If you’ve been following the development of indie horror game Kholat from IMGN.PRO, you may know that the game’s backstory is based on a real incident that took place in the Ural Mountains of Northwestern Russian. This event, known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident after the leader of the hiking expedition, resulted in the mysterious deaths of the entire party. Nine hikers in all perished, with their bodies found in groups, the first five of which were confirmed as cases of hypothermia.
The final four bodies provided for a much more disturbing and interesting story. They all had various blunt force injuries that would result from something akin to a high-speed car collision. Yet, all of their injuries were internal — their bodies showing no signs of outward impact — save for one victim who was found to be missing her tongue, eyes and lips, amongst other injuries. Oh yeah… and some of their clothing was found to be highly radioactive. It’s a strange and unnerving story.
With the incident occurring in 1959, and given Russia’s secretive nature following World War II and through the Cold War, not much is known about the incident and the investigation which followed, other than that the case remained essentially unsolved. Since that time various pieces have been written on the event, and the theories range from those completely unsubstantiated by the evidence, like an avalanche, to the Cold War conspiracies of hidden military bases with biological and/or nuclear weapons testing and onto the truly absurd like alien attacks.
The strange happening was even given the supernatural film treatment by director Renny Harlin, though I would recommend only checking it out if you really get sucked into weird mysteries such as these, as I do, and are looking for additional perspectives or fantastic tales — the film is rather mediocre, with a rushed, nonsensical, though truly creepy final 20 minutes. Now, the Dyatlov Incident receives the gaming treatment in the form of Kholat.
My keys to establishing a quality horror and/or suspense experience are best represented in environment and sound design. Story comes next, but for the purposes of this review, take the historical background shared here, and imagine a lone person, heading back to the site where it all happened to investigate. To go much further than that would be to spoil the experience.
The first key, the environment, is really the heart of what makes the game and the event so creepy. That something so strange happens in a place so devoid of life – so desolate and removed from civilization is half the chill… the rest of that chill is the sub-arctic temperatures and blizzard like conditions. The temperature makes movement and the oxygen use it requires, something very short in measure. The constantly blowing wind and sideways snows, limits visibility and blocks out sound, leaving no alert for quiet danger and no way to see it coming until it’s far too close for comfort.
Our warnings come in the sounds of crumbling rocks, or the wooshing that suddenly cracks through the wind to announce a presence has joined us. Similarly we will hear the lone cries of the ghosts of the past, or the demons of the present. Aside from that our sounds are quite limited. This leaves our experience in this snowblinded and frozen landscape to be colored by atmospheric music and tones. There are moments of strings, and the occasional dissonant piano keys. What the player needs to focus on is the volume. If the strings start to become louder — and they will do so, becoming downright ominous in their approach — it probably means you need to get moving.
The other common sound players will hear is the voice of Sean Bean at specific points throughout their journey. IMGN.PRO’s choice to use Bean was an excellent one. Particularly to the American ear, his British tone embodies an authority and weight that become increasingly frightening as his delivered monologues progress throughout the game. His is not the only voice we hear. There are journal readings of a hiker and an investigator that are well written and provide a greater sense of foreboding, and later on, terror as they fill in more of our story.
Gameplay is rather simplistic, and yet some gamers are going to have difficulty, especially at first. You’ll either feel like an idiot for not being able to effectively read a map and compass, or you’ll be quite happy that mom and dad sent you to the scouts, or that you took the initiative to learn this most basic, yet potentially life-saving skill. Whichever of those things you end up feeling, you’ll probably find some frustration regardless, as Kholat’s paths will twist in and out and seemingly push you away from where you thought you were going. Simply check the map after discovering notes (think slender man pages as journal entries) and you’ll eventually be able to get your bearings.
The slow movement speed will feel grating at times, but it’s definitely a specific device representative of the game’s environment and a tool that aids in tension building. There were many times where I wanted to jump or crawl through openings that were obviously something that would be doable in a real-world settings, but closed off to me in Kholat as a barrier to somewhat inflate the amount of time it takes to get from point A to B. This is fine as a mechanic, it’s just slightly discouraging to not be able to pull yourself up on a 2-foot ledge, or climb a simple rock to crawl through a wide hole and reach an objective that is tangibly 20 feet away, but which the game will force you to hike miles around to reach.
Despite it’s abandoned and isolated setting there is an intense beauty in Kholat’s mountains. The night and the snow will swallow up any hint of greenery in the mostly buried and frozen trees. At first, players may find themselves wishing for dashes of color sprinkled into the swirling ice and snow. Instead, they will quickly learn to appreciate the silence and frozen particulates — the orange mists that approach bring hell and fury with them and lit torches lead you towards more ominous discoveries. Run if you can into the relative safety of the blizzard, but do keep your eye out for the odd campfire as these and finding notes are your only chance to save progress.
This will be your experience in Kholat. Attempt to find the new path, the new journal entries; perhaps a map coordinate burned into mountain rocks will provide a clue. Flee one objective to the next as the disturbing story unfolds around you accompanied by a cloud of terror, as it seeks to reset itself. The game excels at the creepy, but struggles somewhat mechanically and story-wise. Kholat is an artistic piece of horror gaming, relying on suspense in lieu of gore.
If that’s something you appreciate, then this is an experience you will most likely enjoy, doing so in 2-4 hours of playtime. There will most likely be notes you miss along the way, displayed as empty outlines within your journal, which may provide some incentive to return to the game and fill in the final blanks. Other than that, this isn’t going to be providing much in the way of replay. What it does provide is a disturbing, beautifully minimal, tension-filled experience that has enough real-world ties to provide that unsettling, hair standing up on the back of your neck feeling.
Much like the titular being in John Carpenters The Thing, though manifested in vastly different ways, Kholat’s growing fear comes from not knowing when or where the antagonist will appear. As Bean himself says in the game, he could be, “right behind you”.
Reviewed on PC. A copy of Kholat was provided by the developer for review.