What does your perfect sandwich look like? Count the divets in the bread. The layers of meats, veggies, sauces, cheeses – any combination of ingredients that came to mind when you read the phrase “perfect sandwich”. Imagine lifting that up to bite it, and then realising the entire other half of it is completely soaked.
Kholat is like that. Let’s explain.
It’s a horror-leaning walking sim. At its core, you run around a chunk of Russian mountains grabbing at notes and hauling ass towards landmarks while Sean Bean whispers in your ear. Except we’re not talking entirely in hypotheticals here – the spooky circumstances you find yourself in happened to actual people, in February 1959.
Bean’s narration weaves a tale about nine hikers ~whom died mysteriously~ on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl. On finding the bodies of these trained hiking experts, the rescue teams found some grotesque fates had befallen each individual member. The game reads as desperately wanting you to engage with both the source material and the game’s content itself. Bean’s opening narration, coupled with what looked unfortunately like a 17 year old’s Flash animation, as a performance style most akin to a documentative recounting, rather than a dramatically played up spooky ghost story.
The weird pacing choices in the editing of this opening expository dump showcase the first of the cracks that rapidly disintegrate what seemed to be a very promising premise.
The environmental design that UE4 is so good at doing, coupled with Sean’s Beans, are all kinds of madly oppressive and hostile. Bean shifts from an Attenborough-like Documentary VO to “My name is Death, good to meet you, oh reader mine”-type.
Because of this, it wouldn’t be fair to say that, as a game, it was one of the most quickly disengaging and uninteresting experiences I’ve had. But it is very easy to think in that direction.
The horror elements aren’t good. The orange “fire” effect only ever gets as good as functioning as The Elder Scrolls’ arrows that point you to where the game keeps going. The jump-scares are jump-scares, and no amount of positive player reviews that positively mention jump-scares will change the fact that they are not effective horror. It’s a shame then – Kholat almost gets genuinely great by means of visual/audio design alone.
The game doesn’t hold your hand. Except Kholat hasn’t quite figured out how to plonk you into an effectively realised game-world and actually stimulate your brain with it beyond “walk around until you find invisible barriers, and then keep walking around.” There are a few gamey things, like a map, and a sprint, but both are unsatisfying to use for annoyingly logical reasons. A usable map would go against the point of being isolated and having to use your own orienteering skills within the space, and playing as someone who has any fitness at all would be less scary than someone who seems to have forgotten their inhaler.
All Kholat does is makes me yearn for a game, or even just an animated flick presented exactly like this, that’s about the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and that’s genuinely engaging. Even though I bounced right off this game and into the real story’s Wiki article to find out more, it was almost to let my brain create a more engaging picture of the events.