Reviews

Kholat Review – The Dyatlov Pass Incident Gets Weirder

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: IMGN.Pro
Publisher: IMGN.Pro
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Kholat immediately had my attention due to a simple fact; it’s based upon the mysterious Dyatlov Pass incident, one of the most inherently fascinating mysteries in human history, a true tale that has remained unsolved throughout the years and spawned numerous films and books ht have attempted to provide an explanation for what occurred on top of that snow-covered mountain. In short, ten explorers went up the mountain, and never came back. Once a rescue party finally reached them they discovered some rather bizarre things; the tent had been cut open from the inside and the occupants had fled in terror, abandoning clothes, bedding and other things in he process. Eventually the bodies were discovered; some were in a line, seemingly attempting to make it back to the tent. Others were discovered with massive internal damage, yet somehow showed no signs of external injuries. Two were found huddled around a fire in naught but underwear. Afterwards came rumours that pieces of clothing were radioactive, that strange lights had been seen on the mountaintop, and that some of the victims had orange patches of skin. These claims, which came from a number of sources, could never be officially confirmed, and since we will ever know what truly happened a legend has been born with explanations ranging from the mundane to supernatural forces to alien intervention to military involvement. There have been several logical conclusions given that do seem to make sense, but we’ll never know…

A game based on this tale, then, has a pretty interesting foundation and plenty of scope for the writers to bring something new to the table. Kholat, named for the mountain where the incident occurred, takes the form of what has become known as “walking simulators,” an exploration game where you need to wander around and eventually piece together what happened. Of all the possible narrative routes available it opts for the more unusual options, unsurprisingly, chucking a variety of creepy events at you, including odd fog, a dead forest that glows red, spectral beings, levitating rocks and the baffling inability to get over a 2ft high rock.

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Games of this nature rest entirely on just two pillars; writing, and atmosphere. Both need to be strong, otherwise the very core idea of the game, the  desire to explore a detailed world and uncover the mystery within, crumbles rapidly. The good news is that Kholat has atmosphere in buckets, assuming that buckets are a reasonable form of measurement for atmosphere. Despite the small developer and presumably even smaller budget the graphics are nothing short of impressive, the initial bleak, abandoned town that you find yourself in immediately making an impression. Admittedly it’s all quite static in the sense that there’s rarely much going on in the environments, but that has meant the developers could focus getting the atmosphere just right. The texture work is impressive, and is reinforced by a perfect audio track of howling, biting wind that made me actually shiver when wearing headphones. The blowing snow, occasional howl of a wolf and fidelity of the environment creates a oppresive, creepy world to explore, and some of the strange occurrences that you discover along the way are well realised. The only flaw is that the white mountain doesn’t exactly offer much variety, the seemingly endless snow and rock quickly blending together as you make your way through ravines and caves.

I can’t issue enough praise for the developers for how well they’ve crafted the environment, refusing to go down the overused procedurally generated route and instead doing everything by hand. Kholat’s world just feels so cold and oppressive and well designed, and while the constant white view can become too much there are still splashes of color to be found and their rarity makes such moments even more special. Exploration is rewarded with discoveries like horrifying pits of bone, creepy red forests and a run through woods with ghostly figures, but the pacing is solid; these moments can take a while to discover, especially if your sense of direction is terrible, making the most of the environment as the atmosphere builds suspense wonderfully. More importantly it’s incredibly clear that the developers understand how to create a creepy game, supplanting the terrible methods that so often appear in other indie horror titles that somehow seem to be becoming the norm. Take the simple use of darkness; in horror titles of late the environments are often pitch black and you have to stagger around with a torch, but in Kohlat you can navigate in the dark even without using your torch. There’s no heavy use of cheap jump scares here, either, except in one or two instances, and no jarring, screeching violin notes that only serve to make the player jump in their seat pointlessly. Kohlat understands that a slowly building, spine tingling creepiness is far more effective than a million jump scares. It’s even more impressively done when you consider that it doesn’t take long for you to suss out that nothing is going to jump out at you and that Kholat isn’t a truly terrifying game, so you can mostly walk around without any worry. But you don’t. Even with that knowledge, there’s always a sense of dread.

Which is why I wanted to whack a recommended sticker at the bottom of this review. You see, the recommended sticker isn’t just for great games, but also for ones that feature specific elements or ideas that make them worth experience, and Kholat falls into that category for being a masterclass in atmosphere, a textbook lesson that other indie developers could do well with examining and learning from.

This also all serves as one hell of an advert for the Unreal 4 engine, since Kholat is the first commercial game to use it. Sure, there’s some rough edges like janky shadows and such, but all in all it bodes very well for the engine’s future. If a small team can get this out of it, imagine would a massive company with a huge budget could do.

Narration duties are handed by none other than Sean Bean, the man of a thousand deaths, a real coup for such a small project, although it’s quite likely players will find themselves far more interested in whether Sean Bean will somehow get killed off than in the actual mystery of Kholat. Yes, sadly while the developers have nailed the atmosphere the second pillar is weak. Things begin poorly with a lack of context; you’re dumped into an abandoned town with no explanation as to who you are or why you’re trudging around on a mountain with no survival gear or even a tent or torch of your own. Are you an adventurer? Investigator? Obviously you’re an idiot since you decided to amble around in the snow on your own without even bother to take a bloody map. No, instead you have to use the handy map, compass and torch found in the first abandoned encampment. Details matter when you’re trying to be a narrative driven experience, and the lack of context makes little sense since Kholat isn’t an RPG or even a game that lets you choose dialogue options or make choices to shape your character where the developer is trying to let the player inhabit the role completely, so why not provide this simple explanation?

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The problem is that the script seems to confuse weirdness and deliberate vagueness with being interesting and meaningful. Many great stories indeed leave aspects of their storytelling a mystery for the audience, yet they are still firmly rooted in their storytelling. Kholat is not. Massive chunks of the narration is simply meaningless tat that seems meaningful on the surface but is really gibberish, and in turn that leaves Sean Bean’s performance as lackluster, as it’s clear he has no idea what he’s saying and thus can’t bring the narration to life properly, a waste of genuine talent. That isn’t to say his performance is bad, mind; at the end of the day the man knows what he is doing and is leagues above what is usually found in small projects of this nature. It would be fine if the game delivered revelations later that gave meaning to these strange monologues of nothingness, but it doesn’t, culminating in an “end” that is delivered with a finality which suggests it should be quite a revelatory moment, but isn’t. At all. Much of the narrative is delivered via inexplicable scattered pages that you locate, and from time to time you’ll stumble across initially amazing events, like a strange mist that rolls across a hill or stones that suddenly levitate. Taken on their own these events are kind of cool, but in the grand scheme of things they are disjointed, seemingly random events that don’t tie together very well at all.

The result is that Kohlat’s story is like a shapeless blob. It’s interesting on the surface, the strange occurrences around the mountain hinting at something amazing and serving as enough to get you interested, and the narration doing much the same. But underneath the surface is just nothing. It feels as though the writer/s couldn’t decide on what their version of the Dyatlov incident should be, and instead opted for an amalgamation of theories that constantly throws up questions and answers very few of them. Why are you on the mountain? Who are you? Who is Sean Bean? What are the spectral beings lurking in certain areas?

Some of the writing problems may stem from the simple fact that English isn’t the developer’s native language, so it’s very possible that some of the nuances got lost somewhere. But ultimately it’s because that most writers don’t realise how difficult a story like this is to write. It’s a fine line to walk between providing too much information as to ruin the sense of mystery, and not providing enough for players to be able to form interesting theories that could fit in with the narrative. In the case of Kholat the writers haven’t written a story at all, they’ve just tossed some odd events in with the hopes that players will have enough imagination to create a story themselves out of the detritus.

On the gameplay front we’ve got a relatively typical “exploration” style game where your main occupation is simply exploring the environment in order to piece together the narrative as best as you can. It has to be said that the fact you’re stumbling around a mountain yet are entirely incapable of either jumping or climbing is utterly ludicrous. Suspension of disbelief is required there, I reckon. This continues with the inability to make a fire, leave markers for yourself or do anything else. There’s a lack of agency which any would-be player needs to accept when entering into this kind of game, and yet while that’s usually perfectly fine it’s a much harder pill to swallow when you’re dumped into a setting which would so naturally fit being able to jump and climb and leave physical markets. This especially feels like a missed opportunity as a good portion of the game is about trying to navigate the mountain using a standard map and compass, eschewing mini-maps or even a marker showing your current location. The map does display discovered camps and notes that you’ve picked up, thus using your compass and inherent sense of direction you can slowly work your way through the ravines, caves, passes and general whiteness that make up the mountain. At the side you’ll find a list of coordinates that point to places of interest, so you do at least have a sort of guiding hand, even if the map itself can sometimes be awkward to read correctly, the layout sometimes failing to match the reality.

There’s something to be said for navigating the world with nought but a map and compass, or in my case by using the moon because it felt vastly more effective. Getting lost is very, very easy, so trying to remember details within the world is important, and this method of unguided exploration combines beautifully with the foreboding, creepy atmosphere that the game generates. It’s like you truly are stumbling around a mountainside in a blind panic just like the Dyatlov victims, but, you know, without the freezing cold part.

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Slightly surprising is the inclusion of enemies that must evaded, and death, perhaps both being used to try and bring more traditional game mechanics into the experience for fear of being tossed into the “walking simulator” pile. The problem is neither works quite right; Kholat springs a few surprise deaths on you that can set you back 30+ minutes of gameplay depending on when you last stumbled upon a save point in the form of a camp or note. Good game design says that these deaths should be a learning experience for the player, but in the case of Kholat it’s often never made clear what you did wrong, such as spike traps that leave almost no chance for the player to see them. This lack of a lesson learned is particularly true of the strange spectral enemies who inhabit certain areas of the world, hanging around for either the player to stumble into them or possibly for a burger van to show up or something. It’s still quite common to round a corner and come face to face with one, resulting in instant death. You can’t combat these strange beings, which is fine, but it’s not exactly clear what you need to do; sometimes you seem perfectly capable of standing right in front of them or even walking directly through their field of vision without a problems, and other times they’ll follow you, or  find you when you’re hiding, seemingly able to hone in on you even when you’re sure they shouldn’t know where you are. Neither running away nor stealth really seem to be the correct answer, but most of time sprinting away works as they aren’t the fastest movers. But even when all hope seems to be lost there’s a chance the spectral being will suddenly just stop, stare at you and then wander off for no good reason.

So we do have a final question that needs answering; Kholat markets itself as the “most terrifying journey of your life” on its Steam store page, so is it actually terrifying? No. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly a chilling game (uh, no pun intended), but there’s nothing genuinely terrifying. It’s not the videogame equivalent of Alien or the Babadook, so if you want something that will try send you cowering under the computer desk consider looking elsewhere. Kholat’s really a slow-burn chiller, which in some ways I prefer.

As a masterclass in how to create a strong atmosphere and constant sense of tension Kholat is worth playing by anyone who likes to really study games and the many things that make them up, and other indie devs should certainly take notes. It’s truly brilliant in this regard.  But everything else struggles to hold up. Ultimately Kholat has a lot of potential in its concept and some genuinely cool moments lurking in the snowy terrain, and a brilliant atmosphere as I’ve now mentioned countless times because it damn well deserves it, but the writing undermines everything while the spectral enemies and occasional random death suck the life from the minimalistic gameplay style. Nor does the game manage to live up to its own marketing as a horror game; it’s creepy, but never very scary or terrifying. I had a few chills, but that was about it. Having said all of this, though, Kholat also feels like a game that will resonate with some people, as there are gamers that love it when the writing is this vague since it certainly allows for some pretty wild theories to be created. Sadly I wasn’t one of those people.

 

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