kholat. The design, looks and sound are superb, mixing the deeply disturbing and realistic settings of this true disaster from 1959. The gameplay can get hard – for the reasons I outlined above – and directing the gamer can be an issue. But if you want something different, and of decent quality, put on your snow boots, grab a flask of warm coffee and venture out into the cold.