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Kholat (PC) artwork

Kholat (PC) review

"Terror, Snow, Redundancy and Sean Bean."

Kholat is devoured by its own sense of ambition and though itís hard to turn that into a recommendation, itís easy to drop praise among the grumbling simply because the game tries to be more than it is. A cruel man would suggest that a necessary goal; a cruel man would label Kholat a spiritual expansion of Slender: The Eight Pages with a significantly larger area to explore and an adversary much less interested in tearing your face off. But there would be a measure of truth inside the cruelty; you are, after all, unexplainably trapped in a spooky location where you can never quite shake the feeling that thereís something wholly unpleasant right behind you. You are, after all, trying to stay alive long enough to collect pages littered throughout the environment. You are, after all, dead the second you get caught.

But leaving it there would be cruel. Kholatís commendable ambition does effortlessly pull it above the undesirable pigeonhole of fad clone and into the realms of spooky walking simulator. Thereís no small amount of Dear Esther built into the gameís aesthetic as vague narratives are woven unexplained through the documents you find and the oddities discovered. Your new home is one of snow covered rock that exhausts and confuses you in equal measure, having you sometimes stare unfocused into the swirling blizzards, confined in an area too large to comfortably memorise without significant effort. I commend this. If thereís one thing Kholat does well is that itís willing to drop moments of quietly chilling discomfort when you least expect it.

Its humble beginnings see you slowly steer away from token civilisation, guided gently by choir-like vocals and the soothing narration of Sean Bean. Despite the gameís Russian foundations, the entire vocal cast are English which I would make more fun of here if they werenít also excellent. As you trek further and further away from signs of life, Bean speaks more of isolation, of becoming monsters in the dark. Itís unclear what exactly he is narrating at first Ė it never really becomes clear. Kholat is sadistically jumbled Ė purposefully so Ė making it so you have no facts to ground your mounting discomfort in. Nothing makes sense. You follow a path through a steeple of dying trees as colour drains for the world. The music dies away, leaving you only with whistling winds and whisperings about the origin of fear. The ground falls away, and thereís no way back.

Kholat (PC) image

The snowy wasteland youíre forced to explore is based on the Dyatlov Pass within the Ural Mountains, which is home to a fifty year old unsolved mystery that claimed the lives of nine hikers. Their tent was found with the walls slashed from the inside out as if trying to escape something within, and the footprints found fleeing the camp were often barefoot. Bodies were found littered around the perimeter in various states of distress. Some skulls were fractured, a tongue was missing, but there were no signs of a struggle. Theories floated up to try and explain the deaths often only presented more questions than they answered; some of the doomed expedition showed signs of trying to return to the camp. Others were found with remnants of their groupís clothing bound to their bare feet fleeing further away. Early into the game, you find an abandoned campsite, the tent in disrepair and a map and compass left inside. Then, orange burning footprints appear in the snow.

The Dyatlov Pass incident is referenced strongly in the pages you find strewn around the area. A member of an exhibition speaks of the mundane preparations and uneventful early goings of her journey before things take a slow turn to the macabre. The notes of an investigator are strewn around, speaking initially of pedestrian theories and command chains before the events start sinking their hooks into him. These pages are not easy to find; thereís no locations marked on your map and exploration is initially taken up organically, picking a direction and following it as far as you can. Placing trust in what seem to be weathered tracks that may very well take you nowhere; more faith can be placed in spoting a landmark among the whipping snow and trying to reach it. The silhouette of a church steeple; the exterior light of a razed cabin; a blinking beacon atop a long forgotten power conduit.

Sometimes, though, your pointers are not so innocent; youíre lead towards a dying forest by a fleeing man when orange fog seeps in from both sides. More figures join you, running as hard as they can from the fog, their unfocused forms doing little to disguise their mounting terror. They run as the fog seeps further in, and you run with them because the terror is infectious. But you canít keep the same pace as them, youíre alive and human, not ethereal and phantom, and the snow slows your speed and saps your strength. If the fog catches you, you die. You donít need an on-screen prompt to tell you that, you already know it has to be avoided. Itís excellent visual storytelling, and itís massively discomforting.

Kholat (PC) image

Finding the places youíre meant to find is often exhilarating, thanks mainly to the wide open locations that all look the same and the drudging slow pace the elements force you into. These sound like negatives but theyíre not for at least the first hour of the game. While youíre still wandering around in awe, the sheer vastness of the mission ahead of you is daunting so completing these goals feels like a massive achievement. Thereís lurching ghosts out there, you know, traceable by the burning footprints they leave in the snow or by glimpsing their faded charcoal silhouettes. Spotting them means doubling back, trying to find a new route or risking your life by sneaking around them. And now Kholat starts to fall apart.

The ghosts have a very random attitude towards murder. Several times Iíve been trapped in a corner with nowhere to go and have chanced a blind run from behind cover right into the path of a homicidal ghost who treated this invasion with ultimate indifference, ignoring my presence and strolling nonchalantly inches in front of me. Other times, quite the opposite, and Iíve been chased down and dispatched despite being shielded by scenery and a sizable distance between us. Sometimes, I believe this to be deliberate; a way to stop players from accessing areas of the map theyíre not yet supposed to explore, which just adds to the confusion. The odd unexplainable death wouldnít sting so much, but Kholat employs an extraordinarily poor checkpoint system that means death can sometimes make obsolete more than an hourís progress.

Due to having to replay large stretches of area post-death and constant criss-crossing of the map to reach new locations, the once terrifying vagueness of exploration starts to become mundane as you trek endless back and forth through discoveries already made in the heady hopes of locating more. Finding new pages is vital -- itís the only thing that triggers the checkpoint saves so that theyíre miles of arctic wasteland apart soon becomes frustrating, devouring the previous sense of exploration and unearthing and replacing it with resignation. Back you go through that cave with the flickering torches that were sure spooky the first three times you traversed it. Back you go through that forest -- not so foreboding without the death fog and the fleeing figures is it?

Kholat (PC) image

Kholat wanted this. It wanted the world itself to be the big bad monster but at the same time completely nonlinear, leaving it up to you where to go and how to explore, and I commend the hell out of that of that. I truly do. The Dyatlov Pass manages to feel raw and unexplored while, at the same time, showing signs of the people who came before you. Map coordinates scored into rock faces, half-collapsed tents and the ribcages of abandoned fireplaces crop up in the most unlikely of places, hinting at a story of their own that will never be told. It wraps this up with story threads that lead nowhere and an ending that explains nothing. I don't know if itís fair to say that it overstays its welcome, but the creepy veneer it revels in has the unfortunate habit of peeling away the more you pick at it.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (June 29, 2015)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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zippdementia posted June 29, 2015:

Great review. This is like the old days of EmP. Concise and precise, with a touch of sarcasm and a dash of depressed dissulisionment when your expectations are dropped like an egg onto concrete.
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EmP posted July 01, 2015:

I was unaware the old days of EmP where considered concise and precise. I always thought it was ramble-y and mean-spirited, so I'll consider that a win! Thanks.
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Masters posted January 04, 2016:

Another great review I'm arriving at late by way of your year in review. The screenshots and your initial impressions almost had me, until this: "The odd unexplainable death wouldnít sting so much, but Kholat employs an extraordinarily poor checkpoint system that means death can sometimes make obsolete more than an hourís progress."

Poor pacing/checkpoint spacing is a game killer for me, if ever there was one.
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EmP posted January 04, 2016:

Man, those checkpoints... I once lost well over an hour because I was trying to chase down a light in the distance but was distracted by other things. As such, I didn't go for landmarks and campsites so when a monster randomly switched from casually indifferent to homicidal amd murderous on a whim and cut me down, I found myself on more or less the other side of the map. There was much swearing.

It felt very familiar to the checkpoint system in Downpour. I hated that, too.

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