Set in the snowy mountain range of Kholat Syakhl, Kholat puts us in the shoes of an unnamed protagonist searching for the truth. When nine Russian college students disappear on the aforementioned mountain, we set out to find the answers for a plethora of mysteries. The name of the game is atmosphere, constantly twisting and turning your navigation and you struggle to gain footing in this dangerous environment. Does Kholat send shivers down the spine, or come off as cold as its setting?
The Mysterious Nine
Kholat‘s story borrows a lot of inspiration from the Dyatlov Pass incident, a real world event where nine Russian college kids went missing on the same mountain as in the game. Maybe borrow isn’t the correct word, as the whole crux of the narrative plays directly into the legend of the Dyatlov Pass incident. If you’re interested in the story, I suggest clicking through to the Wikipedia article linked above.
Just for context, the Dyatlov Pass incident is one of the most interesting unsolved mysteries of modern time. The nine students were found dead and brutally maimed over the course of four days, often with injuries that had no explanation. Eyes and tongues were missing, some students were found naked several miles from camp, and the mystery doesn’t end there. Theories have floated around for ages, ranging from government conspiracy to monsters of folklore. If anything, the Dyatlov Pass incident is an excellent backdrop for a horror game.
To Walk A Mile
Kholat is really good at emulating the feelings that those students must have felt in their final hours. This is both its largest strength and biggest weakness. As you set out from your camp site, you’re all but bare bones in the wilderness. In Kholat, you have no source of defense, just your two feet to run with. Besides that, you have a flashlight for navigating the dark, a compass that directs you towards the last discovered campsite, and a path map.
The objective of the game is rarely clear, you simply stumble around the map discovering new locations and paths. Spread across the world are notebooks, articles, and journals that give us insight into the narrative. Additionally, there are a few monologue pieces that pop up in the form of narration by actor Sean Bean. Everything is cryptic and mysterious, and even up to the final moments of the game, a lot is left up to interpretation.
The Importance of Conveyance
The narrative structure is mainly due to the gameplay structure, which is completely based on exploration. You start in the center of the map, and it’s truly up to you where to visit first. Navigating your way through Kholat is actually quite difficult, as the snowy region begins to look more and more similar.
As I mentioned earlier, Kholat‘s tie to its atmosphere is both its biggest strength and downfall. You often feel lost, get turned around, and the map isn’t much help. Waypoints only appear after you’ve picked up a collectible, so you only really have an idea of where you’ve been, not where you should go. The entirety of the game revolves around collecting notes, and although there are plenty of them to find, you only need to collect a few key ones to complete the game. These are indicated by coordinates on the top left of your map.
Lost: The Game (Snow Edition)
On one hand, this feeling of misguidance and difficulty in navigation goes a long way in driving the point home. The game’s visuals are decent, but thanks to a haunting soundtrack and the quality of Sean Bean’s infrequent voice overs, the atmosphere is dense and excellent. On the other hand, Kholat is little more than a 5 to 6 hour confusing mountain walk.
Along your trek through the frigid land you’ll encounter some cool visual moments and interesting turns, but they are usually stumbled upon rather than discovered. As I played Kholat, its lack of direction and general feeling of “where do I go, what do I do” wore thin. Sure, it’s realistic in terms of exploration, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun to play. If anything, the act of playing Kholat was the most annoying thing about it; I wanted to see what was next, I just didn’t want to spend an hour trying to figure out how to get there.
This issue is further perpetuated by the compass, which doesn’t offer you any help navigating. Instead of pointing North, it points towards the last discovered campsite (I think, I’m still not sure). This doesn’t help you in terms of progression, but just ensures you’ll never get 100% lost. Kholat‘s map is more like a collection of multiple mazes with large open spaces, and gets confusing fast. You’ll have to pay attention to the environment for coordinates that appear on rocks and in caves, often indicating places to visit.
The Bottom Line on Kholat
Generally speaking, Kholat provides a good atmosphere and interesting story, but falls on its face quite a bit. Technically speaking, the game isn’t all that great, often seeing large frame drops and tremendous amounts of pop in. I once found myself staring at an invisible wall, curious as to why I couldn’t move past it. In that instant, a giant rock popped into existence, and I realized that the heavy amounts of snow and effects were clouding a lack of draw distance. This is confusing though, because I can also recall several great vistas as I explored.
With the game’s visuals chunking out, the lack of direction and general feeling of being lost, and the lack of any substantial gameplay besides looking around, Kholat starts to wear thin quickly. The story is a cool take on the Dytalov Pass incident, but even that falls flat. Ironically, the “true ending” (unlocked by collecting every collectible) is worse than the normal ending, and absolutely demolishes any weight the story may have had.
There’s not much lurking out in the mountain either. It’s not a giant empty space; there’s still things to be afraid of. However, the ratio of scares to minutes of mindless wandering teeters heavy towards the wandering side. With improved pathfinding, a clearer sense of direction, and perhaps a tiny bit of combat, Kholat could’ve been great. Instead, it stutters and falls flat, eventually becoming a forgettable experience that feels more like a chore than a game. There’s some good content to be had, but you’ll have to search for it; both figuratively and literally.
Note: Game was reviewed on Xbox One.