Blaze in the Northern Sky – Kholat is a first-person horror that will leave you feeling ice cold.
In the late 1950’s, nine hikers disappeared in the Ural mountains at Kholat Syakhl. Their tents were found cut from the inside out and much of the events around the incident has been unexplained to this day. Kholat takes the story and setting and sends you in search of an investigator who sought after some answers. You make your way around the map seeking journal entries, news reports, and other bits of information in hopes of solving (?) the mysterious circumstances in which the hikers disappeared. Despite being based on a true happening the game is rooted firmly in the supernatural and only really uses the missing hikers as a backdrop.
Gameplay mechanics are really simple. You can walk, run, and pick up journal entries. You have a compass and a map. That’s it. Every now and again you bump into apparitions that run in a particular direction you can follow. Other times you run into a ghostly figure that makes you dead if you don’t run away. You can’t jump, you can’t attack. All you have are the two items and some motivation to survive. The map doesn’t even have an active marker telling you where you are. There are coordinates and you do have a compass and every time you pick up a piece of information there is a mark on the map, but this doesn’t ever feel like enough to get most gamers motivated to try. This choice to make navigation a struggle is obviously intentional but it also turned into my biggest issue with the game. It was hard for me to ever make heads or tails of the map, and as such I spent the entire time wandering around aimlessly. I never really figured out where I was until I found a piece of paper. It’s kind of neat how Kholat lets you know there is a piece of information. As you walk you can hear rustling paper as if a sheet of paper has been tacked down to wherever it has been sitting the fifty years or so it’s potentially existed. I liked that about the game. Rustling paper was sweet relief after trudging around in the snow for a while.
The pieces of information and occasional campfires are the only thing you have to look forward to. They give you little snippets of the story and they’re the only way to save your game. For the first twenty minutes of exploration I never ran into anything that could hurt me. I was still getting a feel for everything and I didn’t even know if you could die at this point. Eventually, I saw the orange-glowing silhouettes running away and a figure standing still so I approached it to greet it. I was promptly grabbed and killed. I didn’t expect a hug but I also didn’t expect to die. After tha I became weary of everything and any time I saw anything move or glow I ran away. The creatures that kill you have a rough case of the “scary until you get a look at it.” The trouble was, I wasn’t scared of the creatures because of their appearance, I was scared that if one spawned near me I’d get killed and lose the ground I had made and get kicked back to my previous save. At one point, I gathered a sheet of paper on the edge of a cliff and the creature had spawned behind me just before. It took me about four or five reloads to make it past that damn thing and it makes me wonder if that’s intentional to that moment or a case of random spawn points turned against me. Another point in the game I was running full bore away from the creature when I found myself slumped into a put. A completely unmarked pit. There are some rocks sort of near the area I assume were hinting of danger but until I actually fell into the spike pit and died there was no visual clue to avoid it.
I’ve said a lot of negatives, but despite everything Kholat is a gorgeous game. The setting and atmosphere is some of the best I’ve ever played in a game, indie or otherwise. From each section of the map there are different areas all with different lighting, musical cues, and textures that pull you into the game. The environments were as immersive as it gets and what really kept me going was how dark and spooky everything was. Rarely did anything jump out and scare me, but the wind, snow, and different music got me feeling irked regardless of how scary the creature actually was. The visuals are really grainy but are animated in such a way that give it a very cinematic feel. As much as I wasn’t a big fan of Kholat overall, the game makes serious strides as to how I’d want to adventure games to be. Point and click has made a lot of strides in recent years, but the immersive exploration and first person perspective offered in Kholat made me care about each piece of information more than click spamming a screen. Imagine your experience with Myst if you could have walked through each building on the island on your own and had fully animated gorgeous puzzles to look at. It’s almost worth playing through Kholat just to get a feel of its potential.
The story in Kholat leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t want to spoil the ending but very few of my questions were answered, and the ones that were only opened the door for more questions. It can not be understated how pretty this game is and the first moments of discovery give you a lot to hope for. Unfortunately, the game itself runs shy of expectations and ends on a bit of a sour note. This game is a great start if the developers choose to continue making games like this at the very least. If I were ever approached about another title by the same developers I’d definitely give it a second go. As for Kholat, unless you’re really curious or invested in the true events the game is based upon, you can maybe pick it up on a sale or con one of your friends into getting it so you can try it.
Final Verdict: 2.5/ 5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: IMGN.PRO ; Developer: IMGN.PRO; Players: 1; Released: June 9, 2015 ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PC review copy provided by the game’s publisher.