On February 1959 a group of nine college students set out to explore the mountainous region of Kholat Syakhl. Over the next four months all nine of the teams’ corpses were recovered buried in the snow somewhere around their camp site. What exactly happened to the team remains a mystery. The Dyatlov Pass Incident is a real life case that people still speculate on today. It is also the incident that developers IMGN.PRO have based their open world horror game around. An interesting change for a company whose backlog of titles primarily consists of truck and construction simulators.
Igor Dyatlov was the leader of the small group made up experienced hikers, most of whom were college students. The aim of the expedition was to explore the Otorten Mountain located north of Kholat Syakhl. The journey would be an extremely difficult one as they would have to face snowstorms with low visibility. When a rescue team was dispatched they found the teams’ campsite and tent cut open from the inside as if in a panic. The corpses were equally baffling with some found barefooted and half-naked, whiles others had horrific internal injuries, fractured skulls of missing tongues. Yet there was no sign of a struggle. It’s a dark, grizzly tale and the fact that Kholat is based on a true story gets you invested in the story straight from the get go.
The mystery has never been solved but there are a lot of theories and speculations, some of which include a case of extreme hypothermia, a potential avalanche, an enraged Russian Yeti or a cover up to hide military tests. Each theory argues some key points and you could see each one taking Kholats story in some very interesting directions. However what we’re actually given are very vague notes that are open to interpretation and supernatural forces which feel very out of place. Every piece of lore you happen to pick up just seems to raise more questions than answers, consisting mostly of writings that detail the groups trip leading up to the mountain.
The game is effectively a walking simulator where you explore a harsh open landscape with nothing more than a torch, a map and a compass. Scribbled on the map are several sets of coordinates with a couple of main routes to stick to. That’s where the hand holding stops. There’s a nice sense of realism as you’re put you in the mind set of an explorer with little indication of how to proceed. Located at the coordinates are notes and diary entries some of which were left behind by the expedition. Slendermans gameplay quickly came to mind with its collect the pages mechanic, but here there’s less of a fret as you’re not being constantly chased, and the setting is far more appealing.
You’re free to explore the wilderness as you want, visiting the noted coordinates in which ever order you feel like. This minimalist gameplay approach does well to fuel your adventurous side as you set out to discover all the mysteries this world has to offer. Going off the main routes can even reward players with some additional text only notes which might fill in some extra details. However if your sense of direction is anything like mine, you’ll get lost very often. With everything covered in snow it’s really hard to pick out notable markers to put together a solid mind map of your surroundings. Orange ghostly entities occasionally turn up mostly placed close to the maps markers. They’re not particularly hard to miss and can be avoided if you sneak around, but if you are spotted there is absolutely nothing you can do to avoid an instant death. Then there are checkpoints which are dotted around the landscape which are very sparsely placed, meaning if you do happen to die you’ll be whisked away to your last one and could end up retracing a path that had originally taken you 30 minutes to traverse.
You can’t fault the games visuals or sound design though as it really set up the games atmosphere perfectly. The snowy mountains and lack of visibility make it very difficult to find your way around but, it emphasises the fact that you exploring a new untouched world. To add to the isolated look there are also so stunning landmarks littered around the mountains. The sight of a spooky uprooted tree, or a looming church spire stand out nicely from the blanket of snow to put you on the edge of your seat. The world is open with no load points between locations to break up the flow, which is nice but it suffers very harsh lag and huge drops in frame rate often.
As for the sound elements, Kholat is also supported by a superb eerie soundtrack which compliment the environments nicely. The game starts out with a lovely haunting piece featuring some great vocal work, while tracks in later sections tend to be more subtle but spine tingling none the less. Navigating is a slow tedious process and at times you let your mind wander off to other things. Then a blast of howling winds or the cries of a pack of wolves kicks in, instantly unsettling you and sucking you back in to this isolated little world, as a sharp reminder that this is a horror game and some jump scare might be around the corner. To top it off the game is narrated by Sharpe’s Sean Bean who puts in a fantastic performance; it’s just a shame that he wasn’t given more lines of dialogue. The other two people who lend their voices to the diary entries also put in some excellent performances, but the writing was largely confusing and at times just nonsense.
Kholat does a fantastic job at creating a tense, moody atmosphere in which you’re completely alone in an unforgiving landscape. However for everything the game does right there is an equal flaw to break player immersion. The grizzly tale of a real life incident immediately draws you in, but the narrative is often perplexing leaving you with a lot of unanswered questions. The open-world environment is realistic, beautiful and calls on your adventurous side, but the gameplay is overly simplistic and exploration is tediously long.
This review is based off a review code of Kholat provided by Outreach.
This review was originally published on the site GamersFTW which unfortunately has now been taken down. It’s been published on my personal blog, DanielVaughanReviews, out of respect for the developers/publishers that were kind enough to give me review copy of their game.