After my past couple of attempts at reviewing horror games for TVGB (here and here), you might not be surprised to learn I was a little reluctant to pick up Kholat. After jumping at previous games that seemed to tick every box of my list of likes and being badly let down in both cases. I promised to enter this review with a clearer, more objective mindset. Kholat is a first-person horror survival game based on the ‘true life’ events that have come to be known as the “Dylatov Pass Incident”. Set in the Ural mountains, you wander the wintery Russian landscape looking for clues as to what exactly happened on that fateful night in 1959 and how to escape with your life.
If you’ve played any form of ‘Slender’ simulator which involves you walking around defenseless, picking up notes and running away from things, then you get how this game works. The main selling points of Kholat are its beautiful visuals, ethereal soundtrack and compelling setting. For the uninitiated, the ‘Incident’ is the true life story of a group of 10 young skiers who died on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl, near the Ural Mountains in February 1959. Soviet authorities were initially puzzled by the circumstances of the skiers death, as detailed below:
Investigators determined that the skiers had torn their tents from the inside out in order to escape from an apparent threat. They fled the campsite, some of them barefoot, under heavy snowfall. Although the bodies showed no signs of struggle, two victims had fractured skulls and broken ribs, absent contusion. Soviet authorities determined that an “unknown compelling force” had caused the deaths; access to the region was consequently blocked for hikers and adventurers for three years after the incident. Due to the lack of survivors, the chronology of events remains uncertain, although several theories exist, some involving a possible avalanche, and a hostile encounter with Extraterrestrial Life. [SOURCE]
Other apparently inexplicable mysteries included several of the bodies being radioactive and one body being missing its tongue, eyes and lips as well as other assorted facial tissue and skull fragments. With the bodies of young travelers scattered over several miles and no easy answers, Soviet authorities shut down access to the whole area and effectively labelled this a case of “your guess is as good as ours but probably ghosts.” Relatively unknown in the West for many years, the mystery of the Dylatov Pass Incident has been resurrected in recent years with its adoption by numerous paranormal and conspiracy groups as evidence of “the paranormal/aliens/whatever” and its almost the perfect tale for the creepy-pasta generation. It also happens to be one of my favourite tales of the weird and wonderful so my self-imposed emotional exile was quickly jettisoned when I stepped out of that train into a wintry Russian village, ready to get my freakiness on.
Developed and published by the Polish company IMGN PRO, Kholat doesn’t break any conventions but it does play with them. You’re given a map that you actually have to read which mainly involves looking for local landmarks and wondering why you gave up on the Scouts years ago. Armed with little more than the aforementioned map and a compass, plus obligatory flashlight, your purpose is to wander the frozen wastes and try to piece together what exactly is going on.
It’s your pretty standard ‘pick up a note, read it, move on’ system but some of the back story and additional details are nice if a little overwrought. You can’t defend yourself from any of the things that might be out to harm you but you can run and save your game at one of the many scattered abandoned camp-sites. These become invaluable lifelines for you as you wander around the mountainous region and the gentle glow of the camp-fire becomes a much longed for sight.
Visually, Kholat is a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of non-traditional developers as the game itself is beyond beautiful. Kholat Syakhl is rendered in gorgeous detail with obvious care and attention being given to all of its details. Nothing feels like a stereotypical ‘video game forest’ and at times, it’s easy to lose yourself in the realism of the setting. Snow flurries blind you as the wind rushes through the trees, old buildings creak and moan in the storm and in the distance, strange lights and shapes move through the landscape. I genuinely jumped out my seat on occasion as some of the games apparitions appeared and chased me through the winding ravines and disused military bases. It’s a real treat to sit and watch, trust me.
Its soundtrack is just as rich and rewarding with sparse, elegant classical music. Amazingly, the only let down is the voice over provided by everyone’s favorite Hollywood actor, Sean Bean. I know, I was just as surprised. Sean Bean himself isn’t that bad but his dialogue is weirdly written to native English speakers and often sounds clunky and amateurish. I’m willing to forgive that from a non-English developer as it isn’t awful, but you think someone would’ve taken a second look (or in this case, listen) for clarity’s sake. Although originally bandied around as a major talking point, Bean’s involvement has slipped under the radar since the game’s launch as it is easily one of the less impressive things about Kholat.
That’s generally the theme to Kholat as a whole if I’m honest – ambitious but a little over-the-top, beautifully done but a little amateurish. It’s certainly worth dropping your money on if you’re into a good horror game or you’re just looking for a beautiful, desolate world to wander around in. Kholat wasn’t the horror game I expected but it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Brace Yourselves - Winter is Here
Gameplay - 8/10
Plot - 7/10
Design - 9/10
A chilling setting for a beautiful if flawed game, Kholat is still a strong contender for one of my favorite games of the year so far and a very worthy additional to any horror fans game collection.