Kholat Review: Explhorror
There have been several narrative-driven gaming experiences recently; Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Some people refer to them as “walking simulators” in a negative way, even going so far as to claim that they aren’t even games (as if there is some magical checklist for one of the most robust and diverse art forms to date). Kholat will no doubt be a part of those discussions, but it’s my opinion that it will also be a strong candidate in the “videogames as an art form” circle.
In addition to the aforementioned genre, there is also a niche of horror games that has cropped up recently that emulate those story games, while implementing small gameplay mechanics in an attempt to keep their audiences interested and involved (i.e. Daylight). I’m hesitant to lump Kholat in with these titles, as the small mechanics the game does have are suitably unique and engaging, and the experience does not want for lack of things to do. Therefore I’ve decided to give Kholat it’s own genre-hyprid: Explhorror.
This new genre includes light horror elements coupled with few gameplay mechanics and a heavy focus on environment exploration and story narration. In short: Explhorror.
As outlined in the genre description above, Kholat IS a reasonably scary game. Certain areas the player is tasked with entering contain strange glowing shades or apparitions. These supernatural humanoid creatures are hostile and move quickly, fading in and out of sight, when they spot the player. However, they can be easily avoided with a small amount of cunning and situational awareness. The horror isn’t relegated to these creatures, though. The entire mountain range the game takes place in is filled with a myriad of foreboding and intimidating architecture. When the player is walking or running around, unsettling ambient sounds are constantly following you, making turning around or stopping to examine a particularly gorgeous view a lesson in bravery and caution.
Speaking of gorgeous views, this game is absolutely stunning. The weather effects alone are something to be proud of. Snow lazily drifts across rocky hillsides, every tree, bush and tuft of grass sways in reaction to violent gusts of wind, whipping them into a frenzy of motion and sound. The locations are as varied as they are beautiful. Words can’t do it proper justice (at least, MY words can’t) so be sure to browse the screenshots I took at the bottom of my review.
The sound design is what helps glue the beautiful scenery together. Every gust of wind feels alive as it stirs the foliage and snow around you. In the distance wolves can be heard howling at the moon, and as I mentioned before the ambient creaking of the trees and dripping of the caves all make the player feel as if the mountain range isn’t as empty as it seems. The musical score is subtle, to say the least. Oftentimes I would mistake the low notes as being a gust of wind; the music truly evokes the tone of the setting.
As an explhorror game, Kholat’s gameplay is simple, yet in its simplicity its complexity shows. Players are given a map, a compass and a flashlight. There is no HUD, no objective marker. Kholat does not hold your hand by telling you the time of day, the direction you’re facing or by giving you an objective marker. You are expected to make your own way through the winding mountain passes and deep labyrinth of caves. Hidden throughout the environment are scratchings of coordinate sets that lead to extra notes and locations that help to flesh out the backstory of the location or of the hikers you are searching for. If you don’t take the time to seek these out and only explore the coordinates written on the map, be aware that the game will feel rather short. Possibly even too short to fully appreciate what Kholat is trying to do.
At the end of the day I truly enjoyed my time with Kholat, though I do wish it was longer and I felt Sean Bean’s voice acting, while truly spectacular, was underutilized (Oh wait, did I not mention that SEAN BEAN does some narration?!). I enjoyed the challenge of navigating the terrain and sneaking my way past the apparitions, but most of all I loved looking at the game and feeling like I was a part of the lonely, cold peaks.