I think we need to begin with disclosure: I’m not a fan of horror games. I don’t dislike them, but it’s not a genre I personally enjoy. So now you’re asking “well why are you reviewing a horror game?”. It’s simple! I was provided the key because nobody else on our team could get it done in a timely fashion. The reason I’m telling you this is as follows: I respect your time as an audience and the efforts of the developers. I have worked on the Kholat Review for roughly five hours, perhaps a little more, at this point and I can see why a horror game enthusiast WOULD enjoy it, but it simply didn’t gel with me for reasons beyond its genre. Having disclosed all that I feel I need to, if you’re looking for coverage that suits you as a fan of horror games, you might enjoy one of Jim Sterling’s Squirty Plays or Cyber Tiger’s walk-through series covering the game, both of which were done during their time on Steam by two individuals that enjoy the genre.
If, at this point, you’d still like to read the perspective of a non-horror fan, please read on. There are definitive good points and justifiable, console specific frustrations. Let’s begin.
Kholat is a game inspired by a true story. A group of Russian students were killed in the 1950’s during a camping expedition in the mountains/woods. This is known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Some impressive voice acting is delivered via Sean Bean (we have no idea if he dies in this, too) in the introductory narrative and you appear in first-person on the screen after the static-image sequence in the opening. You begin the game as a character outside of a train car looking at what appears to be a school. From there you’re given no direction and the goal is to seek out your next place to be.
Throughout your journey, you’ll collect journal entries, diary logs and some extra information. The former of the two is delivered via audio and text, whereas the latter is text-only. The information you collect is genuinely intriguing, perhaps due to its investigation of a true mystery, and it can be collected in any order you wish.
As a result of the gameplay, which I’ll get to later, I may have only experienced half of the story first-hand. Perhaps you could say its a testament to the story that I sought out the missing pieces of the puzzle via YouTube. Honestly, I’m both glad I did and sad that I couldn’t stick with it to see it for myself in my own play-through. It seems left open to interpretation, and piecing together these snippets of information can lead you to several different conclusions from the supernatural to the more grounded perspective. Either way, it provides you with meaningful information whilst maintaining its mystique.
Look and Feel
Here we see a fine art style and great sound design let down by performance issues and poor death animations. I’ll gladly praise the development team for their ability to create an atmosphere that pierces through you as you play. Passing through a narrow chasm as the harsh wind whips past you in first person is isolating in the best way. You really feel lonely, but you’re not alone….
From the haunting vocal melody in the music that opens the game at the main menu to the anxiety-inducing tune that hits when there’s a disembodied spirit chasing you down, the whole soundscape was pretty great. The red-root trees of the forest and the pitch-black caves have intensity of their own and though there’s not exactly a lot going on, what is there is quite pleasant to behold. I enjoyed a brief moment as night fell, staring at the full moon between the snow-capped rock formations.
That said, try to run at you’ll soon be met with a great deal of slow-down. Perhaps that’s why the team made it so difficult to run in the first place, which isn’t a joy in its own right. I experienced some seriously choppy frame-rates in my time with the game, footage of which I have stored should anybody like to challenge that point. I can’t speak for whether or not this is a console specific issue, but its an issue either way. It breaks the immersion, especially given the fact that certain points in the game force you to move quickly. It tends to happen in the more cramped spaces. I wandered in to a cave with water falling down and, as I approached the make-shift waterfall, the game struggled to keep up.
I could nit-pick about the lack of arms and legs, though I can hear my steps in the snow despite having no feet, but those things don’t impact the overall experience. What DOES cause a bother is the way that you die. If a spirit-spook (not a real name) spots you and catches you, it just lunges. Granted, it’s a scary moment and difficult to escape once in the line-of-sight, but it’s not what I’d expect of a horror game. You’d think this moment would be used to make you truly FEAR being caught, but it only eventually led to pure frustration, not to mention a 45 second (timed) loading screen every time you meet your maker.
So overall? A fantastic atmosphere is marred by performance issues and long loading times between deaths. You could, of course, be good enough not to die, but evading the Tango Man’s ghost can be a tedious experience.
The gameplay takes the minimalist approach, leaving you unarmed and unable to fight back against threats you MAY encounter. These threats are few and far between, and this mechanic lends to the fear you’re supposed to be feeling, so I’m fine with that. What bothered me was the overall approach to the game.
It’s clear that the team designed this to be a free-roaming, open-ended exploration-type of game. You can walk anywhere in the area at any time and uncover the mysteries at your own pace. The problem, then, is that walking around just isn’t interesting to me. I wandered and wandered, coming across interesting backdrops and logs, but though I thought I’d been doing quite well in carving my own path at first, I eventually got turned around and lost myself in the woods. At this point, frustration set in. I ended up back in the first place you reach as you begin the game, making my way to areas I hadn’t been, getting lost again, and repeating the process. This is mostly due to the choice of compass and map navigation. I appreciate that it’s an old-school approach, faithful to the time period, but you can’t even see your own position on the map. What madness is this!? Don’t turn figuring out where I am in to a puzzle. It’s an absolute waste of my time and ultimately led to me dropping the game entirely. This came as a result of a shack I’d found at one point. I’d managed to approach this shack without fail, only to find that its not accessible from the ground level I’m at. I had no idea how to reach the upper-section and in my confusion, I’m killed by a tango, thus throwing me back to the last campsite I’d found. This happened several times before I eventually went on an anger-venting sprint. This sprint lasted 3 seconds because my character became exhausted, and swiftly met its end once more at the hands of another glorified lava-lamp. I eventually returned to the central stone pillars at the beginning of the game once more and admitted defeat. Exploring this world is simple a nuisance and I refuse to engage with it again, no matter how immersive the world itself is. It might be horror done right, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable experience to play directly. Watching this game is far more entertaining.
Of course, if you’re in to all of this, figuring out your position on the map and reaching the co-ordinates marked in the top left may interest you. It’s a matter of perspective at that point, and whilst I see how these mechanics achieve their personal goals, I feel there are elements that only served to hinder the experience. The simple ability to see where I actually am when I open the map would do wonders to improve my opinion on the game, but to others, it might take something away from it.
Outside of my personal experience, there are some console-specific control issues. The crouch ability, helping you avoid detection and navigate tight spaces, is mapped to the circle button on the Playstation 4. That’d be fine, if you didn’t have to control the camera via the right-stick with the same thumb. This led to some superb finger-gymnastics on a regular basis. Lastly, the sprint option suffers from a similar issue. You have to hold the left stick in to run. I don’t know if you’ve held the left stick in lately, but it’s genuinely uncomfortable. The developers have done so much to deter you from running in this game, to the point of causing physical thumb damage. A mafia-like tactic. I almost respect it. Both of these issues could be solved by turning the hold-in mechanic in to a toggle mechanic. Let me click circle to crouch and click again to rise. Let me click the left thumb stick in to sprint until I’m out of stamina. It won’t take long, I assure you.
This review may come down to a matter of personal taste. This is a good horror experience, but it’s not a good game. I couldn’t help but consider how much more effective this might be in VR, but that wouldn’t fix the problems that plague its performance and control options on console. Some minor fixes could improve this product a great deal, but right now, I can’t recommend actually playing it as opposed to the myriad of choices at your fingertips to watch it being played.
Review Format: Playstation 4