The ‘Dyatlov Pass incident’ of 1959 is perhaps one of history’s most interesting, unexplained events.
Nine Russian hikers from the Ural Polytechnical Institute set out on an expedition to the Ural Mountains, but after failing to make contact with base when expected, were presumed missing. A search and rescue team eventually tracked them down, but all were found dead and scattered across the eastern side of Kholat Syakhl. The team’s tent had been torn open from the inside, the hikers fled either barefoot or in just their socks, and the bodies that were eventually found all suffered from some remarkable wounds, described as the result of an ‘unknown compelling force.’
This true story is the basis for Polish developer, IMGN.PRO’s latest creation: the first-person, exploration horror game, Kholat.
Following the game’s opening cinematic and a brief walk through an eerily quiet, Russian railway village, Kholat unceremoniously drops you into the vast, Siberian wilderness. Context is a little thin on the ground, as is direction, but your in-game survival journal pops-up to explain all the essential gameplay mechanics.
To navigate, you have a map, compass and torch; and where movement is concerned, you can run and crouch. Beyond that, your only hint towards progression can be found in the upper left corner of your OS map, as a list of nine coordinates. Whichever order you choose to explore these in is up to you, but it’s not simply a case of setting a waypoint and heading on your merry way. Kholat’s lack of heads up display means you’ll have to navigate the old-fashioned way, by constantly referring back to your map and compass.
The simple process of moving from point to point can become quickly frustrating, but does so in a way that feels intended for immersion rather than the result of poor design. It serves to highlight that even with all the right tools, this is the kind of place people get lost, and actually finding a plotted destination is quite a rewarding experience.
There are a few other ways to help maintain your bearings though. As you explore, you’ll notice previous adventurers to the area have considerately scribbled coordinates on rocks and cliff faces, but they’re not completely accurate, and should be taken more as an approximate indication of your location. The other (more reliable) way of figuring where you are is via the notes and journal entries scattered about the world. You’ll know one’s close when you hear a distinctive ‘paper fluttering in the wind’ audio cue, and finding one has several beneficial effects.
Firstly is that their location (and subsequently your location) is marked on the map when you find them, giving you an exact bead on where you are. And they also trigger an autosave, which Kholat tends to dish out a little too sparsely. The notes also provide story exposition of course, and depending on which one of them you pick up, it’ll either be written by the narrator (voiced by Sean Bean), or possibly by a member of the original expedition, it’s a little unclear. A few other scraps appear to be newspaper articles and reports from around the same time as the incident, and suggest some pretty weird stuff happening that may be connected the event.
Successfully making your way to each waypoint will trigger a set-piece specific to that location and you’ll learn another piece of Kholat’s overarching story. Some of these make for the most incredible spectacles, from waves of orange smoke rolling across the mountains, to the very sky being sped-up like it’s playing out a time-lapse. While they might be awesome to look at however, they don’t always make a lot of sense, and will likely leave you even more baffled than before you found them.
To add some challenge en route between story triggers, you’ll also have to avoid instant death from the spirits roaming about the Kholat tundra. Usually the first you see of these ‘ghosts’ is a trail of glowing, orange footprints, but get close enough and they’ll reveal their true form; by which time it’s probably too late to get away. Let one touch you, and it’s game over.
With enough of a head start, they’re possible to outrun, but you’ll have to be conscious of the terrain you’re moving on. Push your character too hard through deep snow and he’ll tire within a few seconds of sprinting, slowing to a crawl as he recovers from exhaustion. Unfortunately, sprinting away is all you can do against the orange anomalies, and then you risk running into Kholat’s issue with terrain.
Stray off the mapped path even by a little, and you’ll be regularly stopped by slopes, rocks, and some pathetically gradual inclines. Kholat is a game in desperate need of a jump button, if only to avoid getting awkwardly stuck on shin-high geometry whenever you‘re fleeing from a fluorescent glow-monster.
To compare the game to Slender would be the quickest way of describing the Kholat’s structure, but at the same time would be a little unfair. They share a similar mode of storytelling in a ‘pick up the story-advancing clues while avoiding the monster’ kind of way, but Khloat is noticeably more polished.
As well as boasting a much bigger game world, it’s one of the first games out this year to make use of the Unreal 4 engine, and as a result looks genuinely stunning. The visual effects that trigger at key moments in the story often left us wide-eyed and open-mouthed while we hammered away at our screenshot key. Even the relatively mundane starting area saw us rotating on our spawn spot just to admire the gorgeous snow and lighting. As you explore further through the world, there’s plenty of diversity in the locales, from underground bunkers to candle-lit caverns, each one creepy and dripping with atmosphere.
Overall though, Kholat works best principally as a visual experience rather than a narrative one. The ambiguity surrounding the events of Dyatlov Pass made for a lot of conspiracy theories at the time, from the extra-terrestrial to the supernatural, and the game seems to suggest they all might be true. The resolution to the main narrative is unclear, and despite paying attention as best we could, we still weren’t certain of what had happened at the end. Perhaps that’s intentional, that the player is left in the dark just as much as those investigating the original incident were. But some may feel like the whole experience is a little anticlimactic.
Kholat is a genuinely creepy experience in a gorgeously eerie, isolated game-world. Navigating around is tough but rewarding, and fleeing from world events and angry spirits gets your heart racing and palms sweaty just like any good horror game should. A few technical flaws do little for immersion, and saves/checkpoints are distributed far too infrequently. The story is intriguing, but seems to raise just as many questions as it answers, and the whole thing can be wrapped up in under four hours, which for £15, represents some questionable value for money.
Fans of the narrative exploration genre and those that love a good conspiracy would do well to give Khloat a look, but the ratio of cost to playtime will understandably leave some prospective players, with cold feet.
Our Kholat review code was kindly supplied by the developer.