Kholat is not necessarily original. It’s not a game changer, it’s not unique, it’s not surprising. What it is, however, is a spectacular addition to the wander-and-collect horror genre. Based off the unexplained phenomenon in the Ural Mountains, the game follows the stories of several investigators, scientists, and explorers to uncover the secret of the events that transpired. (For background on the Dyatlov Pass Incident, click here.)
The game’s greatest strength is atmosphere, which is set immediately. Narration, provided in part by Sean Bean, sets a very solemn, uneasy tone, as an admittedly odd tutorial unfolds into the basis of the game. Your character wanders a gorgeous, frozen landscape in the mountains, where forests, caves, and trails must be traversed. An eerie, piercing soundtrack accompanies howling wind and creaking wood to create fear, even when there’s no obvious danger. Truly, the combinations of audible elements are what set Kholat apart.
Truly graphically beautiful, Kholat’s frozen tundra is stunning and complex. Layers of mountainous terrain with large, dead forests and tight, wet caves create an entire Siberian world to explore. A full moon bathes snowy expanses in white light, while simultaneously casting dark and threatening shadows. Wind and snow whip through the air, blowing trees and freezing water. It is a perfect combination of ghastly and dazzling, with heavy symbolism prevalent in each expanse.
Gameplay is fairly standard and unoriginal. It follows a very familiar pattern of sprinting until exhaustion, using flashlights in dark surroundings, and exploring tight, blind corners in caves, between trees, and in derelict buildings and bunkers. However, the game cannot be faulted for using a formula that has long been effective in setting a very real, very desperate tone. The humanness that comes with an inability to do anything more than wander and run creates a feeling of helplessness that drives the desire to survive.
Panicky moments with well-timed jump scares drive forward movement and further discovery. The most unique element of the game comes in the form of learning to navigate your surroundings with a map, compass, and coordinates that reveal key positions and discoveries. The learning curve on this is steep, because there is no previous instruction on how to read a map with a compass – if you don’t already know what you’re doing, you’ll have to learn on the fly, or die trying.
Camps can be discovered, along with notes, articles, and journal entries from those who came before, all which serve to uncover the story of the Kholat incident. The events of the game keep you guessing between science and the supernatural, with documentation to back each side. Each entry read or news clipping discovered leads the legend down a different path, making the story unbearably interesting. Fear is overpowered by intrigue, leading the player to continue forward to solve the mystery, despite the dangers they must face. With superb voice acting and enthralling narrative, it is impossible to quit, even with a pounding heart and a sinking stomach.
Beautifully written, narrated, and brought to life, Kholat is distinctly interesting. A fine line between far-fetched and possible is perfectly balanced to create this wonderfully atmospheric adventure. While each ending can be either loved or hated (yes, there are two endings), the journey itself is what makes for an enjoyable conspiracy. Kholat is chilling, intriguing, and worth every spine-tingling moment.