Sunday, July 19, 2015

Kholat Review!

                Silent Hill 2 has taught me that games are capable of inducing fear and from that moment onward I kept that in mind, feeling the fear and enjoying it when playing video games. But it has been a long time since I’ve last played an actual horror title and I was wondering why. Playing Kholat revealed the answer to that.
                Kholat is an adventure horror game developed by the Polish independent studio IMGN.PRO and powered by the now free to use Unreal Engine 4. Probably the most important thing to know about Kholat, before starting to play it, is the fact that the game is inspired by real life events.
                The Dyatlov Pass incident is a controversial event that took place on the night of February 2 1959 in the Ural region on the eastern side of Khoat Syakhl (Dead Mountain) in which nine young hikers died. The group was supposed to send a telegram as soon as the 12th of the month, but on February 20 the family asked for a rescue mission. Students and teachers volunteered to go search for the missing hikers and were later joined by the army and militia. After they had found the first bodies, more than one kilometer away from their camping spot, an investigation took place which determined that the skiers torn apart their tent from inside in order to escape what seemed like an imminent threat. Some of them fled barefooted through the snow, proof of their rush and fear. Most of the bodies were recovered in February, but the last four were found two months later and their autopsy indicated severe trauma without any exterior wounds. The oddest thing was that some of the victim’s clothes had inexplicably high doses of radiation.
The event is shrouded in mystery and the little information that the investigation provided doesn’t make much sense. Many theories have been formulated over the years, including a possible avalanche, a hostile encounter with extraterrestrial life forms and military weapon experiments. The Dyatlov Pass was named after Igor Alekseievich Dyatlov, the leader of the hikers group, and this incident has served as material for numerous books and documentaries.
                Kholat follows in the footsteps of the real story as its unnamed protagonist goes to the site of the incident to investigate the area and search for clues that might bring more light onto this case. As there is no real explanation for what had happened to the hikers, the game abandons the rational in favour of a more supernatural and conspiracy approach.
Paranormal activities, living anomalies, Russian experiments on people and tribal signs are part of story. It seems like the writers have mixed together the most known theories about the incident presenting them to the players in such a way that no actual answer is given. The story is confusing and doesn’t explain itself very well in the end, leaving everything to one’s imagination, but many interesting theories can be formulated around it.
It starts so peacefully.
I'm seeing things!
Ok, that's just wrong...

                Kholat’s gameplay is a simple mix of multiple genres focusing mostly on exploration and the sense of discovery with a permanent feeling of impending doom. 
Although the game is an adventure, it is not about solving puzzles, as the only puzzle is the story itself. The action concentrates on putting together pieces of evidences by finding journals and exploring the strange area guided by paranormal activities and using a map, a compass and gut feeling.
                Considering how the game plays, it is important that the players have a sense of exploration not only to reach their destination, but also survive, since getting lost can be fatal. Despite the fact that the map does not act as a GPS, it is a great tool to keep track of the current position. It might be hard at times because of the serpentine mountain passes and winding caves, but even so, the map is a vital tool in order to reach the game’s conclusion.
There are several areas to explore, each having its motifs and a story which is told through what seem to be hallucinations showing the past and by making connections with what is written in various diaries and publications. The world is riddled with notes which can be found through exploration with the help of coordinates scratched in the landscape and sounds that alert the player of their nearby presence. The notes are from various characters, including some of the hikers and they expand the story and give some context to it by explaining, to some degree, what others have experienced in these God forsaken mountains (gathering all the notes changes the ending of the game).
My trusty equipment!

                There is death in this game caused by various reasons and the checkpoint saving system can be tricky at times. The game is saved when discovering a safe camp, which also serves as means for fast travelling to other discovered camps, but it is also saved when recovering a lost note. Many notes are placed on the tracking path to a major objective so that the player’s actions are saved on the way there and while this is a good idea it can also cause problems. Exploring just a part of an area before leaving it means that some of the saving points have been activated and cannot be used again, therefore, when returning to that area to explore it completely, there will be a huge gap without any saving points and a lot of things can happen in between (like falling through textures).
                For a game that has the feeling of exploration at the core of its gameplay, Kholat does a pretty good job with a few exceptions. The collision problems with the game’s geometry made me wish that jumping should have been added as a movement mechanic. The limitations of the paths can be off-putting because there are a lot of them and they feel forced on the players in order to guide them in certain directions. But this game is not only about storytelling and exploring the scenery.
No way governments do experiments on people!!!

                As a horror game, Kholat does an extremely good job at keeping the player on edge. The story sinks into a twisted supernatural realm and has the players facing the existence of some otherworldly entities, which in a game without combat means serious business. There are certain areas that are haunted by these entities and the only option is to move through them without being detected, but this is easier said than done. The character’s stamina is extremely limited and he can barely run a few meters before getting dizzy. This leaves stealth as the only optimal option, even though its mechanics are quite basic. The difficulty comes from the AI’s unpredictability and its ability to teleport around, so feeling safe at times doesn’t necessarily mean that the area is safe (when spotted, try not to run into a dead end).
It's coming!!!
Even I have more stamina than this guy...

                The game can get intense and the atmosphere is tense even without being chased by undying monsters. The never ending night, the ever-changing weather and the utterly terrifying setting are a great combination and the only thing at your disposal is a flashlight which is more of a tease than a helpful tool as it can attract “wild life”. Never before have I had such a hard time finding my way out through some labyrinthine caves which felt picked from my nightmares and the few scripted moments, even if clichés, succeeded to startle me. The only thing missing from this game was an eldritch monster to make the atmosphere unbearable for me (IMGN.PRO, how about making a Mountains of Madness game?!).
Do you see what I see?!?!

                Kholat doesn’t have much to show in terms of landscapes and the world design, while decent, is filled with many narrow areas for the sake of the atmosphere. But with the power of Unreal Engine 4, this small open world comes to life in a creepy and mysterious way and builds on the tension that this title tries to keep up for the entirety of the gameplay.
                The graphics are unquestionably good. The quality of the textures is quite high with a few very small mishaps and the snowy landscape engulfed in the darkness of the night is beautiful in its own way. The continuous motion of the world is subjected to physics, with trees bending under the effect of heavy wind and snow flying in all directions. These add a tone of realism by recreating the harsh meteorological conditions of a Russian winter. The particle effects contribute to this by adding dynamism and creating a feeling of terrible cold through constant blizzards and heavy snow falls.
The lighting comes to top the immersion and together with the shadows effects does a rather creepy play that can trick the mind of the player into fearing something even if there’s nothing there to be afraid off.
                Kholat is not an AAA title by any stretch of the imagination, but Unreal Engine 4 does make it feel like one and it is pleasing to see this, especially knowing that more and more indie developers will be using this graphical engine in the future.
Why don't all the games have this?!

                In order to achieve total player immersion and build fear in him, horror games require an exceptional sound design, even more so than other types of games. Kholat does more with its sound design than many games manage to do with all the technological elements combined. Maybe because it has been a long time since I had last played a more horror oriented game, but the sound effects in this game drove me out of my mind. The trees creeks, the ominous winds, the whispers and even the sound of my character’s own breath all come together in order to create a terrifying impression of ever present danger that made my heart beat like it was doing it for the last time. The tension cannot go away even when things calm down, because the moments of almost complete silence are the worst.
The sound effects and music can creep into your mind and soul, making you lose track of your rational thoughts that used to tell you that Kholat is only a video game and you needn’t be afraid.
To top off their work, the developers at IMGN.PRO hired Sean Bean to narrate some of the important parts in the game and he does a great performance as always.

One of the more relaxing places in the game.
No sane person would go in there. I'm going in!
Dead Mountain...

                Kholat is an interesting mix of Cryostasis, Amnesia and Dear Esther, combining rather well the setting, the atmosphere and the exploration in a short and nerve wrecking horror experience.
The story doesn’t rise up to the expectations and it doesn’t do justice to the sad event that took place more than 50 years ago, but the game makes up for it through intense atmosphere supported by a surprisingly well executed tech part.
                The Horror genre is nowhere near close to dying and with titles like Amnesia, Alien: Isolation, The Forest or Outlast being released in the last years it still has something to show for (and the indie developers are always coming with new ideas). Playing Kholat made me realize why I subconsciously avoid horror games. It is a preemptive fear for the things that I could feel while playing such games that prevents me from trying them out. Yet, fear is an emotion and as any emotion its intensity is subjective to each person. I can’t say how terrifying the atmosphere in this game is going to be for others, but speaking from my perspective, it made me want the feeling of fear again. Horror games, brace yourselves! I’m coming!

(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)

+ Good graphics
+ Excellent sound design
+ Great music
+ Atmospheric and scary
+ Some intense scripted moments

- The story is a gathering of clichés and the ending is messy
- Short
- The save system
- The character can barely sprint
- Getting constantly stuck in the game’s geometry


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