Kholat, the new horror-adventure game from Polish developer IMGN Pro, appears on the surface to have all the ingredients for a well-crafted and immersive experience. It was created by a small team who didn’t have to answer to a larger publisher and were thus free to create the kind of game they wanted to make, it’s based off of one of the spookiest events in modern history, and it features narration from legendary British actor Sean Bean (who many will likely recognize as Lord Eddard Stark from HBO’s Game of Thrones). However, as much as Kholat tries to make the player feel entrenched in a world of icy dread and windswept majesty, that immersion doesn’t extend far beyond the game’s pretty Unreal 4-powered graphics. Archaic movement and navigations systems, cheap and often frustrating deaths, and a story that ultimately falls flat sadly drag Kholat’s appeal down into a ravine from which it never manages to crawl out of.
Venturing Into The Past
As dedicated horror buffs might have already inferred, Kholat’s title actually hints at the story which IMGN Pro is trying to tell. The game is based around the infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident which took place in the Ural Mountains in 1959. Nine hikers ventured up into the mountains and, when they failed to return, a search party was sent to find them. The search party eventually discovered a bizarre scene in which the hikers had apparently fled from their tent in the middle of the night when something tried to cut its way in and were all later found frozen to death on the slopes of the Kholat Syakhl, some naked, some with unexplainable internal injuries (since there was no sign of a struggle). To this day the mystery of what happened to the hikers remains unsolved and has given rise to several urban legends which in turn spawned books, television shows, and movies that all sought to explain what happened (or simply tell their own fictional version of the story).
In Kholat, you play as an unknown explorer who must retrace the steps of the nine hikers by finding various landmarks strewn about an open area of the Kholat Syakhl and discover what really happened to them. Along the way, Sean Bean’s narration pops up whenever you discover a new landmark or find one of the many notes strewn about the explorable world. The narration is meant to convey a cryptic sense of progression within the game’s paper-thin story but since you can stumble across the various landmarks in no particular order, it’s hard to parse together any sort of sequential string of events. You’re better off just letting yourself enjoy the game’s more aesthetic achievements since trying to make heads or tails of the story IMGN Pro is trying to tell will just make your head hurt. The game’s poorly-executed story beats are made even more frustrating at the end with a final twist that falls flat and doesn’t even answer any of the questions the game posited over the course of its running time.
If Kholat’s unsatisfying story and disappointing ending were its only major pitfalls, it would still be worth playing but, sadly, that’s just the beginning of the game’s many woes. Considering the game is set on a mountain pass, you’d think your character would be able to perform basic actions like jumping and climbing but in both cases you’d be wrong. Since your character can’t climb or jump, you’re often forced to navigate frustratingly laid out paths using the basic map and compass system that doesn’t even show your current location (which more hardcore gamers might actually like, I didn’t). Your basic movement pace is a very slow jog and you can only sprint for a short period of time before your vision swims and you have to stop (this is likely IMGN Pro’s way of simulating the thinner high-altitude air). This limited sprinting makes trying to escape the brief encounters you have with the mountain’s hostile “fire spirits” an affair based mostly on luck since the spirits have spotty pathing and detection capabilities but will kill you in one hit if they detect and catch you.
Getting caught by the fire spirits is just one of the various forms of cheap deaths Kholat forces you to endure. There are traps hidden in certain parts of the environment that will instantly kill you and some ledges that will make you think you’re supposed to drop down onto them but will then unceremoniously dump you into a ravine and, soon after, death. These cheap deaths wouldn’t even be so bad if you could save whenever you like but, once again, IMGN Pro chose to make the most baffling decision, limiting your ability to save your game only when you’re visiting one of the established camp sites strewn around the pass or whenever you find a new note. This means that if you try to venture too far into unknown territory without making sure to find a new save spot, you could easily lose a half hour or more of progress thanks to one cheap death. For a game that seems to encourage exploration, Kholat certainly does its darnedest to impede the player at every turn.
A Trip Best Not Taken
I wanted to like Kholat, I really did. It’s an aesthetically gorgeous and immersive horror adventure that relies more on creeping the player out and slowly fraying their nerves with a subtle build-up of tension rather than throwing cheap jump scares at them and it features narration from one of my all-time favorite actors. However, only the most patient of horror fans will be able to enjoy Kholat for the long term thanks to its confusing, poorly-delivered story, archaic movement and saving systems, and cheap deaths that will often cost you many minutes of progress. It’s a shame really since, with a few minor tweaks, Kholat could have at least served as an immersive example of what Unreal 4 is capable of. In its current form, I doubt Kholat will be remembered as anything other than a game that got buried in its own lofty ambitions.