Perhaps the greatest boon that so-called ‘walking simulators’ such as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and more recently Firewatch have afforded us, is that they succeed in fostering the sort of atmosphere and sense of place that many other games simply do not. In revelling in a slower pace and conjuring more ponderous moments than their faster-paced brethren, these games allow players to fully soak in each and every pixel from their digital worlds.
Kholat, from Polish code hands IMGN.PRO, is another such effort that eschews a swifter pace and visceral action in favour of a much more atmospherically foreboding affair. Set against the real life Dyatlov Pass incident where nine of ten Russian students went missing only turn up decidedly dead just four months later, Kholat effectively weaponizes its fear in a manner that’s different from similar games simply because some of this stuff actually happened.
Once into the game proper, it’s fair to say that Kholat doesn’t exactly put its best foot forward in the beginning. Thrust into a barren-looking, snow-crusted train yard with hardly anything to really see or interactive with, the first twenty or so minutes of Kholat are arguably the weakest and dullest in the entire game. After the face-clawingly boring introduction has run its course however, things start to pick up when our explorer protagonist awakes from his tent.
Surrounded on all sides by frigid tundra and ear-lashing howling winds, Kholat sets you off to discover what’s gone on with those missing Russian students, but somewhat refreshingly, provides you with no sort of signposting to tip you off where as to where to begin. This iproves to be a grand design choice early on because not only does the game force you to rely on your map and compass reading skills, the utter lack of a GPS style waypoint interface also helps to reinforce the desperate isolation that sits at the heart of Kholat’s explorative storytelling.
Fear not though, while the notion of being pulled away from such familiar creature comforts as guided waypoints might seem jarring or even outright baffling at first, it’s not long at all before you get to grips with navigating your way around Kholat’s bitterly cold wasteland and once other camps have been discovered, a fast travel option erodes any frustration which might arise from overly lengthy repeat journeys from one end of the map to the other.
Speaking of the story, rather than being told through NPC dialogue, Kholat takes a similar approach to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture; in so far as everybody’s buggered off and the only way you can find out what’s going on is by collecting the evidence that has been left behind. In this case, such evidence manifests itself as diary pages and notes which are scattered throughout Kholat’s glacial valleys in addition to some pretty decent narration from Mr. Ned Stark himself, Sean Bean. Happily, these notes are a little easier to locate then you might think too– the sound of rustling paper being carried on the wind acting as a deft tip as to where each one might be found.
Without a doubt, Kholat’s biggest strength is its atmosphere and especially how that in turn fosters the sort of visual storytelling that you just don’t see in many games these days. Whether it’s a series of ominous, snow-capped stone pillars or a burnt down forest gradually crumbling into ember and ash, Kholat’s narrative is at its most effective when it is silently being told by its myriad of grim environments and downtrodden locales.
As crucial as the visual component of Kholat’s atmospheric equation is, the sum is only really totalled when taking the audio side of things into account. As well as a wonderfully melancholic score, the Polish developers behind Kholat also pull a tremendous turn when it comes to the game’s sound effects. A hugely ambient collective of whooshing winds, creaking pines, howling wolves and the light crunch of snow beneath your boots, it’s clear that every bit of the developer’s substantial creative acumen has been brought to bear to fashion an immersive and blissfully engaging world quite unlike any other.
It’s when we start looking at how Kholat allows the player to traverse its frigid realm that things start to come unstuck a little bit, however. Supposedly cast as some sort of outdoor enthusiast (the presence of a map, compass and neatly made up tent would certainly seem to support this), it’s more than a little odd to discover that obstacles which exist at higher than waist height cannot be overcome. Quite literally, if you come across a step that looks like you can clamber up and over, the lack of a jump or climb button makes this an impossibility and when compared to Firewatch, a game which took pride in allowing the player a great deal of freedom in a similar vocation, your movement feels far more limited than it should be.
While traversal around the environment might seem troublesome then, a bigger issue is that there really isn’t a lot to do if you don’t get off on the whole exploration and atmosphere elements of Kholat. With there being no combat and only really having those diary pages as something for the player to seek out, it’s a touch disappointing that outside of the game’s considerable atmospheric hooks, there isn’t more to keep the player invested in the experience. This also happens to directly feed into another of Kholat’s flaws – in so far as once you’ve collected all the diary pages in the game and seen the narrative from beginning to end, there is practically nothing to draw you back, which seems a shame considering the towering amount of effort that has gone into crafting its world.
Kholat then, is an experience that clearly does its best work when it leaves you alone, gently prodding and sinking its grim tendrils into your psyche in order to engender a feeling of building dread and burgeoning paranoia. So it should come as little surprise that when other ‘things’ show up in the world that they tend to disrupt, rather than enhance the experience. Evidenced by orange fog and flaming footprints, these supernatural antagonists cannot be destroyed (there’s no combat remember) and so the only avenue available to the player is to run, lest they suffer a teeth-grinding instant death that sends them hurtling back to the last save point.
In fairness, these grim spectres do occasionally manage to do a decent job of getting the old hairs to stand up on end from time to time, but largely they veer towards the jarring; pulling the player out of Kholat’s carefully crafted atmospheric and psychological dread and forcing them to engage in a largely unfulfilling game of cat and mouse.
When matched up against other similar fare, it might be difficult to see how Kholat might survive such comparisons. Neither as visually intricate as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s sumptuous photorealism, nor as terrifying as SOMA’s white-knuckle frights, Kholat nonetheless carves its own niche and in doing so fashions a dread-filled adventure that’s well worth seeking out even in light of its imperfections.