Winter isn’t the same anymore with snow being mostly replaced by rain, but IMGN.pro‘s exploration adventure game Kholat brings it back with a vengeance while adding its own twist to the survival horror genre.
Following the trail of a group of students who got lost and suffered unexplained deaths in the northern Ural Mountains, an unnamed protagonist loses himself more and more in the mystery surrounding the area.
Distorted reality fragments
Being based on real events in which nine Russian college students went missing in February 1959 on Kholat Syakhl and were later found dead under mysterious circumstances is a great starting point for a horror game. Having a nameless protagonist who doesn’t even talk doesn’t seem like a good choice at first, and with the disconnected story only delivered in notes and by a strange voice that narrates in poem-like imagery doesn’t help much either. However, the sense of being lost translates well to the harsh environment the player finds himself in. If the developer’s goal was to create utter confusion, then it definitely succeeds. Strange lights and murmuring, indistinguishable voices in the distance, piles of bones in caves and flags paving the way to a path ghostly lit with torches are as weird and unexplained as the story’s beginning and ending.
Losing sense of direction and mind
Piecing together the obscure information fragments found in notes and in various newspaper articles which are about military experiments and mental illness is another great way to immerse the player, although finding these is far from easy. Their coordinates are scribbled down on a map that doesn’t show the player’s location, so the only way to navigate through the mountainous region with all its interconnected caves is to get to grips with a compass and figure out rock formations or track down the light of fire places. The latter can later be used to fast travel, but walking far distances still takes up most of the play time.
Even if all the locations marked on the map are essential to progress, the order in which they are discovered doesn’t matter, making for a very open-world experience. Of course this could mean that one reads about a certain topic that was introduced in another piece of information. As diary entries aren’t in any chronological order, this doesn’t become a problem, though. To enjoy the game one should be prepared to make up one’s own mind about all the findings and explore the surroundings which have even more coordinates written on rocks which lead to more background story pieces.
Unseen deadly ghosts from the past
The game doesn’t offer any puzzles to solve and simply requires the player to keep a keen eye and ear on the environment. Listening to the sound of fluttering paper also helps to find the various pages scattered around, as the coordinates aren’t always reliable. A very frustrating part in addition to orientation problems are the ghostly apparitions which can suddenly show up without warning. Of course this creates tension, as saving a game is only possible in fireplaces which are often very far away from the places one has to go in order to find the relevant pages. But having them crop up out of nowhere is simply unfair. Even when they can be seen in the form of footprints in the snow, it becomes very difficult to escape them once they detect the player. Just like SOMA, this jump scare tactic works against the atmosphere that is constantly built up by the sheer scale of the environment and brooding sound design.
Realistic vistas and dreamlike sounds
The photorealistic textures on buildings, cave surfaces and the snow-covered ground as well as the physics of slowly or fast falling snow are as amazing as the interplay between light and shadows. The art direction is breathtakingly beautiful, as it creates a dreamlike and realistic atmosphere that has to be experienced first hand and is difficult to describe in words. Looking far into the distance and knowing one can reach all these high or low places adds as much to the atmosphere as the melancholic piano pieces or moody string music that is complemented by some creepy sound design and atmospheric chorus parts. In addition, the narration by actor Sean Bean gives the indie title an even more emotional impact, although the volume of these auditory parts could have been higher, as they’re often lost with the howling of the wind.
A work of art and historical horror
Kholat isn’t an easy game to recommend. First, there’s not much else to do other than walking through a wasteland of ice and snow and finding documents. Secondly, the protagonist remains as much of a mystery as the story. Thirdly, the savegame system and enemy encounters are as frustrating as the obscure map. However, despite all these problems, it’s a unique if very short experience of 4-6 hours simply because of the spectacular graphics and gripping atmosphere. It might leave open too many questions and could have done with a bit more narrative, but as an experiment that tries to emulate the desperation and isolation one feels when being confronted with a situation one can’t grasp, it succeeds and gives a depiction of the real events as accurately as possible.
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