In 1959, a group of hiking enthusiasts embarked on a trek across a stretch of the Ural Mountains in then Soviet Union territory. Their cause was born simply out of their adventurous spirits. They were trained backpackers seeking commendations from fellow hobbyists. What began as a challenging journey would ultimately cost nine of them their lives. The death toll itself would already be newsworthy, but it was amplified by the mysterious circumstances that surrounded their deaths and the scene of their last freezing breaths. Their tent was cut open from the inside as if they were in a hurry. They were found dead in small groups several hundred feet from one another, some of them having been stripped during or after their final moments to clothe the others, some of whom even fled barefoot. One of the deceased hikers even lost her tongue, eyes, and part of her lips.
The grotesque scene remains a mystery to this day, with their cause of death officially being credited to only an "unknown compelling force". Each theory — avalanche, wildlife, government tests, extraterrestrials — has its own holes that can't be resolved. The events of Kholat
revolve closely around this tragic true story and offer up its own dark explanation. If you believe all that sounds like a great premise, I would agree, which is why it's so disheartening to see that potential squandered. Kholat
is told through a first-person horror adventure framework. Players take on the role of an unknown observer who arrives at the Ural Mountains to explore the area. The game remains deliberately vague regarding when its events actually take place, which is par for the course throughout the game. The narration, performed by Sean Bean, doesn't do much to clarify things. It wants to seep itself in mystery. It looks to confuse players, and it mostly succeeds, but the confusion comes at the cost of even its own merits as a narrative. Despite having gone into the game already fascinated with the Dyatlov Pass Incident, as it's today known, I was stunned to see just how little intrigue the game manages to foster, especially given that it combines my two favorite genres.
The first sign that something may be amiss with Kholat
comes very early into the game. The first scene, billed Act I, takes all of about three minutes to move through before the game is remarkably on to Act II which is where the bulk of the game takes place. It seems illogical to structure the game into three acts — the third act comes right at the end of the game too — when almost nothing happens in the bookended acts other than a final revealing cutscene at the end and a few minutes of walking in the introduction. It's an odd choice and one that could signify a troubled game, though it would not guarantee it. Unfortunately, the rest of the game delivers more of the same structural and narrative issues throughout its roughly three to five-hour playtime.
Kholat Dyatlov Pass and video games should be peanut butter and jelly...
utilizes minor survival mechanics in that you are armed only with a map, compass, and flashlight. Your stamina is Alan Wake-poor and the map is particularly unforgiving, never identifying with an icon where you are. Instead, the game gives players a sequence of coordinates to visit and as you head off at the start of Act II in any direction you please, it's up to you to literally find your bearings. Sometimes coordinates will be seen on rocks and cliffsides which go a long way to determining exactly where you are, but even then it's very hard to find your way around. It's a short game, so it's possible you could beat it in one sitting, but if not it can also become annoying to reorient yourself when returning to the game perhaps hours or days later.
When you do find notes or campsites, the game saves and marks them on your map, again further assisting you in getting a lay of the land. Unfortunately, such moments can come too far between one another, which means the game's dizzyingly one-note landscape and hostile (though laughable) enemies can be a huge burden on players who might die after a lot of progress that just didn't involve registering an autosave. Even sprinting is a pain as it doesn't allow for toggling. If you want to sprint you have to hold down the left stick while moving it forward, which anyone who's played a game before will tell you is bad design. Call it survival mechanics if you'd like. More often losing your way and losing your progress so easily are each just aggravating.
...but in this case it's more like onions and oranges.
The notes and narration never come around to deliver a story worthy of its setup. Other media have tried their hand at telling compelling Dyatlov Pass stories to varying levels of success, but it's notable to consider video games as perhaps the most native medium to telling a successful story based on the incident and yet Kholat
squanders it all away through convoluted monologues and tedious design. It alleges itself a horror game of sorts, but beyond a moody opening score Kholat
is one of the farthest off-the-mark attempts at being scary.
There are fleeting moments that reveal what might have been, like when you do find your way out of the repetitive terrain and into unique areas like a cabin, a burned forest, and a collapsed building. These areas are always central to the story and try to mix up the simple mechanics just slightly, and they always make it feel like this game could've been memorable if such moments weren't so few and far between, or if the enemies posed any real threat other than annoying instant deaths — or if the story captured the essence of its subject matter. There are a lot of 'ifs' with Kholat
Achievement hunters will at least be pleased. The game isn't a difficult completion with a guide — and there are already many given that the game has come to Xbox much later than other platforms. Story related unlocks will get you about half of the game's 20 achievements, while the rest mostly go to collectibles and seeing the game's "real ending
". Like a lot of bad games with quick lists, Kholat
takes not skill but just patience for its sub-five hour completion.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident is one of the most fascinating real life horror stories of the last century. It's a topic built to be adapted to different forms of media, arguably video games more than any other. Somehow Kholat
is given this head start and trips all over itself. The story fails to take off while the gameplay only serves to annoy. It's never scary, save for a theme song that even then is played so often that it loses its effect. Horror and walking sims are my two favorite genres in the medium, but Kholat
serves as another unfortunate reminder that they don't belong together.
- May intrigue those familiar with the true story
- Not scary in the slightest
- Structural concerns galore
- Feels quite aimless
- Squanders a great premise
The reviewer spent four hours in the Ural Mountains, usually lost and never scared. Nine of 20 achievements were awarded for 315 gamerscore. A copy was provided by the publisher for this review.