Thursday, 15 June 2017


Post-Launch Review
Kholat (PC)
Developer: IMGN.PRO
Released: June 2015
Played: complete in 3h48m


In February 1959, an experienced student expedition vanished on the mountain Kholat Syakhl in northern Russia, and were later found dead under strange and still unexplained circumstances (this is a real thing that happened). Years later, you explore the harsh mountain, attempting to piece together what happened to the expedition... But you're not alone, and there's more out there than just you and the dead.

At Launch

Kholat received mixed reviews with scores averaging 64%. Critics loved the visuals and enjoyed the map and Sean Bean, but felt let down by the story and horror elements.

Post Launch

There have been a handful of patches to fix bugs.
A PS4 version released a year later, followed by an XBox One version last month.
A follow-up comic has just been announced, set after the end of the game.

Okay, I have mixed feelings about this one. 

Kholat starts out gorgeous and atmospheric as hell. Right from the beginning you're thrown off-balance, arriving in a seemingly abandoned village with no sense of your character's identity or when these events occur. You're not given any direction or objective, save the opening cutscene that provided the physical evidence surrounding the lost expedition, which actually doesn't say - merely implies or suggests - that you're looking for more information.

The environment is gorgeous in both visual and sound design. There's no music and the only sounds are the wind, your footsteps in the snow, and occasionally some far off wolves. There's a satisfying variety in the world despite being confined to a single mountain, with sections of the map dominated by unique landmarks. Lots to see, and it's all amazing.
The map and compass are excellent, though they did throw me off at first in a couple of minor ways - notably, the game makes a couple of references to planning routes and setting destinations, but that's stuff you do in your head, not in the game. The map and compass work like real ones: there's no "you are here" marker, the compass points north and not to your objective, the map isn't 100% accurate, and landmarks are only added once you've physically discovered them. I'm slightly ashamed to say that when I started the game, used to the usual video game maps, I went "Wait WTF is this? How am I supposed to know where to go?" - but I figured it out and enjoyed it all the more for making me do just a little bit of work to plan a route. Also the world isn't so open that you'll be wandering clueless, there are bits that funnel you to the right spot.
Kholat isn't as much of a horror game as I expected - it's more atmospheric, creepy and unsettling, than scary. And unfortunately the few parts that are meant to be scary might fall flat if you do stuff in the "wrong" order. I encountered a monster before I found any hints that there was a monster, so my first impression was "Wait, what is this? Why am I dead?". So oddly enough, there doesn't appear to be an intended order of events or location visits, but in a way there is a wrong order.

That ties in to what I felt was the biggest flaw of Kholat: the ambiguity and lack of explanation. But before I explain that, I do feel I should point out that the established timeline of what happened to the expedition - the physical events that happened - is very clear and detailed once you piece together all the notes and documentation. That isn't the problem. 
The problem is the complete lack of explanation as to why anything happened. The expedition encountered the anomaly, but what is the anomaly? Where did it come from? What is it doing? Why did it go after the expedition? There's a very coherent sci-fi government experiment timeline established, but there are also references to an ancient bone god, meteors, and UFOs. Are these things related? Probably. Maybe not. Who is the narrator? What was his plan? Who is Anton? Why does it seem that you play as the monster in act III? And after all these unresolved questions, why does the secret real ending suggest that it was all a dream?

Some ambiguity in a story can be great, and I've had times where I've been disappointed that a story revealed too much and gave up its magic, but Kholat kind of feels like it didn't reveal quite enough. It's one thing to have a deep mystery to piece together, but it's something else when no two fan theories are alike. I did some reading and I found dozens of theories, some similar, some wildly different. It seems as though when trying to create a mystery, the developers took away a few too many clues, and the result ends up looking like a failed attempt at deep ambiguity that just turned into a bit of a mess.
Most disappointing of all is that just a few days ago, a comic was announced, set after the end of the game, with no actual game sequel in sight. Why? What is the point of building a game about a big mystery, providing zero actual answers, and then following up in a completely different medium which players of the game might never even hear about unless they just so happened to check the game's Steam news while writing their review? (I'm talking about me. That's how I heard about the comic.)

Kholat is an intriguing, highly atmospheric, gorgeous game with a compelling story and mystery which never get resolved or explained in any meaningful way. I loved the game as I was playing it, but felt disappointed and unfulfilled when I finished it. Here's hoping there's eventually some kind of update or real sequel rather than the just-announced comic book. I think my frustration with the lack of answers is influencing my opinion of the game as a whole. I'm kind of mad.

Recommendation: don't play it.

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