KHOLAT was somewhat of a surprise release for me. I had literally heard nothing of it, but the name rang a bell. Why was this you ask? Well I love the unexplained and the name of Kholat pretty much defines unexplained.
A few years ago, I was searching the internet, going down a trail of searches that led me to a story known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Essentially what happened was, in 1959 a group of nine hikers led by Igor Dyatlov went missing in the Kholat Syakhl region of the Ural mountains in Russia.
Their bodies were eventually recovered, but their injuries and what led to where each body was found was somewhat of a mystery. The main part of this being the types of injuries suffered, but the lack of external injuries that would show signs of a struggle. Basically the impossible had happened.
I don’t want to delve too deep in to this right now, but if you want to know more, then there is plenty of theories out there, including written material, films and more. These theories range from the down right skeptical, backed up with scientific ‘facts’, to the more outlandish, which will mention aliens and other such forces that shouldn’t be possible.
It is fascinating stuff and the fact that it still remains a mystery some fifty six years later, shows that there is no definitive answer, no outright truth as to what happened to the nine lost souls. Which, in turn, makes it ripe for story telling, which is where KHOLAT comes in.
KHOLAT the game, is clearly from the mind of someone who has their own ideas about what happened in 1959 and uses many of the accounts of what may have happened, such as certain lights in the sky, noises and the like. It is used in such a way as to create a solid foundation as to what your objectives are.
If you have played and like games such as Outlast, you will be at home with the basic premise of how KHOLAT will work. It is a first person exploration horror game, but instead of the usual setting of an abandoned hospital or somewhere else claustrophobic, KHOLAT instead put you into an open world, which somehow makes you feel even more claustrophobic than those other games in this genre.
The Ural mountain setting is vast and open, but it also feels like it is closing in on you, as you feel drawn to certain areas, or down certain paths, all of this pretty much done on a whim, on a feeling that this is where you should be going, like a force is guiding you.
There is no HUD to tell you where you are, or where you are going. Instead what you have is a basic map and a compass, that you must pull out and read to have any clue as to your destination. Imagine the map and compass idea from Far Cry 2, but with any way point or guide assistance completely removed.
I have some experience of map reading from my days in the army cadets and it seems you will need to be able to trust yourself with a map, as you are simply given this one map, with a few co-ordinates written in the corner and a mark to show where your camp is. You don’t even get a marker to say where you are at this current moment in time. So if you get lost (and you will get lost) you have two options.
One is to push on to where you think you should be heading, or the other is to make your way back to the camp and start again. Even that can be difficult, because the weather in the Ural mountains can really mess with your sense of direction. As can the the feeling that you are never safe.
It seems that every step you take there is something that can distract and disorientate you, whether that be reaching your chosen destination and discovering another piece of the puzzle, catching something out of the corner of your eye, or even hearing something that you are compelled to investigate.
There are jump scares, but even these don’t seem to be part of some major reveal, in fact they mainly seem to add to the mystery even more, as you ask yourself what the hell that was and why it is.
It is amazing how beautiful this game is both visually and in the sound department, especially as you are in areas that are designed to feel the same, designed to bring that sense of isolation. But just looking at the snow beating into your face, whilst you hear chilling wind and watch trees blowing around, it somehow just looks and feels wondrous, all whilst still making you feel on edge and tentative.
In terms of gameplay KHOLAT just about manages to walk a line between being a pure walking simulator and a nothing dull walk here do that type affair, because that is pretty much the crux of it. You find a co-ordinate, reach it, find a note or something to further unravel the mystery, rinse and repeat. But because the story is such a mystery, you feel so immersed.
I would recommend reading up on the Dyatlov Pass Incident before playing, because I felt having a knowledge of the source material helped me understand the game more, as despite an overview of the incident in the intro and some wonderful narration from Sean Bean, there is no real guide as to what you must do, or how you must do it. The story is only expanded upon at the start and end of acts and through the various notes you find.
The game does start to fall apart a little towards the end, but it somehow manages to just about finish before it gets too stretched out. It doesn’t quite fit with my own theory on what happened in 1959, but it does follow on the more interesting theories I have read about.
This is a great example of a game that not only looks and sounds stunning, but is willing to take a risk with a known true life event and run with their own thoughts on what happened and doing it in a way that doesn’t insult either the source material or its audience.