Kholat PC Review
We have been seeing an increase in “atmospheric” games of late, or as they are better known by their player-created Steam tag, “Waking Simulator”; games like Dear Esther and Gone Home have made exploration the key element in their creations, where observation of sights and sounds take priority over a traditional gameplay goal. While this certainly increases the appreciation of videogames as an art form, it does bring a divisive sentiment from gamers who prefer a more clear-cut goal and those who enjoy taking their time to take in the sights.
Kholat, a Polish game by IMGN.PRO, is another one of these Walking Simulators built around a horror motif, which would be an ideal combination that has yet to reach its full potential. Some of the most revered horror titles such as Silent Hill have built their reputation on atmosphere and vague clues to their fictionalized lore. Kholat takes it a bit further by basing its story around the real life tragedy of the 1959 Dyatlov Pass Incident, where nine Polish hikers went missing and were found dead under mysterious circumstances. Theories ranged from the practical (an avalanche) to the supernatural (aliens). Guess which story Kholat is sticking to.
Players assume the role of a faceless protagonist tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of the hikers, which of course means running headlong into a frozen wilderness filled with steep cliffs, barely-functioning flashlights and ethereal horrors shuffling about in the distance. In true Survival Horror fashion, there are documents littered throughout the area that paint a vague picture on the narrative, though anyone playing on a TV screen will have to rely on the spoken narration of the notes, as the text will be far too microscopic to read on your own.
The first thing that is always noticeable with these type of games is the aesthetics, and Kholat certainly impresses with its framerate-killing Unreal 4 tech; flowing trees, pitch-black darkness and violent snowfalls are all displayed in loving detail, even if these are common backdrops in horror games. The sound design is also top-notch, particularly in the way it gets startled players to constantly turn the camera around with every wolf howl and spooky supernatural mutterings in the distance. On a technical level, Kholat has the makings of a gorgeous HD horror experience.
It’s just too bad that the actual game is a complete and utter bore. This is a common complaint with Walking Simulators that make it a niche category, where patient players are the ones who are the most rewarded with the experience. However, the purpose of a good horror game is to keep the players constantly on edge, where they at least feel that something may leap out at them at any time, even if logic tells them that they should be safe. The problem with Kholat is that the game is so aimless that players run the risk of falling asleep before ever coming across the next jump scare.
This is hampered largely by a lack of a functional map. The in-game map will display discovered landmarks and points of interest, but never shows the player’s current position. The included compass does little to assist with this cumbersome mechanic, as it only points in the direction of the campsite, meaning that the game expects you to retrace your steps to the central hub and work your way around the other areas. Realism has its place with creating an atmospheric experience, but only if it manages not to be an annoying chore.
Even should you cross paths with a glowing specter or two, the game offers no guidance on how to actually survive these encounters. On some occasions, stealth is required, on other occasions a hasty retreat. There is little context given on which situation requires which strategy, which means lots of repetitive deaths with the same sequences, another no-no in the Survival Horror handbook.
Simply put, Kholat fails to properly balance its moody aesthetics while keeping the player actively invested. It is yet another case of an experience that is beautiful to witness, but boring to actually engage in.