Scary walking simulator.
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Disclaimer: Copy provided by the developer/publisher
Available on: Steam
I love horror. At least when it comes in the form of movies or written stories. And this might surprise some people, but I genuinely lack any positive sentiment towards horror games. The reasons for this are manifold. For one, most horror games rely heavily on jump-scares. And that’s not horror. It’s startling to see a freakish monstrosity jump out at you while your ears get assaulted by a string orchestra going through a meat grinder, yes. But it’s not scary and it’s not horror.
Another reason why horror and games don’t gel for me is that games are interactive. I have agency and I dictate the pacing of a game. I can take my time and explore every nook and cranny, or I can just jog through the level. I simply still have too much control over the game even if I’m completely helpless. And the final reason why I don’t play many horror games is because I’m just staring at a black screen most of the time. Horror games use darkness as a weak setup to hide stuff from the player in order to then build in jump-scares. Again, not horror. Horror is a feeling of underlying dread you get from being exposed to something.
So why did I voluntarily pick Kholat to write a review about? Well, first off it seemed to not engage in all of the tropes mentioned above. Your surroundings are mostly well-lit, it rarely uses jump-scares and when it does, it makes sense within the universe. And lastly, it manages to setup an eerie atmosphere from the very start. It accomplishes this with the fact that it’s an adaptation of a real event that took place in the Ural Mountains in 1959 when a group of alpinists were killed in an unexplained event called the Dyatlov Pass incident. If you want to look it up, it’s a great read and it has all the ingredients to make an absorbing adaptation out of it. Because of its unresolved nature you can spin any yarn you want out of it. And it’s an incident that hasn’t been widely covered a dozen times by other, bigger productions.
The plot of the game takes you to Kholat Syakhl, literally “Dead Mountain”, where you retrace the events in search of an explanation. Armed only with a map, a compass and a flashlight, you set out to traverse the mountains in search for newspaper articles, diary entries and other reports to uncover the mystery of the incident. And you obviously do it all by night.
If you read the above paragraph and thought to yourself “This sounds an awful lot like the Slenderman games”, you’d be in the correct ballpark. You’re running through the wilderness in search of a variety of documents. And there isn’t really much that’s chasing you throughout most of it. Where Kholat manages to really become scary is with its atmosphere. And it does so without artificially putting you in a dark environment. The mountains are brightly lit by a full moon and your flashlight – should you ever need to use it in the bright environments – has no annoying degrading battery that for some reason runs out in five minutes real time.
No, what makes Kholat scary is the fact that it manages to invoke a haunting claustrophobia. Even though ironically most of it takes place outside in the wide open mountain range. Maybe this is a particularly subjective observation on my part, but my favorite horror stories – The Shining, The Thing, At The Mountains Of Madness – all take place in remote, wintry environments, in which the location and the weather themselves are equally as eerie and threatening to the protagonists as the horror that stalks them. The feeling of isolation probably resonates with me a lot for some reason. All that makes me appreciate Kholat far more than most other horror games and it meant I could be fully immersed in its world.
It would’ve been too good to believe however if the game were an atmospheric mood piece for the player to experience without encountering hostility. During our excursions we cross paths with a bunch of specters who aren’t particularly fond of us wandering around. Encounters with them usually only last a couple of seconds, since directly engaging them leads to death. Running away is only a semi-viable option, since running in deep snow is very tiring for our character and they usually manage to catch up.
Besides this, the game does have a few more drawbacks to it. First and foremost, the game contains very little actual gameplay. It’s largely a very literal example of a walking simulator. In addition to that, the game doesn’t give the player a lot of direction. This is especially a problem at the very start of the game. We begin the game at a deserted village without any indication of where we’re supposed to go. The player has to bring his own hunger for exploration in order to eventually find the correct path to the tent where the alpinists found their ends.
But even prior to that, the game puts another obstacle in our way. We find ourselves in a blinding snowstorm in which we’re supposed to find the actual camp of the victims. The whole screen is white, you can barely make out where the ground stops and the blizzard begins, though luckily after a bit of aimlessly wandering around and eventually finding the tent, the weather clears up.
However this lack of direction turns into a strength later on in the game. When we receive the map of the mountain range, a bunch of geographic coordinates have been written onto it. Though you’ll have to figure out where they are yourself, because specific locations only get added to the map once you’ve found them. What turns this relatively simple objective into a challenge is the fact that your own position doesn’t get marked on the map. You’ll have to use the compass and the map itself to keep track of where you are, so it’s vitally important that you don’t become lost.
What enhances the already dense atmosphere of the game is both the phenomenal soundtrack as well as the voice-acting. Sean Bean in particular manages to set the mood very effectively with his calm, soothing voice. But also the rest of the voice-acting that’s used to read the messages you find to you is very good.
People who like jump-scare fests like Five Nights At Freddies or Outlast probably won’t find much to enjoy here. But I can definitely recommend the title to players who like subtle, introspective horror that is more concerned with building atmosphere and a feeling of dread rather than constant tension. With the caveat that Kholat is rather lacking in the gameplay department and unfortunately, the ending doesn’t provide much closure and at less than four hours – even though the developer claims it takes longer to beat – maybe it’s a bit short for what they’re asking.