- Posted by Carl Lyon
- On April 12, 2016
- 0 Comments
- Kholat, Playstation 4, Review, video games
February 2nd, 1959: Igor Dyatlov led a group of 8 experienced hikers from the Ural Polytechnical Institute on a trek through the Ural Mountains in Russia. After setting up camp on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl (“Dead Mountain” in the language of the indigenous Mansi), a mysterious event occurred that led the hikers to slash their way out of their tents and run naked across the snow-crusted land, where they all perished under mysterious circumstances. Bones were broken without any outward trauma; skulls were fractured with no bruising; one woman’s tongue was missing; bodies showed signs of irradiation. After a month of investigation, Soviet authorities listed the cause of death as “an unknown compelling force” and closed the region to hikers and skiers for three years after the event, which became known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. This macabre mystery lies at the heart of Kholat, a horror game from Polish developer IMGN.Pro. While far from a perfect experience from a narrative standpoint, the game’s frigid atmosphere, well-executed frights, and sense of isolation come together to deliver a truly compelling experience.
The game unceremoniously dumps you in the footsteps of the Dyatlov Pass victims, forcing you to trek up the mountain alone in order to try and determine what truly happened that fateful February night. While the narrative has some genuine potential, especially with the voice acting of Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings) it comes across as fragmented and confusing, asking you to piece together snippets of information—a newspaper clipping here, a journal page there—and try to come to your own conclusions. While intrigue blankets the game like a powdery snowfall, the actual story gets lost in a drift of confusion. I feel no closer to understanding the Dyatlov Pass Incident after completing the game as I did before I started.
But you know what? I’m okay with that, as what Kholat lacks in storytelling substance, it more than makes up for it in suspenseful style. While the game treads the same path as many of its “walking simulator” brethren, it manages to keep you in the dark with an orienteering system that ironically keeps you feeling disoriented as you trudge your way towards the truth. You’re given a tattered map, a series of coordinates, and a compass to try and help you navigate the ice-crusted wilderness, but it’s much easier said than done. Cripes, why did I ever drop out of Boy Scouts?
Yep, using nothing more than coordinates, guideposts, and a compass you have to try and find a series of landmarks that will fill in not only the terrible tale of Dyatlov Pass, but the mystery that you yourself are mired in. While it may sound simple, it’s very easy to get lost in the winter not-quite-wonderland of Kholat Syakhl, with overgrown footpaths and crumbling bridges forcing you to turn around and try in vain to get your bearings. It’s the sort of thing that would be intensely frustrating in most games, but it greatly enhances the moodiness of Kholat.
Of course, your inability to orienteer isn’t the only fear you’ll face in Kholat: the Ural Mountains are seemingly haunted by a gaggle of ghosts, ethereal apparitions that either hint at historical horrors or take a more claws-on approach to freaking the player out. Strange, fiery spirits act as infernal echoes of the past, aping the actions of Dyatlov and his crew and cluing you in to present-day threats. These threats are few, but good lord they work, from hidden tiger-traps to a mysterious shade whose smoky body and flaming footprints will leave you anxious and possibly dead. If there’s one complaint about how the threats are handled, it’s that their insta-kills come without warning. On more than one occasion I literally stumbled directly into the ashen apparition and keeled over, without any hope of retreat. This, sadly, undoes some of the suffocating suspense that Kholat builds over its short but satisfying playtime.
Graphically, Kholat uses Epic’s oft-licensed Unreal Engine, and it looks positively gorgeous for it. The environments are almost exclusively wintry wilderness, and they never cease to look breathtakingly organic, with frosted firs and dusty drifts that practically chill you to the bones with their arctic authenticity. The aforementioned shade that stalks you is a similar triumph, with a ghostly body that resembles wisps of smoke coagulating into a form that’s not quite human and completely terrifying. The audio is deliciously atmospheric, with quick bursts of music punctuating the howl of wind, the creak of trees under the weight of snow, and the unbearable silence of a winter’s night, a perpetual pregnant pause that seems like the entire world is holding its breath.
While Kholat may not solve the mystery of Dyatlov Pass, or even offer up a well-woven narrative, it offers up a sprawling haunted house experience that covers a massive, snowy expanse. Its experience is less intellectual and more primal, tapping into our base fears without making us think as to why we’re frightened. Its fear resides completely in the amygdala and refuses to leave, even after you’ve stopped playing.
Kholat is available now on PC and Playstation 4.