Kholat was a divisive title when it came out on PC, and things are going to no doubt be the same with this recent release it has seen on the PlayStation 4 platform. The game is undeniably beautiful, haunting and often immersive. However, some questionable design choices hold it back and leave room for improvement as well.
Kholat almost immediately reminds of other similar titles like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and they have numerous things in common. Gorgeous visuals, a really impressive sound track, some quality voice acting all wrapped around some suspense and horror. Kholat straddles the line between more traditional horror games and the more recently dubbed 'walking simulation' genre.
Things get off to a good start by referencing real events (a tragedy called the Dyatlov Pass incident in the 1950's as a group of hikers were found dead under odd circumstances) and plopping your character down in an isolated that works quite well for this kind of game. You start off with no information about your character or your motives for being near some snow covered railways out in the boonies. In fact, Kholat does very little to introduce you to the game's rules and world beyond the introduction movie. No guidance on what the buttons do and why you are doing it. You simply wander about, finding a snowed over path to wander down before finding yourself in Act II.
Here is where things get somewhat more interesting. You wind up finding a map and getting to use a journal and flashlight. Things here are more involved that the typical walking simulator as you have the map you can bring up for some guidance. There are coordinates in the upper left corner to correspond to items of interest within the game. The map gives you a reticle that you can move around over the map to try and get an idea of what landmarks might be near those coordinates. Find that interactive bit of story and those coordinates are crossed off on the map. Lather, rinse and repeat as you find some things not originally listed on the map's coordinates along the way as a fairly interesting story gets pieced together for you.
The staged events are often quite entertaining if dangerous. Finding a skeletal figure resting upon a sort of throne motionless until you read the scrap of note in front of it is creepy enough, but then its eyes grow alight and the cavern starts to collapse around you, forcing your character to try and sprint to safety. It creates a spooky environment that the audio and visual presentation support wonderfully as you explore in the first person with little more than a flashlight, map and compass at your disposal. In particular Sean Bean's delivery provides a warm narration that the game absolutely benefits from.
What does not work as effectively are the fatal incidents and really long load times. On the PS4, load times can exceed a minute, which is not the end of the world, but can feel overly long and even frustrating as you die learning your way around the game world's rules, which are never fully explained. Fall more than what looks to be two or three feet from a small hill to the very nearby path? Dead. Random boulders rolling off of a mountain that you could not see coming during the aforementioned cavern collapse? Dead. Strange orange ghost figure who really dislikes flashlights rushing at you? You guessed it, dead. There are some jump scares nestled throughout the experience, but to its credit Kholat does not rely solely upon them to create an effective atmosphere.
That is not to say Kholat is a hard game, or even all that long of a game - though the length feels artificially padded early on due to the myriad of unexpected ways you can die and the lengthy loading scenes. Once you have an idea how to get through the world and understand how not to die, things come together nicely. The story can be a little tough to piece together given the search and discover nature of the bits and pieces. It somewhat reminds of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture where you are not interacting with anyone, but you see images of 'what was' with some notes that help to piece together a tale, though perhaps not in order. I would go so far to say that Rapture is a slightly more structured narrative however, based on the level design. Kholat is so wide open in its travel and discovery, that there is less direction and therefore, less of a chronological order to the reveals.
The game is perhaps a bit too padded on the searching and walking front as well. It is incredibly easy to get lost (though in fairness I have an absolutely terrible sense of direction in real life and this seemed to translate over to this title at times as well). The map and compass certainly help, and it fits the theme of exploration in a harsh environment, but it is quite easy to get turned around and some gamers who prefer a slightly more linear exploration experience might find this daunting or even frustrating.
Kholat is a very well made game, gorgeous and appropriately immersive. However, at the end of the day, it neither really falls in with walking simulators or more traditional horror games, occupying a somewhat uncomfortable space between the two that might alienate potential gamers who try it out. I found the overall exploration and story satisfying enough to recommend it, but there is little doubt that this title could use some refinement here and there. All the same, it is an interesting adventure worth exploring if you are a fan of these types of games.
Article by Nick