You wouldn’t normally say that a bleak train station built by Real Existing Socialism of the Soviet Empire would ever be called the height of solace and cosmopolitanism, but in Kholat it is exactly that.
Kholat is based on a true story – known as the Dyatlov Pass incident. In 1959 nine students went missing after hiking up a local mountain in the USSR near the Ural Mountains, and were discovered later, all dead, in mysterious circumstances.
The game sets up the story well, and I went back and replayed the introduction just because I was intrigued. The world lore is instantly engaging, and it brings out the best and worst aspects out of our conspiracy minds. Why were the students dead? What made them run away from their campsite in the snow wearing only minimal clothing?
Armed with only a compass and a map you, the mysterious silent protagonist, are off to solve the mystery. What you find may be more than you hoped for, for good or for ill.
The mystery, the tone and the narrative devices used throughout Kholat reminds me greatly of another mystery game out of Poland, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. As in that game your job is to spend time wandering around a smallish environment discovering clues as to what has gone on. You can discover journal notes, special events and generally glean what’s happened from little details in the environment. The story progresses in what will surely be a somewhat surprising turn, but the less said the better.
English voice acting is provided by serial murderer Sean Bean. And while he does a great job in his role, it struck me as rather incongruous that this upper-class Brit would be the narrator for a game so clearly set within an Eastern European cultural context. Although the game is set in Russia, the game features only the choice between Polish voice acting and English, not Russian.
The game is built on Unreal Engine 4 – and it looks beautiful. I found myself stopping often to take screenshots of the landscape almost everywhere I went. IMGN.pro have nailed the atmosphere as well. Swirling snow, the haunting moonlight and some nice particle effects make for distinct and memorable vistas.
But for all that IMGN.pro have nailed in looks and the establishment of a compelling universe, there have been quite a number of areas that don’t hold up as well. A number of technical and design failures unfortunately lead to Kholat becoming a frustrating and ultimately forgettable gaming experience.
Firstly, the technical issues. I experienced a number of severe frame rate drops in my time with Kholat, especially when turning around – presumably as new textures were streamed in. Pop-in was also an issue that I saw regularly, even for objects that were mere meters away. Grass would appear out of nowhere and trees would be low poly 2D models until I was right up next to them. This didn’t happen all the time but enough that it was notable.
Secondly, and perhaps unsurprisingly for a game set in Russian mountains, there is lots of walking around in lots of white snow. This of course isn’t an issue in itself but it did make it difficult to quite tell where I was and where I had been, which is pretty essential for an exploration game. While indicators do appear on your map to let you know what you’ve found in each location, you still must triangulate your position with the map with very little to help you. As a result, there’s lots of getting lost and backtracking. This problem is especially exacerbated by the day-night cycle, which basically means you are lost by the time dawn comes.
And while you are lost at night you will encounter seemingly randomly orange human-shaped enemies that inevitably kill you. One hit kills. They appear at what appears to be random to stymie your progress along whatever path you have chosen. They can block off entire critical paths that you were going down, and considering how long it takes to go around them, these invincible enemies became a real nuisance. They weren’t scary and I didn’t feel that added anything to the game, and made the process of exploring and hunting for clues much more frustrating than it needed to be.
The only way to escape them is to run, which has its own issues. You run by holding down L3 on the PS4 and pushing it in the direction you want to face – an entirely uncomfortable experience. Additionally, you can only run for a short period, and in a world without any other means of transportation this became old very quickly.
The game’s somewhat over the top story is told through diaries and other artefacts, but reading large amounts of small text even on a relatively large television is at best a bad experience and at worst excruciating. You must hold down left trigger and then move about the page with the right analogue stick. While this is an issue that I imagine fares better on a PC considering how crucial the narrative is to the entire game, a larger font size would have been appreciated. At least many of them are fairly well voiced.
While I understand that the game was designed in a specific way with mechanics and gameplay to supplement it, and its perhaps impertinent for a games critic to second guess decisions that clearly had much thought go into them, I feel Kholat has a good game hidden in it that it wasn’t allowed to be. The best of the game isn’t the supernatural elements – it’s the potentially compelling narrative and the well-executed creepy atmosphere. Fully embracing the walk-‘em-up genre such as in Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture in my opinion would have led to a more powerful experience.
Developers don’t need to give into the temptation to throw gameplay in our faces in hope of gaining our focus and enjoyment. Another handy comparison is to SOMA, where the narrative was the gameplay driver itself, and where the monsters and “combat” were distractions from what was really interesting.
Ultimately, Kholat isn’t a good package of a game. A game about exploration that’s hamstrung by the developers forcing other things in your way and I feel that the game would have benefited from a good deal of *less*.
Each individual element, while having some have promise, falls down as the result of a series of poor decisions that lead to what is perhaps an overreach of ambition. As the basis for a developer finding their way it shows promise, but on its own merits Kholat is just as boring and depressing to play as the Soviet world it’s set in.
Released: February 2016
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Genre: Indie, Thriller, Survival
Platform(s): PlayStation 4