Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows
Genre: Survival Horror
Rating: 2 out of 5
Describe This Game in Three Words: Creepy but tedious
Plot: Kholat is based on a famous disappearance in 1959. Nine students went missing in the Ural Mountains in what’s been called the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Their bodies were later found; they died from internal injuries without any clear external cause after fleeing their tent barefoot in the snow. Oh, and the whole thing was radioactive for some reason. Explanations range from animal attacks to freakin’ aliens. Kholat replays the incident from a first-person perspective.
Up, Up: Kholat’s port to the PlayStation 4 is first and foremost gorgeous. There is simply no other way to describe the game. It is beautiful even in an era where games now rival animated films in their ability to visually convey meaning. The haunting, snow-dusted mountains are a true work of art, and even aspects that could very much have come off as hokey, such as the boulders that are shaped like skulls, feel well made and eerie. The attention to graphic detail and the world-building that has gone into Kholat is amazing.
Equally up there is the sound. The sound track is also a masterpiece, as well as one of your key indicators you are making progress. Right from the beginning you’re surrounded by beautiful, disturbing music that complements the bleak landscape perfectly. On top of that, the environment comes to life around you with subtle noise, and I highly recommend playing with headphones.
The game is also legitimately disturbing. The feeling of fear is real throughout the experience. There is just something continuously off about the world of Kholat, a sense that you are trapped in a place where madness is normalcy. The creep factor is off the charts.
Down, Down: That said, Kholat is not very good. Its primary failing is its extremely poor level design. When I reviewed Firewatch, I encouraged players to turn off their map indicator since learning to navigate the game via the map was half the challenge. Kholat gives you no choice; it’s just you and the map. However, it doesn’t work here as it does in Firewatch. In Firewatch there are numerous easily distinguishable landmarks that help guide you through the game as well as subtle design choices that nudge you along. Kholat lacks those. It’s far more open with fewer clear paths, and even after several hours of playing, I never felt I got to know the environment.
The game also has a problem with player death. Player death is supposed to make you better at the game. Better at dodging, better at fighting, better at avoiding detection. In Kholat it’s often completely random. Glowing spirits will kill you if you touch them, but there’s never any indication that this is the case. The bad level design had me falling to my death multiple times, and since save points are few and far between, you spend what feels like days trudging along back to where you were.
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On top of that, the game is borderline nonsensical. From the moment it opens, there is just no clue what the heck you’re supposed to be doing, and finding old articles buried in the snow just makes the confusion worse. Kholat’s plot is just a mess. A scary mess, but still a mess.
Left, Right, Left, Right: Kholat is your basic Unreal Engine game, but it adheres to that old survival horror trick on making your running ability finite because you get tired. This is supposed to up the tension, but all it really does is make the game drag. It really is time to retire this trope.
B,A: I will say that when Kholat works, it works well. There are genuine moments of terror, and obviously a lot of love went into crafting the game. It’s mostly a victim of its own ambition. It tries too hard to be a cerebral horror experience, but there’s too much style and not enough basic video game foundation. It’s just not fun to play.
Start: As a chance to explore a breathtaking landscape and maybe have a good shiver along the way, Kholat works. However, it misses out on a lot of what makes gaming different from movies. There are few rewards, dismal challenges and unfair mechanics. It just needed more game.