“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” - Winston Churchill, describing Russia.
In the winter of 1959 a group of Russian students on a skiing expedition became lost in the Ural Mountains. What happened next was horrifying, tragic, and one of the great mysteries of history. All of the students died on the mountain pass where they had decided to camp and spend the night. Investigators initially believed that hypothermia was the cause of death for all the skiers. But strange evidence began to surface that pointed to more sinister and brutal forces as the cause of the students’ death. For one thing, the skies had torn open the tents they had set up and fled into the freezing night, presumably to get away from some danger within the tents. Closer examination revealed that some of the students died from fatal injuries, including damage to their skulls and chest fractures. Even stranger still was that some of the students’ clothing was found to be radioactive.
This real historical event, known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, which, in addition to being a really creepy piece of Russian history, is also the basis for the horror adventure game Kholat. Created by Polish developer IMGN.PRO, Kholat immediately calls to mind the games Amnesia: The Dark Decent and Miasmata. From Amnesia it takes the practice of using journal entries as its predominant form of storytelling and a desperate, dreary feeling of powerlessness. From Miasmata it takes an open world with minute-to-minute gameplay centered on navigating the mysterious environment.
In the game figuring out what exactly happened to the dead students and who you are is the primary goal. To accomplish this you travel to the lonely mountain pass where it all happened and explore the area looking for clues. Nine objectives are listed on your map in the form of coordinates. The map doesn’t display where you are and the details on the environment are murky at best, so much of the challenge of the game comes from finding the right paths and sticking to them. Unfortunately for the player-character, the lonely mountain turns out to be not so lonely after all, as you realize that a being known as “the anomaly” is stalking you. Checking the map, which you’ll have to do often to make sure you’re on the right path, doesn’t pause the game. So the moments when you’re waist deep in snow, squinting at the dimly lit map, and comparing the coordinates of where a landmark is supposed to be with where you think you’re standing are fraught with tension as at any moment the anomaly could find you. At these moments the game feels appropriately scary. I found myself nervous about standing still in one place for too long while also realizing that standing still might be the only way to figure out where the heck I was.
Kholat was made in Unreal Engine 4 and it looks quite good. Overall the entire presentation is very effective. Because you spend the whole game in one location the developers went to great lengths to make it feel like a real place. Some paths at first seem promising, but then lead nowhere at all, there are a variety of buildings you’ll visit, and the fire, snow, and the water effects look amazing. I’ve always found the combination of a dark forest and rushing wind to be particularly unsettling, and Kholat nails this atheistic perfectly. The whole game I was convinced that unimaginable horror was always just beyond the tree line. The voice cast is effective, but it’s distracting hearing so many British accents pretend to be Russian. Much has been made of Sean Bean lending his voice to the narrator of the game, but by the time I was finished his narration hadn’t left a huge impression on me.
The real drawback to Kholat, and it is a monumental drawback, is that its story is a mess. I applaud the developers for taking the ambitious road of making player piece together bits of information in order to see the story as a whole, but the pieces never quite come together. If the story was better written, then this format would have shown great respect to the player, namely the that they could figure out what happened based on the evidence without the game explicitly telling them. However the story holds too many cards close to its chest. It values building an air of mystery over actually rendering an effective narrative. In short, the questions the game proposes are infinitely better than the answers. When the credits start to roll, you’ll be wishing you had the wide-eyed wonder you had for the game at the beginning.
Kholat is a horror game that looks great, gives you a genuine sense of fear, and utilizes a game mechanic that’s still unique and keeps you engaged the whole time you’re playing. Still, the short length, lackluster story, and absence of any meaningful gameplay outside of the aforementioned realistic navigation keep this from being anything more than a some-what intriguing distraction. For those that are still interested, perhaps you can wait for it to go on sale and read up on the real Dyatlov Pass Incident until then.