Thursday, June 22, 2017

Kholat Review (XONE)

Kholat is the first walking simulator-style game I’ve played, out of a couple dozen so far between PS4 and Xbox One, where I actually understand the complaints non-fans of the genre always have. Walking sim detractors usually complain of them being directionless and boring and not fun, but I’ve always felt like having an interesting story and pretty scenery to look at was more than enough to make the games worthwhile. When a game makes the act of getting from story point to story point and seeing the pretty visuals as annoying and frustrating as it is in Kholat, however, it really starts to test my patience even as someone that usually loves games like this. For all of the details, continue reading our full Kholat Xbox One review.

Game Details

  • Publisher: IMGN.PRO
  • Developer: IMGN.PRO
  • ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen
  • Genre: First-Person-Adventure
  • Pros: Fascinating story; great sound
  • Cons: Performance issues; annoying navigation; why are there enemies?; load times
  • MSRP: $20

Kholat is based on the real life tragedy of the 1959 Dyatlov Pass Incident (see the Wiki) where nine hikers were mysteriously killed in the Ural Mountains of Western Russia. It is universally accepted that six of the victims died of hypothermia, but the other three had unexplainable physical trauma. Was it a simple animal attack? Avalanche? Military weapons tests? Or something paranormal or supernatural? Kholat’s story follows the supernatural theory.

You play as a nameless person sent to investigate the incident and unravel the story through notes left by the victims at campsites and at landmarks scattered around the area. As you explore you’ll come across the ghosts of the victims presented as sort of glowing humanoid entities. You’ll also find some sort of “other” spectral creatures that leave behind fiery footprints and instantly kill you if they catch you. I hate that this game has enemies. They are unnecessary, uninteresting, and utterly ruin the pacing by making you sit through a long loading screen just to start over again back at the last (infrequently placed) checkpoint. The game is creepy and scary enough with great sound design and the thrill of the unknown always lurking just out of the reach of your weak flashlight. It didn’t need actual enemies to make it frightening.

Kholat’s bigger problem is that navigating around the huge mountain is pretty awful. The game goes for a realistic style of navigation where it only gives you a map and a compass and expects you to find your way around on your own. The problem is that it doesn’t tell you where you actually are on the map so you just wander around lost. Eventually you’ll come across a journal page or a campsite which, thankfully, is marked on the map and from there you can actually make a plan and use the compass to generally go where you want. There are coordinates written down with key points to visit, so once you get your bearings they are your primary destinations. Even when you do generally know where you are, however, the map itself isn’t fully accurate and relying on it to get around is a pain. Everything takes too long. The enemies are annoying and pointless. There are pitfalls you can fall through like the invisible floors in Castlevania 2. Exploring in Kholat is just no fun at all.

Navigating with just a map and compass isn’t automatically a bad thing, mind you. Firewatch does it and exploring in that game is awesome. The main difference, of course, is that Firewatch marks on your map where you are at all times to make it easier. Kholat wants to use its hardcore realistic orienteering as a way to make the game more challenging and interesting, which is admirable since so many walking simulators are so straightforward and easy, but it just isn’t executed very well. Finding your way around always feels more like a happy accident than anything particularly satisfying.

Kholat’s frustrating orienteering would be easier to swallow if the game offered beautiful sights to see that made it all worthwhile, but it doesn’t really ever wow you with the visuals. Don’t get me wrong, it does look nice overall thanks to using Unreal Engine 4, but the maze of ice and rocks and snow that dominates the game isn’t all that interesting to look at. The game also has serious performance problems on Xbox One with frequent and noticeable framerate drops and tearing any time you move the camera.

The sound, at least, is well done all around with great voice acting (including narration from Sean “I die in every movie” Bean), good sound effects, and wonderful music. The sound contributes greatly to giving Kholat a very creepy atmosphere and setting the mood.

Kholat starts strong with a great real life story that grabs your attention, but its many missteps make it hard to recommend for even the biggest walking simulator fans. With frustrating navigation around a desolate mountain full of annoying enemies it not only isn’t particularly fun or rewarding to play, but it doesn’t pay off with especially pretty scenery or a satisfying narrative. Kholat isn’t broken or terrible, just thoroughly mediocre in a genre that requires spectacular execution in order to stand out. Skip it.
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.