|Box Art N/A|
|Release Date Jun 9, 2015|
As premises go, the mystery of what happened on Kholat Syakhl is a very strong starting point for Kholat.
In the winter of 1959, a group of hikers set out to explore the frozen expanse of Russia's Ural Mountains and never returned. When a search party found their bodies, they discovered a horrifying mystery. The hikers appeared to have cut their way out of their tent from the inside, fleeing into the bitter cold without even taking the time to put their clothes on.
Despite suffering horrific internal injuries, none of the hikers showed any outwards signs of struggle. What happened on the mountain range was never explained - locals spun tales of glowing lights flying over the mountain, and rumours spread that the bodies had been found radioactive, with patches of orange skin across their torsos.
Developed by Polish indie developer IMGN.pro, a small studio whose short history has seen them work mainly on truck simulators and space marine shooters, Kholat makes a valiant stab at taking a real-life disaster and capturing the bleak atmosphere it embodies. But the key question is how many design misgivings I was willing to overlook in order to focus on what the game was doing right. From convoluted plot threads and out of place supernatural elements to sparse checkpointing and instant death elements, Kholat is a game that had so much potential, but made some baffling design decisions that left me longing for the grounded, solitary adventure that could have been.
Kholat begins at the bottom of the mysterious mountain, with no direction other than to explore and climb. IMGN.pro nails atmosphere and tone from the get-go. From the haunting soundtrack to the sounds of howling winds, the unrelenting blasts of snow, and the reduced visibility, Kholat makes superb use of its setting to craft a world I wanted to explore.
With little to no direction given I would pick out a marker I could barely make out, like the light of a radio tower or the outline of a church spire, and begin to trek across the snowy landscape. The lack of visibility and a minimal number of obvious paths caused me to lose my bearings often, but this added to the sense that I was exploring a world that even experienced hikers would struggle to safely navigate.
Kholat pulls off this successful visual storytelling and finds effective signposting with its stunning art direction. Campsites half buried in banks of snow and map locations scratched into the side of rocks lend to the sense that this was a world that was explored, but by people who were possibly not prepared for what they would encounter.
This lends the narrative a lot of initial promise. Plot is teased with glimpses of hiker diaries and personal belongings found within tents. Kholat's voice talent also does a fantastic job with convincing performances. Sean Bean in particular turns in some great voice work, which is made all the more impressive by an otherwise weak script.
These weaknesses quickly spread elsewhere. Mystical plot points are introduced early on which feel out of place when juxtaposed with more grounded elements. It felt incredibly odd to read a heartfelt note about a hiker's family one minute, only to turn a corner and see magical floating fire boulders that somehow went unnoticed at the foot of the mountain.
Kholat's plot deteriorates into a growing mess of more supernatural exposition. The conclusions drawn by characters are convoluted at best and the ending raises more questions than it answers. More distractingly, the game's text is full of incorrect grammar and dodgy sentence structure, which is only compounded when the subtitles on screen fail to match up with what the voice actors are actually saying.
It wouldn't be impossible to ignore some of these problems. Traversing Kholat's hellish snowscape was rewarding on my terms and at my own pace. But the game seemed intent on forcing me to retread the same ground until it became a familiar and stale obstacle.
A large number of supernatural orange ghost men are also traversing the mountain with you, attacking and killing you in one hit on sight. You have no way to defend yourself from them. If they see you then you're back to the last save point.
The rules for these ghostly figures deciding to attack made no sense to me. Sometimes I could stand in plain sight and they would be completely unworried about my presence. Other times I would hide behind a rock and they'd pounce on me regardless.
Compounding this issue was the fact that the game only saves when you happen to find a diary page from one of the missing hikers and these can be few and far between. Sometimes I would make up to thirty minutes of progress exploring the mountain, only to be killed by a supernatural ghost man who seemingly saw me through a wall of solid rock. While I loved the exploration the first time through, when you're playing a thirty minute segment for the third time it feels less like exploration and more like I was being needlessly gated from progression.
Kholat's ambitions are driven off-course
Kholat's narrative exploration is ambitious, and the real world base for its plot, the recreation of exploring a bewildering and unforgiving landscape and the audio-visual design were all superb. But for what it gets right, the mounting flaws in its design only become more evident and distracting. Kholat does so many things right; the fact it went this far off track left me longing for a grounded, solitary experience that IMGN.pro clearly never intended it to be.
Kholat was reviewed using a Steam key provided by IMGN.pro. You can find additional information on Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews