Kholat, developed by the Polish development team IMGN.PRO first launched on PC in 2015, and is now available for the first time on the Xbox One.
The game is based on a real world event involving the unexplained deaths of 9 skiers in the Ural Mountains in 1959. Despite extensive investigations at the time, no concrete reason for their deaths was ever found. Their tent had been cut open from the inside out, and they’d fled sparsely dressed and barefoot into the wilderness. When their bodies were found, several of the victims had suffered internal injuries, but displayed no physical evidence of any attack. Theories on what happened included an avalanche, animal attacks, or possibly Soviet weapon tests or the supernatural. In this age of well-worn videogame narratives, Kholat at least has the virtue of originality.
The game begins in a snowy town, the mountains visible in the distance. There is no-one around. The snow is falling, with quiet piano music playing through the fog – the atmosphere is immediate, and centres around creepiness and loneliness. At the beginning, the game offers no HUD, no mini map. There is no health bar, or status indicator of any time. The complete absence of all the usual videogame player support mechanisms works to further accentuate your sense of loneliness and detachment. We assume it’s intentional – and it works beautifully.
A short wander in this completely unassisted state will eventually lead you through a tunnel and into the main area of the game. In this early stage, the quality of the sound design becomes apparent with sound and music acting as a guide through the environment – music will change tone or stop entirely when you’re in the vicinity of something important. The sound of the snow crunching beneath your feet and wind moving between creaking trees combine to realistic effect. Wolves howl, distant voices are heard. The graphics regrettably are slightly less impressive. The game suffered from regular bouts of slowdown and screen tear – and texture pop in was almost constant throughout the game. Loading times also seemed long.
Once the game begins proper, it’s a case of navigating your way around an open world with only a map and compass to guide you. The map doesn’t show your position to you, meaning that you need to figure out where you are very carefully using whatever landmarks are visible (and often, there are none save for trees and mountains) and then proceed to the next point of interest. Your character is armed with a torch, and can only run in short bursts.
Along the way, you’ll find diary pages written by one of the ill-fated skiers, reports from scientists and various newspaper articles. Occasionally, the narrator (none other than Sean Bean!) speaks out to lend context to your route and what you’re seeing. All of these lend exposition to different elements of the story – which in itself was interesting enough to pull us through the whole campaign, even if elements of it did unfortunately begin to slide into predictability midway through. The twist at the end was, we felt, so well telegraphed that when it came it elicited little more than an ‘I told you so’ shrug. Everything you find though, contributes to the overall creepiness and ill-at-ease feeling that pervades every moment and element of the game. At no point do you ever really feel safe or out of danger.
Kholat is a game that appears to be driven by a strict design principle – which is to emulate the experience of searching for something creepy and unknown in a cold, hostile environment in as realistic a fashion as possible. While sticking to such a design concept so rigorously is in many ways admirable (especially in this era of focus testing and market research, where games will be adjusted and changed to fit as broad a market as possible during the design and development phases), it is also this design concept that hampered our experiences with the game. Not allowing your character position to display on a map is fine – as it wouldn’t in real life. However, in real life you can rotate a map to allow you to orienteer to pinpoint a position more easily – and Kholat’s design does not allow this. As much as the reality is that running in deep snow quickly becomes exhausting, emulating this in a game merely slows down the pace of the game even further – to an extent that is detrimental.
We spent a lot of time wandering lost and hoping that we’d somehow stumble across the right location – a problem that was exacerbated by grid locations we’d find in the environment. For the first 3 hours of gameplay, we believed these to be informing us of our position on the map – which often made no sense. Once we realised that these actually just labelled additional points of interest, navigation became considerably easier. Given the hints displaying on loading screens, that fact that we had to figure this out for ourselves seems intentionally obtuse on the part of the developers.
Every so often, the game will interrupt its slow pace with a moment where you need to run for your life. Where you need to run to is never particularly clear – meaning that sudden deaths followed by the long wait for the game to load again become the norm as you’re reduced to trying different routes in the hopes that, this time, you’ll get the right one. Again, the design idea of throwing you something that swings your experience of the game on its axis is a very cool one – but the implementation of it renders the player frustrated and confused at times. This is the experience of Kholat in a nutshell; a design that actually forces players to work around it and think for themselves with minimal handholding is its biggest selling point and simultaneously its biggest problem. Whether or not you will enjoy the game is dictated to some extent by how you’ll respond to this.
Overall, we felt that Kholat promised a lot but failed to deliver on some of it. The story was compelling enough to see us through to the end – but it’s not a game we’d go back and play through a second time. Which seems a shame – our hopes were ultimately higher than what was delivered. Would we recommend it? Cautiously, yes. We would. It tells an interesting non-linear story in an interesting way, in spite of its flaws.
Kholat is available now on the Xbox Live store, and costs £11.99.
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Kholat is a good game, held back by its insistence on sticking to a design that sometimes makes it more difficult than it needs to be.