Genre: Point-And-Click Adventure
Release date: June 9, 2015
I had high hopes for Kholat, the debut title from Polish company IMGN.PRO. The trailer promised a horror-filled trek through the Ural Mountains, seeking out the truth behind a mysterious (and historical!) tragedy, all while being serenaded by the narration of prodigious actor Sean Bean. What I got was something a little more piecemeal; jawdropping visuals and a high-concept story weren’t enough to save gameplay issues from making the experience largely frustrating and confounding.
The premise of Kholat is drawn directly from Russian history; on February 2, 1959, nine Russian students went hiking around the east shoulder of Kholat Syakhl when the weather worsened and they were forced to make camp. All nine were eventually found dead. The hikers’ tent was slashed from within, and many of the corpses were barefoot or wearing only underwear, indicating that they had fled some unseen threat in great haste. Other bodies showed strange signs of trauma like fractured skulls, missing tongues, and severe internal injuries despite no signs of external damage. The reason for the hikers’ departure from their campsite has never been conclusively established, though theories range from a sudden avalanche to attacking native tribesmen to the effects of a Soviet military experiment. The death of the hikers as well as the mysterious phenomena surrounding the tragedy has come to be known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident and is the backbone for the story.
To discover what “really” happened that night on the mountain, your unnamed character’s job is to explore the glacial world where the tragedy took place and discover journal pages, reports, and dispatches (which are miraculously untarnished by the snow and high winds) that round out the story.
As a lover of both Russian history and mysteries, this game sounded like an engaging take on the horror genre, stepping away from common tropes and entering something seamier and true-to-life. The reality was a little less than I had imagined. I freely admit that my own expectations may have been overscaled, but I was disappointed in the glancing attention given many popular theories about the disaster without fixing on one in particular. That being said, the dispatches scattered across the mountainside were well-written and Sean Bean’s narration is unassailable.
The aesthetics of the game are precise and accomplished, easily the brightest spot of the experience. Though there is a challenging uniformity in the idea of a mountain setting covered in snow, the makers of Kholat managed to construct enough strange setpieces to break up the monotony. That doesn’t mean you won’t get lost - because you will, a lot - but it’s still an impressive effort. Sound cues, landmarks, and the map system provide clues to the observant player and it’s rewarding to find your way around.
The graphics on display are stunning; torrents of wind buffet the trees and whip snow across the landscape with unreal power, lending realism to the danger of the climate and the grisly deaths that happened on the mountain decades ago. The game makes good use of color, indicating danger with orange tones that contrast with the blues and grays of the mountain, and sound is subtle but startling, fleshing out the arid landscape with a chilling symphony of creaks, rattles, and wolf howls. It was also refreshing to play a horror game that isn’t set in a run-down house in the woods somewhere; the tundra can have just as many threats as a confined space can.
Despite all it aspires to and gets right, the gameplay is where Kholat completely falls apart. The problems start from the beginning, where you’re dropped onto the mountaintop with almost no directions. There’s a map and a compass and no explanation of how to use them, which is a problem if you’re not familiar with how navigational tools work. It also took me awhile to figure out the objective of the game, which is to find each set of coordinates written on your map and recover the journal piece that’s waiting there. It doesn’t sound too hard until you realize the map doesn’t show where you are and that the only way to get from one place to another is to carefully keep track of your current waypoint (major coordinate sites and extra journal pages are the only information marked on the map once you find them) and to then use your compass to carefully follow what seems to be the correct bearing in the hopes that you’re going the right way.
To be clear, I don’t mind the lack of hand-holding and think it’s a compelling way to immerse a player in the disorienting experience of the people who lost their lives on the mountaintop. But all of these challenging elements were made annoying and nearly impossible by the presence of “the monster.” An orange radioactive humanoid creature that creepily wanders the playing field, the monster was initially a source of fear until it caught and killed me. The first death -- a sudden, utterly unpreventable process -- stripped all the terror out of the creature and transformed it into a source of irritation. What would usually happen is that I’d be carefully following my compass and map directions toward an intended waypoint when the monster would happen across my path and I’d have to sprint away from it in the opposite direction to avoid dying and being sent back to my last save point. The result would be that I’d lose my orientation and be hopelessly lost again with no way of finding the correct direction unless I happened to stumble upon it by chance.
To make things even worse, save points are few and far between. Your progress is only saved when you find a new note, waypoint, or campsite. Even if you’ve wandered into a promising area, there’s no way to solidify your position there unless you happen to find a note before something kills you, which isn’t hard. In addition to being attacked by the monster, you can fall into a spike pit trap, plunge off a cliff, or just get stuck somewhere and have to reload since your character can’t jump or climb over ledges more than eight inches high.
All of these weak elements unite into a singularly terrible experience fairly early in the game: I found a note at the end of a dead-end path and then died while exploring the surrounding area. But when the game reloaded, I reappeared right next to the monster’s spawn point, leaving me trapped behind it with no easy way out. It took at least thirty tries and the consultation of a walkthrough before I was able to successfully sprint past the monster, dodge traps and cliffs, and sprint all the way to the nearest checkpoint. It was an infuriating experience that soured me on the experience and highlighted the crucial fact that even a well-conceived, beautiful game needs to be functional to be fun.
Almost all of my problems with this game would be rectified -- and I would rate it a full letter grade higher -- if the game makers added an option to disable the wandering monster. It would be easier to concentrate on the exploration and story elements while still keeping with the game’s horror tone. There are plenty of great, scary moments at the haunting sites that add danger and fear, and it would be easier to focus on these promising parts without gameplay issues marring the experience.
The most interesting thing about this game is the germinating idea of history as horror which is so clear in the conceptualization but so absent from the executed product. There is a rich record of fact and speculation around what happened on Kholat Syakhl, and much of it is dispensed with in favor of something supernatural and pedestrian. Maybe it’s too soon to expect video games to confront topics as weighty as history, cultural identity, and truth, but it would have been a truly enjoyable experience to witness a more wholehearted attempt. Kholat takes something rare -- an honest-to-God, real life mystery -- and entrenches it in common tropes. IMGN.PRO shows promise as a company, so I’m hoping their next game will leave me feeling less cold and barren.
+ Compelling premise
+ Excellent graphics and sound
+ Unsettling hauntings
- Difficult to navigate
- Monster made exploration irritating
- Limited save points
- Disappointing ending