Narrative-driven indie games are hot on the PS4 at the moment and we’ve seen some great ones in the last year. Following on from the likes of Ethan Carter, Firewatch, and Layers of Fear is new horror game Kholat. Set on the bleak and freezing slopes of Kholat Syakhl, the game is based on the true story of a group of students who disappeared in 1959. Later found with horrific internal injuries yet no sign of an external struggle, some of them in their underwear and with their tent cut open from the inside, their deaths have spawned countless theories over the years. A cursed mountain? Ritualistic killings? Animals, avalanches, top secret nuclear research? Aliens? It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever know, but wow, that’s one hell of a story. That’s one hell of a frightening story. In Kholat you are told this sorry tale and then dumped on that same sorry mountainside with no idea why and with nothing but a map, torch and compass. Off you trot.
It’s worth saying straight away that although Kholat is a horror game and it is very eerie, it’s not scary, at least not in the traditional sense. It is mysterious, however, and it’s that intrigue that drives the game forward. Do expect one or two jump scares, but mostly the fear comes from the unknown and the awful panic and terror that comes from being completely and utterly lost. I do hope you all know how to read a map and use a compass, because you are actually going to need those skills. Kholat is completely open-world and you are free to wander wherever you want whenever you want. There’s no point A to point B. No ‘find abandoned boot’ objective. In fact there are no objectives at all. When I said earlier that you’ve been dumped on that mountainside I really did mean it. Just imagine you bumped your head, woke up on a mountain in a snowstorm and had no memory except for that damn story. You have no direction, no purpose and no goal other than to figure out what in the name of Christ is going on. It’s a bit like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but with less pubs and a lot more snow.
Your map will show pathways, cavern entrances, bridges and, once you find them, campsites and collectable notes. Unfortunately for you, what it doesn’t show is where you are on that map. When you set out from your first campsite you’ll need to decide which pathway to head for first. Your camp will be on the map so you’ll know where you are at that point, but once you walk away you’ll have to rely on your own navigation skills. You can get your compass out to track North and a quick press of the triangle button will whip out your map. You will also need to use your surroundings. Find a central point, observe what side the moon is on, keep an eye on that that glowing red light in the distance, remember where you saw the cliffside that looked like giant skulls or the trail of rocks leading up a wide path. Observe, plan your journey in your head, look at your map often and check your compass cautiously … then get totally lost in five seconds when something nasty chases you. Whoops!
Getting lost in Kholat is all part of fun. Even if you’ve got a good sense of direction, you will get turned around. You will also find your way again. Everything looks the same at first, but your surroundings in a particular area will start to look familiar. I have a terrible sense of direction. I get lost in Sainsburys every time they move the eggs, but even I started to enjoy the careful navigation once I realised the game wasn’t going to help me in any shape or form. It’s always a refreshing change to get games that don’t hold your hand and rely instead on motivating you to explore rather than pushing you. I wouldn’t change it. This type of gameplay should appeal to anyone who is willing to spend more time really thinking about what they’re doing and where they’re going. It gives the game a real dose of reality. If you’re stuck in this sort of lethal environment are you really just going to flounce off willy nilly or are you actually going to check that map really really really carefully? In Kholat, if you don’t do this, you’re going to pay for it, and that is perhaps where we hit a bit of an issue.
While the navigational aspect is extremely well thought-out, there is a distinct lack of opportunities to save. No manual saves and the game only auto-saves when you either pick up a document or you discover a new campsite, and there are times when you can count those incidences on one finger in two hours. Death, at times, can be frequent and it can be sudden and unfair. When you’ve explored for an hour without a save point and then you die through no fault of your own or lack of skill or observation, gameplay can become understandably frustrating. With navigation being so tough, backtracking to an already discovered campsite on your map just so you can save your game can be super difficult, and there were a few times I thought stuff it, I’m not going back, I’ll carry on and hope I find another save before I snuff it. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t.
These lack of saves to some players will be welcomed as the theory goes that it adds a sense of peril to the game. I agree, it does, very much so. But I also think it can be annoying to the point of total exasperation. I’m not convinced this perilous save system works in a game that’s all about exploration. The navigation and realistic graphics lead you to believe you’re in a bit of a simulation. They could re-name this game Sim Kholat. Getting lost and going around in panicked circles is real. But what’s real about re-starting from a point a full hour ago? Repetition is a dangerous concept in a video game – it has its place, but it can make or break an experience.
You’ll be glad to know that you can walk over this mountain at a semi-decent pace, and there’s even a jog function for when you’re feeling impatient or you’re trying to escape. Watch out for something lurking. I won’t spoil anything by describing what you’re facing, but I will tell you that if it catches you, you’re dead. You can’t fight it, but if you’re lucky and you don’t push your stamina too hard, you might be able to flee from it. However, if it’s possible, just try to avoid it, otherwise you just might end up back at one of those campsites you unlocked five hours ago. Talking of campsites, as well as acting as a spawn point, they also allow you to fast travel, which is great if you’ve found nothing in a particular area or you’ve struggled with it and want to return later in the game.
Kholat looks stunning. It’s an amazing talent that can make something so bleak and dark look so gorgeous. Despite the fact that you’re wandering around the side of a snow-covered mountain there is a huge amount of variety in the environment. Every step is slightly different and if you keep walking past the same tree it’s because it literally is the same tree and you’ve done a three-sixty. Everything feels very real. The framerate does unfortunately take the occasional hiking boot to the shins and you may judder to an almost halt now and again. Making up for it, however, is a very atmospheric musical score and some smashing narration from Sean Bean. I won’t make a ‘Winter is Coming’ joke, although it is awfully tempting.
Kholat proudly joins the ranks of a string of great narrative and exploration games that have hit the PS4 in the last year. It might not be the scariest game in the world, and it has a few issues with framerate and not nearly enough save points, but with its highly original and immersive navigation system and the backdrop of some terrifying true life events, it is well worth a hike through the snow.
S J Hollis Rating – 7.5/10
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