|Release: June 8th, 2015|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Angelo M. D’Argenio
A new genre of game has cropped up in the last few years: the exploration game. These are games like Dear Esther, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Gone Home, and to a lesser extent Journey and Amnesia. Exploration games focus less on mechanics and more on setting and narrative, expressing their story by allowing you to wander around the game world and slowly piece together the events that happened their prior to your arrival.
Kholat is the latest to experiment with this genre, and like Amnesia, it mixes elements of horror into its formula. However, unlike Amnesia, which was largely about navigating your way around a mansion and the catacombs within through use of stealth and puzzle solving, Kholat is something more along the lines of Slender, dropping you into a large open landscape and asking you to explore the world while simultaneously avoiding death. It’s a formula that is functional and certainly shows some promise for future games, but Kholat itself stumbles over some simple flaws in pacing and design that can make it difficult to push through an otherwise well designed horror experience.
Kholat is based around the Dylatov Pass incident, which is one of the world’s weirdest true to life unsolved mysteries. In short, in 1959 nine hikers accidentally veered off course during a ski trek in Russia, and found themselves heading up a mountain called Kholat Syakhi, a name which roughly translates into “Dead Mountain.” The group realized their mistake and decided to camp for the night before getting back on course. Instead, three weeks later, they were found dead, their tent slashed open from the inside, their belongings scattered everywhere, the corpses nearly naked in a climate that demanded multiple layers to stave off the cold. Some corpses were even missing their eyes and tongues.
In short, it’s really creepy.
Kholat places you in control of someone that is looking to trace the steps of this doomed expedition. This is an incredible concept, but it’s also Kholat’s first stumbling block. It is never quite clear who you are or why you want to investigate this strange happening. It’s never quite clear what your goal is aside from checking out the spooky environments surrounding Dylatov Pass incident, and as a result you, the player, find yourself lacking motivation, especially when you are asked to force yourself to trek into dangerous and most likely haunted territory.
Kholat excels at creating a terrifying atmosphere. It knows horror inside and out. This isn’t a game where monsters jump scare you at every turn. This is a game where you feel lonely, helpless, stuck outside in a world which will kill simply because it’s too cold to live. Add supernatural elements on top of that and you always feel like you are teetering on the edge of death, or possibly worse.
The horror saturated atmosphere is partially owed to the fantastic graphics the game has to offer. The lighting and weather effects are stunning. The way light reflects off walls, casting shadows that move in your peripheral vision so as to make you constantly feel as if someone is watching you, is just brilliant. Later in the game when you encounter dark caves, frozen waterfalls, burned down forests, and abandoned campsites, you will spend plenty of time simply “investigating” by looking around you. Your surroundings themselves tell a story, and the attention to detail in this game make the Dylatov Pass Incident come alive in a horrifying way.
Snow is also a huge part of the game, and the use of this simple weather effect alone sets most of the tone. Snow can fall as a simple flurry or as a barrage of white blocking out the world around you. It also produces a fantastic dichotomy between the otherwise detailed world and the white void that snow creates. In a way, snow comes to symbolize the unknown, a sort of mark that is showing you that you are approaching something beyond your knowledge and well outside you power to control.
And you are completely powerless. You have no way to fight or defend yourself. You can only explore and run, and you feel completely helpless while doing so.
While it’s important to get that helpless feeling across in horror games like this, Kholat manages to outdo itself. It's actually too scary for its own good. Without sufficient character motivation, like the letter sent to James in Silent Hill 2 or the amnesia in Amnesia, the first sign of danger makes you want to say, “screw this! I’m not going to risk my life for curiosity!”
Early on you find a map, but this isn’t any sort of break the fourth wall video game map. Kholat treats its map like it’s honestly just a piece of paper. The only way to tell if you are getting close to where you need to go is by looking around you and cross referencing it with the map. You have a compass which can help you figure out what direction you are traveling, and every so often you’ll receive coordinates pointing you something important, but you never get anything as useful as a “you are here” marker or a waypoint that you can see in the distance on an on-screen HUD.