Kholat is… complicated. I won’t say that it’s absolutely deplorable but it is undoubtedly complicated to explain. It left me with a lasagna of emotions ranging from absolute mess to strangely enjoyable. The open-world horror game from developer IMGN.PRO (released in 2015) follows the real-life story of 9 students traveling the Kholat mountain in the Russian wilderness. The fact that this is “based on a true story” is incredibly fascinating since it’s rarely ever done (the only game that I can immediately think of is Fatal Frame). I played through this game once on my own and it provided some moderate scares but nothing out of this world. When I played through it a second time with my mates, it was a great experience but that goes back to the fact that most things are better if you have your friends around.
The real event that provides the basic framework for the story of Kholat is known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. It’s an incredibly bizarre story but for the sake of the review I’ll give you my quick summary. Nine experienced hikers set out for the mountain Kholat and made camp on the slopes of it’s mountain. In the middle of the night, the nine campers evacuated the campsite and ran towards the wilderness. Six of the nine campers died of hypothermia as none of them were properly equipped for the harsh cold. The other three died under mysterious circumstances, and is what spawned the great mystery around the incident. One victim had a fractured skull, another victim had brain damage with no clear attacks to the skull, and the last victim was missing her tongue. What occured can only be described as tragic and absolutely terrifying. Yet, the events themselves and the mysteries surrounding it leave it open for interpretation and further analysis. Kholat attempts to tackle the events by adding its own spin to the question “What really happened?”.
Kholat is unique because one of the first open-world horror games I have ever seen (there may be others that I’m not aware of) and it works well. At the onset of the game you depart from a train station and trek into the wilderness. After being lost for some time in a snowstorm (which produced some hilarious moments where the character would quite obviously teleport back to the start until the correct route was found) you find a tent (ominous) and camp to wait out the storm. You are immediately transported to an ominous forest filled with ghastly figures, orange orbs intent on your imminent destruction, and floating mountains and meteorites. Suffice it to say, everything’s fucked.
The gameplay is your standard fair from what you’d expect of a modern horror game. There’s no combat, just exploration. And explore you will. The vast wilderness of the Kholat mountains is treacherous yet oddly beautiful. There is a sense of serenity that comes with scaling the side of a mountain towards an imminent threat. Kholat has a fantastic atmosphere keeping you on your edge throughout the duration of the game. The subtle details are what really set it apart, the soft rustling of leaves, footsteps crunching on the snow, the howling winds, and the foreboding music that looms over all of it. There is a sense of dread over every part of this game, you feel completely isolated from the world and in a pocket dimension sorts with the sole purpose of annihilating your will. You’re equipped at the onset of the game with a compass, a map, and a flashlight. All of these play a major role in keeping you alive and not keeping you lost. At many times throughout the game you will feel lost. The map does not update your position so you’ll need to keep landmarks and position in mind or else you will be left in a free fall. It was really refreshing to have to find coordinates (which are scattered around the map and reveal important locations). There was no hand holding to the exploration. It felt like I had actually been dumped in the world and I would have to carve out my own path.
The constant threat of The Anomaly is also always ever present. The Anomaly is a glowing orange orb hell-bent on killing you and everything you love with cold precision. It’s kind of a let down since there’s nothing, visually, to be afraid of. I know that it will kill me but I wish that they had actually designed a monster to attack you. it would’ve made the experience much more unnerving.
As I mentioned previously this game does have technical complications that really hamper the experience. Often the framerate will dip from 30 into the single digits, which is unacceptable. And, it happens often enough that the experience of the game tanks alongside it. I played the game on PS4 so there should’ve been no issues on the hardware side that would not allow the game to run properly. There must’ve been legitimate problems during the production of the game because the experience is nigh-on unacceptable.
If you manage to slog through some of the more irritating technical issues and put them aside, there is a really fascinating horror game that tries to experiment with what you’ve come to expect. While it doesn’t succeed in every respect, it still is a good horror game that is, at times, fun to play.
3 out of 5