In February of 1959, a group of ten students from the Ural Polytechnical Institute set out on a hiking expedition on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl (which translates to “Dead Mountain” in case you’re curious where this is going to end up) in Northern Urals of the former Soviet Union. One student left early due to illness, leaving behind a group of nine ski hikers who had set up camp on the side of the mountain. During the night of February 2nd, an unexplained event occurred which resulted in the nine remaining ski hikers cutting open their tent from the inside and fleeing into the sub zero temperatures either bare foot or in only their socks. Search parties later found the bodies of the nine hikers scattered around the mountain. Six of the victims had died of hypothermia, but one victim had a fractured skull and another had brain damage despite there being no damage done to their actual skull. A final victim, a female hiker with the group, was found missing her eyes and tongue. While there are countless theories as to what happened at Dyatlov Pass on the night of February 2nd, 1959, the official verdict from Russian investigators was that all nine victims perished as the result of “a compelling natural force”.
The developers from IMGN.PRO have taken this real life mystery of the Dyatlov Pass incident and recreated it, albeit with some artistic license, as Kholat. Kholat, which won a few awards including “Best Story / Storytelling” following its original release on PC in 2015, has finally found its way to Xbox as of June 10th, 2017. It only takes a few moments with the game before realizing that the awards the developers are so proud of were very well deserved.
Kholat begins with players taking control of a mysterious, unnamed protagonist who is narrated by none other than Sean Bean (you might recognize him from another little project by the name of Game of Thrones). Our protagonist starts his inquest into discovering what occurred at Dyatlov Pass at the same train station that the nine hikers originally departed from. Players can explore the train station, tracks, and a small section of the surrounding area leading to the forsaken forest, but are eventually overcome by a bright white light. Upon awakening, the protagonist finds himself at the scene of the ill fated camp site. From here, players have the freedom to explore the mountain side of Kholat Syakhl in whatever way they choose. This is one of the game’s crowning glories, but also proves to be one of its largest flaws.
The world that IMGN Pro has created out of Kholat Syakhl is overwhelmingly beautiful. Every snow flake, ray of light, and creaking tree branch feels meticulously crafted and is just begging for you to stare at it in awe, and thus its incredibly easy to just strike off into the snow covered wilderness just to explore it. But doing so will quickly have you walking in circles. Kholat provides players with very little in the way of navigational assistance. Pressing Y has the protagonist raise a map and compass. The map is crudely drawn and has no legend save for a collection of map coordinates scribbled on the left hand side. Its possible to move a small cursor over the map to pinpoint the coordinates, but as there’s not even any “You Are Here” type of indicator on the map, its truly impossible to use it to pinpoint your own location in relation to where you wish to go. While the map is completely bare in the beginning with exception of the location of your starting camp, it does change over the course of the game as additional camps (which further serve as fast travel locations) and collectibles (in the form of letters and diary entries from the hikers and previous investigators) are discovered. Furthermore, fully exploring the terrain is extra difficult when your character is unable to jump or climb, and can only run for a short sprint before becoming visually impaired and bogged down. This resulted in occasionally finding myself stuck in a rocky area, wedged between shrubs and trees and unable to free myself without just sacrificing my progress by exiting to the main menu and reloading at the last save point.
Our protagonist in Kholat is not alone on the side of Dead Mountain, as there are mysterious fire spirits also moving about. While it is possible for players to pick up that the fire spirits are nearby thanks to the flaming footprints in the snow that they leave behind, it is equally possible for them to sneak up behind the player. The fire spirits can be outran, but doing so is no easy task as the protagonist exhausts quite quickly thanks to trying to run in heavy snow. Should one of the spirits grab you (and they will. A lot.) it is lights out for the player, who will then respawn at their last save location if they choose to continue. Kholat does not allow for manual game saves, opting instead to only save the game when the player locates a collectible or visits one of the aforementioned camp sites. This means that striking out to explore the world comes at an increased risk of losing a substantial amount of progress unless you’re also fortunate enough to stumble upon designated save locations while you’re exploring.
As Kholat allows players to explore and uncover camp sites and collectibles at the player’s leisure, this means, too, that the game’s story can be told out of sequence. Collectibles, fortunately, are stored in a journal that players can call up and leaf through, but it can be difficult to determine the events that Kholat is attempting to convey because you’re missing bits and pieces of information that may be found at a location you have yet to discover. This wouldn’t be quite so damning if it weren’t for the game’s absent navigation system that makes finding the next story point that much more complicated.
While Kolat does exceed in terms of difficulty, the game is ultimately a beautiful and haunting game that’s worth giving time to. Every detail from the sound of the trees groaning under the weight of wind and heavy snow to burning footprints of the fire spirits lurking around you adds to the exceptional and terrifying experience that fans of horror games are sure to delight in. I just wish as much thought and care had gone into the navigation as it had every other carefully crafted aspect of Kholat.