Tales of horror are frightening enough to make us shiver in the moment or even lose sleep over several days, but they usually don't haunt us for that long. We're able to move on from reflecting on them because they're fake stories meant to play with our heads. But when it comes to real freak accidents or unexplainable phenomena that chill to the bone, that's when our fears become rational and grounded.
One such event is the Dyatlov Pass Incident in 1959, which is when nine hikers sought to reach Otorten Mountain by traveling through the Ural Mountains. However, all of them were found dead over a week later with baffling injuries by rescue teams, and to this day no one truly knows what could've scared them so much as to abandon each other in sheer terror. Polish developer IMGN.PRO seeks to fill in the blanks with its exploratory horror journey called Kholat.
In essence, this game's a so-called "walking simulator", as it were, where you're tasked with scouting out a considerably large open world with nothing but a map, compass, and flashlight by your side. The user interface is devoid of any hints or indicators that will help you, so all you have to go by are coordinates listed on your map alongside routes that will lead you to journals and notes. It's a matter of adventurous instinct that will motivate you to figure out how the hikers were killed, what the strange anomalies are that are happening around you, and who exactly your silent protagonist is. We were quickly reminded of Slender: The Arrival and its gameplay hook with collecting pages in an unfamiliar environment, but Kholat has a bit more going for it.
What you find is far more interesting since every paper scrap contains information that will further reveal how deep the rabbit hole goes. With many entries being voiced acted as well, we were compelled to go off the beaten path to see if there were any notes that would further clarify story details, even if some weren't necessary to acquire. The exploration itself is worthy to commend since its entirely nonlinear and feels organic, which makes this barren, snowy wasteland seem all the more mysterious and worthy of scouring for clues, even though a few dead-ends and pointless areas will make you groan along the way.
This self-guided, minimal gameplay calls Everybody's Gone to the Rapture to the mind, and while it and Kholat may have their moments of exciting discoveries, both suffer from massive amounts of monotonous walking that can get to you, but at least the latter has fast travel points between campsites to compensate for the boredom that will set in at times. And while it may try to spice things up with invisible, glowing monsters that stalk you, they're far too easy to avoid and see coming to be an interesting threat. All of this means that, like The Chinese Room's PS4 exclusive, Kholat banks its appeal on its narrative, atmosphere, and audio for the four hours or so that you'll be playing, and those areas managed to hold our interest just enough despite the lacking gameplay.
In attempting to creatively add to the Dyatlov Pass Incident, the vague story leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It could understandably come across as pretentious or nonsense, but we found the approach successful in how it manages to avoid being narrow in interpretation, since psychological, extra-terrestrial, and religious explanations are all reasonable approaches to what you'll discover. Part of what makes this come to life are the beautiful locales of caverns, snowy forests, and foreboding mountain trails under the night sky, which are aided by impressive draw distance and lighting. This isn't the most photorealistic game we've played, but we applaud how there are no loading screens to maintain immersion. It's just unfortunate that brief gameplay freezes and frame rate drops have to mar the otherwise smooth performance.
But we can say without a doubt that the sound department is Kholat's greatest strength. Sean Bean is a fantastic narrator despite having less lines than we expected, and those notes you'll come across guided by two other voice actors are impressive in their execution, too. What really uplifts the experience to a chilling degree is the atmospheric noise and score. Whether it be the rustling leaves, blustering wind, or unsettling howls of wolves in the distance, the soundscape perfectly complements the environment along with melancholy piano and vocal movements, mixed in with shrill string pieces and ambient, low-key tracks to unsettle you even when there's nothing nearby.
Kholat may be daunting to approach at first with its massive scale, but its eerie setting is worth exploring for its intentionally perplexing narrative and unsettling visual and aural atmosphere. The simplistic gameplay may turn some off with how tedious exploration can become with few scares and long stretches of nothing, but if you choose to remain steadfast on this trail, the sights, sounds, and story may very well be worth your effort.