I’d never heard of the Dyatlov Pass Incident before playing Kholat. Movies, books, and now video games have drawn from its horrific premise to wonder in horror at what happened to those 9 hikers whose bodies were discovered in such strange states of misfortune. From missing eyes and tongue, to internal damage without sufficient external evidence of force, to higher than usual levels of radiation on their clothes, the reports surrounding the incident contain plenty of fodder for horror writers and conspiracy theorists alike.
Kholat, named after the mountain (Kholat Syakhl) where the terrifying events of 1959 took place, puts you on that very mountainside, with the purpose of retreading the hiking trails where the victims met their demise. The story is told through diary pages, laboratory notes, secret government files and unsettling voice-overs. Thankfully, this primary method of storytelling is accompanied by some of the most competent voice acting in recent video game history. The team even managed to score Sean Bean as the primary narrator, and at times the acting leaves the player genuinely shaken.
There’s a constant sense of dread, as footfalls in deep snow echo around empty mountain crevices. Headphones are a necessity if you really want to get on board with the atmosphere. The sound design is absolutely stunning. Faint echoes, falling snow, creaking branches, and occasional, well-deployed silence create a constant sense of isolation. It’s just you and the monsters.
I completed the main story segments, as well as collected most of the additional notes scattered around the mountainside in just two sittings, and that seems to me like the optimal way to experience Kholat. Three to five hours might not seem like much for ~$20, but the moment to moment tension and gorgeous scenery made my experience memorable. Completionists might get a few more hours out of Kholat, but with the winding tracks, broken bridges, and a vague map, I’d imagine the experience might deteriorate quickly.
That’s not to say that it isn’t worthwhile getting lost in these mountains. They’re full of visual metaphor, jump scares, mystery and madness, and despite most of the game taking place in a snowy blizzard, there’s enough diversity to the environments that you’ll still gasp every few minutes at the luscious designs. An ever-present full moon, and a near-endless supply of interesting crags make for glorious screenshots. The occasional structure usually only offers false hope of sanctuary from the ghouls that haunt you.
The Polish developers seem to have taken a leaf out of their compatriots’ book, as the environmental detail, disquieting atmosphere, and detective-style narrative-collecting feel almost identical to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Kholat’s advantage is in its increased density of “events”. Unlike Ethan’s sparsely littered clues, Kholat provides a fluttering letter or ghostly encounter every few minutes. Using the navigation tools is essential, but should you just pick a trail to follow, you’ll rarely be disappointed. Where Kholat falls short is in the content of those chunks of narrative. Although the voice acting is wonderful, there are very few visual accompaniments beside the otherworldly horrors that pursue you after the key pieces are discovered. Kholat fails to adequately address the assertions it makes, and as such, it is often less than satisfying.
The random approach to exploration isn’t sustainable. As long as you can handle a compass and map, you’ll find yourself successfully picking your way between landmarks towards shapes and lights in the distance. There’s a list of coordinates scrawled on your map, describing the locations of the key story events, and these can be visited in any order. Feel free to leave the last one until you’re happy with the amount of extra info you’ve discovered.
At times Kholat feels more like an orienteering course than a horror game. The winding tracks can seem almost impossible to make out given the limited help offered by the simple map. Some routes can only be navigated in one direction, and there’s nothing on the chart to indicate as much. This is an open-world game, and there’s often equal parts fun and frustration when trying to get to an exact set of coordinates. The relatively slow walking pace can be punctuated by an occasional sprint, but you’ll end up a panting, bleary-eyed mess in just a few seconds. The air is thin, the wind is strong, the cold is biting, and even though there’s no hunger/cold/stamina mechanics to manage, Kholat truly makes you feel like you’re at the mercy of the mountains.
Quick travel between camp sites is a saving grace, and the game records your progress after each fragment of letter you find. This helps make the oppressive and disorienting pathways slightly less impenetrable. If you’re going to enjoy Kholat, you need to accept that much of the pleasure(?) comes from feeling truly abandoned.
Kholat is an interactive conspiracy theory that’s heavy on atmosphere, and is well worth getting lost in. As a narrative, it feels a little lacking and it definitely doesn’t tie up loose ends, but if you want to feel scared and alone in a beautiful, creepy setting, it’s much cheaper than a trip to the Ural Mountains.