In February of 1959, the bodies of nine students from the Ural Polytechnical Institute were found scattered across the slopes of Kholat Syakhl, a transliteration in Russian of Holatchahl, meaning “Dead Mountain”. It was said that on the night of February 2nd that something caused the students to flee from their tents, out into the sub-zero temperatures either barefoot or simply in their underwear. Six of the students appeared to have died from hypothermia, one died from a fractured skull, and another had brain damage despite no damage to the actual skull itself. The final victim was found missing her eyes and tongue. While this may appear to be the type of story to originate from the mind of a horror author, this event actually happened. There have been countless theories as to what actually occurred that night, but Russian investigators concluded that the students died as a result of “a compelling natural force.” and the case was filed under ‘top secret’.
Kholat originally released on PC back in 2015 to much acclaim, winning “Excellence in Story and Storytelling” at the Game Connection Development Awards. The story here, while based on real events, takes a few liberties to set it up to work within this game and the experience it is attempting to give you.
You begin the game as an unnamed protagonist, with the game narrated by Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones actor, Sean Bean. I found it rather hilarious that it actually was Sean Bean, as I went through the entire game saying “This guy sort of sounds like Sean Bean.” and when the credits rolled, sure enough, it was him.
You start your adventure near a train station, the very same one to have been visited by the students, before the mysterious events that would lead to their deaths. The small village that is built around the station is quiet, empty, and the houses are entirely fenced off. This area is meant to set the mood as nothing can be interacted with and this is meant to force you to move on. Eventually, you’ll discover a path and it’s not long before the game pushes you into the next area, the same mountain range where the students had run out into the cold and lost their lives.
You have a journal, a map, a flashlight, and a compass, and that is it. Thankfully, you are prepared for the weather and need not worry about the extreme cold that surrounds you. The map and compass will be your friends, but they can also be your worst enemy. Kholat wants you to find your own path, make discoveries as natural as they can be. Your map has coordinates to locate, and you’ll find them by using the compass. When you track down a note, file, or location that is part of the plot, it will mark it on the map, giving you your exact location at the time. I don’t know how many times I got lost and seeing a collectible in front of me made me cheer in excitement so that I could figure out where on the map I was. I got lost, a lot.
As frustrated as having to find your way could have been, Kholat isn’t a very long experience and you’ll stumble across a note or plot-based location fairly frequently, so I never felt like I couldn’t eventually find my way. It took me quite a while to figure out how to read the compass, but once I did, it became fairly easy to find the locations I needed to find. As you traverse around in the snow, you’ll find coordinates written on the sides of the mountain, or on large rocks nearby. These will help you find locations on the map. You’ll also find campfires that will show you where on the map you are, and they also serve as a checkpoint should you die.
Once you find the last location that is written on the map, you’ll then return to the first location and take in the ending, however; I will warn you, if you want to make sense of a lot of what is going on, I suggest tracking down each and every collectible as the ending will vary if you have or have not. That being said, there are still parts of the story and the reveals that it makes that I just couldn’t grasp, making even the more complete ending still having me scratch my head a bit.
Kholat is a survival horror walking simulator, if I had to label it, that would be it. There is a tremendous amount of map to traverse, and there is something out in those woods, lurking, hunting you down. I don’t want to spoil exactly what it is, because frankly, the first time I saw it, I was pretty freaked out. I suggest playing this game wearing headphones with the music set down to about 60 with everything else set to max, as the music is way too loud when you are trying to listen to the voice acting from the journal. It adds quite a bit when you can hear certain noises and the wind blowing around and the crunch of snow beneath your feet.
I saw the mysterious thing that is tracking you down only a few times, falling victim to it twice, however; one time it snuck up on me and got in a cheap kill, the other time it was totally earned. You can’t fight back, there is no combat, in fact, you don’t even see hands or anything connected to your character, you are a screen that has a floating map and compass.
The point of Kholat is to gather the notes and items to make sense of the story, to figure out what happened to those students and many of the notes and items come complete with voice acting, and rather good material I might add, which is why when some items didn’t have that voice over, it was kind of a letdown. I also have to mention the fantastic music in the game as it really compliments the experience.
Kholat has some genuinely good atmosphere and can create some really decent fear with its sound design. The game visually does look quite good, but it is the superb sound the game offers that really sets the mood. You’ll hear the trees sway back and forth, a snapped twig, and various sounds when you are passing through a clearing and wondering if it is right behind you. There are many times where the sound picked up and I would just start sprinting, not even wanting to know what was behind me. There is one section in the game where there are snow covered traps, so be cautious when walking over areas that don’t look quite right.
Since the adventure takes place generally in one location, there isn’t too much variety in what is thrown at you. There are some caves and plot locations that do shake it up a bit, and the short 6-7 hour length does actually help it from becoming too repetitive. There are a few indoor locations that do turn up, and I’ll caution you when approaching the cabin, a location that gave me the biggest jump scare of the game, and not for the reason you might think.
About the only real issue I can say that hurts the game overall was the lack of any sort of climbing or jumping ability. There are so many times where a log or small incline of snow or rock prevented me from getting somewhere I needed to go. It’s like walking down a hallway in Silent Hill and seeing a small chair block your path, you know you could walk around it, or even just pick it up and set it aside, but it won’t let you. There were a few spots where my character would get caught on a corner and even a collectible that requires you to take a running leap off a cliff to get, despite not being able to jump. The lack of letting me crouch without having to always hold down the button, and the really long load times are also other issues I had, but neither really detract from the experience.
Kholat is enjoyable, it’s not great, but it’s certainly something to try out if you are a fan of the genre. It can feel a bit basic because of the limitations of what you can actually do, and it can be rather easy to get lost if you don’t know how a compass works, but when you find something and see it marked on your map, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief. Kholat can generate some real moments of panic when you are being chased and I strongly recommend playing this with a set of headphones so you can truly appreciate the superb sound design. That the game is based on real events is terrifying enough, and the fact that it was never solved, is even more so.
Kholat was reviewed via a review copy provided by the Publisher.
All screenshots were captured on a Xbox One.