I have been following Kholat personally for some time, largely because I am a huge fan of horror games. I love a good scare, and no medium is better equipped to deliver that than video gaming. Movies and music and books are all well and good, but they are more passive experiences than video gaming, which has the ability to further immerse the player because of its interactive nature. Because of this, a lot of things can go very wrong or very right. I am pleased to say that Kholat leans more towards the latter of the two categories.
Too often video games fail on the horror front because they neglect one or two very key elements. Visuals are important, because you want to convey a sense of being there. Sound design is even more key, because our eyes can only see so much - but the ears pick up things off of the screen, and often it is what you fail to see that is more frightening than what is right before you. However, video games have a murky history with telling great stories - for every one that knocks their narrative out of the park, another dozen bumble through cheesy dialogue or badly localized translations or simply have anything interesting to say.
Kholat has a lot of interesting things to say, and while it does not fit some of the 'traditional' video game horror stereotypes, that does not mean the game is any less intense in its atmosphere. That atmosphere is established right out of the gates, with a different kind of environment. Most horror games rely on things left unseen in the shadows. This means you are spending most of your time in dimly lit areas, trying to figure out if that rocking chair in front of you is going to kill you (tip: it's not. The person in it? That might be a different story). Instead the wintery Ural Mountains make for more open and often better lit environment (since the majority of your time is spent outdoors), and the types of scares tend to be more of the psychological than the jump variety.
The backdrop for the story is one rooted in actual history. A group of climbers were killed back in 1959 in an unexplained event called the Dyatlov Pass Incident. You certainly do not have to read up on this before playing the game, but if you want to it makes for some interesting history. The adventure takes you to the Dead Mountain - Kholat Syakhl, where you attempt to piece together the string of incidents that culminated in this tragic event.
This creates a remote location, set in the harsh wintery mountains that makes for a unique setting, but an effective one as well. Movies like The Thing immediately come to mind. While that was a tale rooted in an alien monster, the horror had almost more to do with the isolated location where help was nowhere to be found and the environment was as much of a threat as the monster. The setting of this stage is helped with the beautiful, almost peaceful soundtrack. The music knows when to escalate and help to relay a sense of tension, but at the same time it also helps to convey the sense that this could be a beautiful, serene location - under different circumstances.
The presentation really is incredibly solid all of the way around. The visuals range from stunning to gorgeous - seriously. The only flaw is that the framerate can drop precipitously at times, which means the engine certainly could have been optimized better. That being said, the bleak beauty of your surroundings have an appropriately haunting quality that is aided by a rather robust sound design. It looks and sounds like nature, and the audio design makes the most of this. Speaking of audio, the narration by Sean Bean is every bit as good as I hoped. I enjoy the man's acting in most things, and here his voice has that soothing yet stern quality that compliments your environment while also lending tension to the situation taking place within it.
Your only real friend is a map and compass that are sometimes infuriating and other times your lifeblood as you try to wander about the mountain and discern what has happened. They are somewhat awkwardly handled instruments initially, lacking intuitive interface and controls. However, once you get the hang of them, they will help you to advance the story. That really is the key here - advancing the story.
For those looking for more visceral, action-packed scares, something like Outlast will probably be more to your liking. This is more of a walking simulator, similar to PT. You interact with things in your environment, and every now and then a game element does pop up, but the majority of your time is spent exploring and putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Another title Kholat could reasonable be compared to is Slender, given the open environment and the presence of a slow moving but persistent threat.
As someone who has a real-life lack of directional sense, I found myself getting lost somewhat frequently early on. The ability to fast travel to previously located camp sites certainly helped matters, but I did feel like there were times I was doing an inordinate amount of backtracking. This is probably intentional to a point, but there were lulls where this felt like somewhat unnecessary padding to the game's time. These longer lulls do take some of the air out of the story. Given the nature of finding clues here and there to piece the story together, this makes the pacing somewhat uneven. What starts crisply and compelling during the first hour or so does fall off at times over the middle duration.
Thankfully Kholat picks up somewhat near the end, though the resolution probably could have been stronger. If you wander about looking for every last thing, you might come closer to four or five hours of gameplay, or if you just happen to be unlucky and die a great deal. I do believe my initial play through rang in at about three and a half hours, which is not a great deal of content for a game of this nature, especially considering how much time is spent aimlessly wandering.
Despite these flaws, Kholat's environments, presentation and overall backstory set the stage for a memorable horror experience. Kholat is more about building tension than throwing unexpected jump scares at you, and it is probably better for it. Some games are greater than the sum of their parts, but Kholat feels like a proper equation. The strong presentation and foundation for the game make for a good experience, but probably not an exception one. It will appeal to players who prefer a slow burning, more psychological horror game than a faster paced one with actionable threats. All in all I enjoyed Kholat a great deal, despite some flaws, and am hopeful to see more but expanded games like this from IMGN.PRO in the future.
Review by Nick