Beyond our mere existence, what is arguably the most fascinating thing about life is our planet itself. While we’ve spread our settlements across its rotund landmasses, we’ve yet to see or find everything that it has to offer, which is indicated by scientists’ occasional discovery of new species of animal, fish, bugs, etc. There have also been a number of unexplained phenomena and perplexing, not to mention frightening incidents, which continue to make our heads spin even years later. The infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident, which forms the basis for the video game, Kholat, is a perfect example of such an occurrence.
If you’re like me, then you may not have heard about the Dyatlov Pass Incident before. It actually wasn’t until I heard that Kholat was coming to PS4, and decided to research it, that I learned about the horrifying event. Just thinking about it makes the hair on the back of my neck crawl, too, because I can’t even imagine what could have happened atop the Ural Mountain range in Northern Russia, back on February 2, 1959.
On that fateful winter day, nine experienced skiers (who were members of the Ural Polytechnical Institute), found their way to the top of the Ural Mountains, with plans to travel to Otorten, a mountain which carries a name that means “Don’t go there” in our native English tongue. The group didn’t make it to their destination, though, because something terrible and as-yet-unknown occurred, and took their lives in gruesome circumstances.
It is not known what happened, but investigators discovered that a tent was ripped open from the inside out, as if the adventurers were trying to get away from something. Going further, autopsies discovered strange injuries, including a woman who received brain damage without any sign of head trauma. One skier also suffered an extreme head injury that would have left him immobile, while another was found missing her tongue, eyes, part of her lips and some facial tissue. Of course, it was originally speculated that they had maybe been attacked by a native tribe, but that didn’t seem likely when it was discovered that only the skiers’ tracks were visible.
To this day, the Dyatlov Pass Incident remains a horrifying mystery, which is why one would look at it as the perfect backdrop for a horror movie, or a scary video game. Of course, that’s exactly what happened, and the result is Kholat; an experiences that mixes wicked winter weather with a remote location and unnatural spooks.
At its heart, Kholat is what people call a walking simulator. Actually, the best way to describe it would maybe be to call it a “get lost simulator.” The whole game is based around the idea that you’re lost atop the Ural mountains, and although you seem to be alone, you’re really not. Something is stalking you, playing with your head and speaking to you in riddles that don’t make sense. It also seems to want to kill you.
By purchasing and installing this game, you agree to enter into a world where little is given to you. The developers meant it when they decided to create something that makes its players feel isolated and lost, because outside of a compass and a map, you’re completely on your own. The map has some coordinates written down, and the compass is there to help guide you to them, but things are mechanically broken in that, not only is the map hard to read at times, but the compass is also illegible. As such, you’ll likely find yourself wandering through the same areas over and over again, in search of a needle in a haystack.
Your goal – after playing through the eery and beautiful prologue – is to find nine different locations hidden throughout the Ural range. Each one is different in its own way, be it a cave, a burned forest, a dark and gloomy wooden area, or something else entirely, but they all task you with finding the same thing: journal entries. These show up in the form of pieces of paper, which have been stuck to trees, stumps, or something of that ilk. They’re not easy to spot, either, and when you couple that with the fact that the player’s location is never shown on the aforementioned map, things quickly become frustrating.
Finding abandoned campsites allows you to fast travel, and collecting miscellaneous notes will save your game, but even those helpful mechanics don’t do enough to make Kholat a less frustrating and annoying experience. The mountaintop is huge, a lot of it looks the same, and it’s easy to get lost in a way that will have you walking in circles for an hour or more. It doesn’t help that the coordinates you’re supposed to go to are sometimes hard to read as they’re written on the map. I spent over an hour searching one incorrect area, because I misread the numbers that were jotted down and mistakenly went to the wrong side of the mountain.
As I said, Kholat is best described as a “get lost simulator,” because that’s exactly what it is. It’s because of this that the game will only appeal to a certain sect of people. Those seeking a scare will likely enjoy the impressive and disturbing audio, as well as the realistic-looking visuals, but they, too, will likely end up frustrated by a game that is too obtuse for its own good. It’s too bad, because there are a lot of great building blocks here, and it’s obvious what the developers had in mind. Things just don’t come together as well as they could have.
It’s the atmosphere that will have you unnerved, too, because most of the content is relatively tame. Every once and a while, you’ll come across orange footsteps that signify that a shadow monster is nearby, and you’ll have to crouch, hide or run away to avoid being killed by whatever they actually are. Those things also come out in orange fog that will occasionally permeate the air when you’re near a targeted location, but it’s not too difficult to just run in the opposite direction while turning your flashlight off so as to avoid detection. Honestly, once you’ve encountered these things a couple of times, they’ll become predictable and lose their scare factor. Their AI is pretty easy to get used to, and they only really appear when you’re close to an important area.
The story — which is what intrigued me the most about Kholat — is also pretty underwhelming. It’s told via journal entries, some of which are written by a female skier. Others are penned in the voice of an unknown man, with narration that uses the familiar tones of one Sean Bean. He does a good job, but he’s not given anything amazing to work with. In fact, the narrative goes into some really weird places (including experiments), which doesn’t seem to line up with anything that happened on Dyatlov Pass back in 1959.
At the end of the day, Kholat is a missed opportunity. It looks and sounds good, but its gameplay mechanics leave a lot to be desired. The game also runs quite poorly on the PlayStation 4, with regular frame rate drops and other detracting glitches.
Pick this one up if you’re a big fan of the walking simulator genre, and won’t mind getting lost for a while. Otherwise, steer clear of Kholat and simply read about the Incident it was inspired by.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Kholat had a lot of potential, but is unfortunately hard to enjoy, due to frustrating gameplay and hard to decipher orienteering mechanics. It will appeal to the odd soul, who will fall in love with its disturbing and maze-like mountaintop setting, but most will come away annoyed.