You are a lone individual heading to Kholat Syakhl (which translates to “dead mountain” in English). Your job is to investigate the disappearance and deaths of nine Russian college students who were found in random locations over the spawn of three to four months, all with little to no physical damage to their bodies. You are dropped off in a desolate town at the edge of the mountain outside of the Dyatlov Pass. Cold and with no clear direction on where to start, you head off into the snowy mountains hoping to find any clue or shelter before nightfall.
That is the setup for Kholat. A survival horror game out now on Steam, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4 from developer IMGN.PRO. The Steam version was released last year, while the PlayStation 3 and 4 versions were just released earlier this month. Developed on the Unreal Engine 4, Kholat seemed like a game that would hit all the right notes for me as a survival horror game. With a great mystery, a beautifully eerie, snowy atmosphere to explore, and an impending sense of dread at every corner, it seemed like a survival horror game made for me! Not only that, but it’s based off of a real mystery! Yeah, the part above explaining the nine missing kids in the Dyatlov Pass? That’s real! It’s a magnificent set up! Unfortunately, though, the game came close, but didn’t quite make it there.
Let’s cover the positives first. The game is absolutely gorgeous. The PlayStation 4 port doesn’t miss a beat in looking just as amazing as the Steam port did when it released last year. Aesthetically, the game does a brilliant job of building the dread and mystery you have been tasked with investigating. The music is creepy, but never overbearing or obvious. It makes you uncomfortable, but doesn’t pull the obnoxious trait that most survival horror games have of clanking loud objects together whenever a monster is near. It builds the slow tension perfectly throughout, while not giving away that a monster is running full speed at you while you aren’t looking. The graphics and lighting effects work perfectly in building the snowy world Kholat takes place in. If the graphic quality were lesser, it more than likely would have taken away from the exploration of the game, which is a major factor overall. The PlayStation 4 version also had no bugs, crashes, or glitches in my play-through. In today’s gaming market, that is always a positive. One last factor to mention is that actor Sean Bean narrates the game and does a tremendous job throughout.
Your goal is to search for notes that leave cryptic hints on what exactly is going on within the mountains. Using a map and compass as your only means of telling where you are, the search begins as you get the sense really quickly that you are not alone. Whatever is in these mountains more than likely killed the kids, and it is coming for you next. Now, this is where the game starts to falter in my mind. The concept of finding notes to piece together the mystery is fine. The execution of this in Kholat though is where I believe the game suffers.
The major problem is that at no point are you given a clear objective on where to go. You can easily get lost at the beginning of the game before you make it to your first tent. I can admit that I got lost, and it took me about thirty minutes to finally find the tent and receive the map and compass. While some people might enjoy the ambiguity of where to go and what to do, a little more direction could have helped the game tremendously. The lack of direction also leads into the other main issue of Kholat, which is its pacing. The game can get pretty boring after whatever is chasing you is revealed. That’s not to say the monsters aren’t scary; they are. But after running into them multiple times, the fear factor begins to diminish. With this, the pacing of the game begins to become very boring as the hunt for notes isn’t enough to keep your interest, especially later on into the game where the ground between notes is much bigger than earlier.
The last aspects to mention are the story and its endings. The story has a tricky goal ahead of itself to begin with: mixing fiction to a real life mystery. While Sean Bean’s narration does a good job at building the mystery along with the notes, the first ending is very underwhelming. The second ending, though, which you receive for collecting all the notes, is much better. It’s left ambiguous for the player to ponder, but it does it in a great way. You believe that both options could be the truth and have validity to them, and the game ends on a particularly haunting note to drive home both sides of the argument that the second ending is presenting to you. While I did find it tedious at points to go after all the notes, I do appreciate that the game gave the player a great payoff for taking the time to explore the world and find all the notes.
Kholat has a lot going for it. It manages to build tension and suspense utilizing a real-life mystery, while adding to it in the video game format. Amazing graphics, art design, and music all lend to a true sense of fear and dread while playing the game. I just ultimately wish the game was better paced and threw more at me in terms of trying to scare me. It’s not perfect, but if you really enjoy survival horror, Kholat is a solid game to turn off the lights and explore the world it has created… or you can film yourself jumping and screaming for your Let’s Play channel.
FINAL SCORE: 6.5
Working off a real life mystery
Sean Bean, and he doesn’t die
Great reward for exploration
Well executed ambiguous ending
No bugs or glitches
Ambiguity on what your supposed to do at times
First ending is garbage
Not enough enemy variety