Koudelka - Review  

Survival Horror Tactics
by Jake Alley

12-15 hours


Rating definitions 

   Every once in a while, a game comes along which hybridizes two genres that have nothing to do with each other. Koudelka is one of such game, paradoxically blending the elements of a survival horror game with those of a tactical RPG. Despite the fundamentally contrasting natures of these genres, the end result is surprisingly well done.

   The battles in Koudelka are where the strange mixing of themes seem the strangest. When you encounter a gigantic betentacled creature straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel while exploring the large creepy building, tactical turn based combat would seem to kill the mood. To a certain degree it does, and the normal battle music doesn't help much either. However, combat still maintains a basic horror feel in it's own way. You have complete control over how your stats increase when you go up a level, but combat for the first few hours is so easy that one can easily leave glaring flaws in their characters' stats which become quite appearent as the difficulty shoots upward roughly halfway through the game. Also, every weapon has a durability rating which decreases with use until they eventually break. However, unlike other games with similar systems, there is no way to tell how long it will be before you suddenly find yourself unarmed in the middle of combat. Finally, while all fights take place on a simple small flat grid, Koudelka has a unique variant on traditional combat which causes all fights to center around gaining or losing ground, charging forward attempting to either cut off your opponents' mobility, or falling back to protect weak characters. While it's not frightening enough to please horror fans, or strategic enough to please tactical fans, it is unique and interesting enough to hold your attention for the game's short length, and can lead to some interesting strategies.

Hard to lift that. Hard to lift that.

   Outside of combat, Koudelka looks like Resident Evil. You spend the entirety of the game exploring a fairly large and very old building which has at times been a place of worship, a political prison, and a diabolic laboritory, and a number of other things. In keeping with the theme of horror, you're constantly posed with odd camera angles designed to provide mood rather than give you a clear view. While this works extremely well with Resident Evil's first person control scheme, Koudelka uses absolute dirrectional controls, such as those in the recent Final Fantasies. This means that in order to procede in a straight line for a long distance, at times you must change which dirrection you're holding quite frequently, which can be frustrating, especially since only one screen is held in memory at a time. In other words, if you walk in a sloppy manner, you will be penalized with an extra 2 or 3 seconds of load time. Menus are also somewhat irksome. When you use an item, you are sent back out to the main menu screen and must click back into items, then the somewhat superfluous tools menu, if if you wish to use another. This, combined with the lack of any way to sort items, seems shockingly cruel considering that Koudelka was developed by ex-Square employees. In defense of the interface however, most other menus are easily navigated, and the heal spell can be cast directly from the main menu screen.

   The OSV for Koudelka contains some very excellent tracks. Unfortunately, the music in the actual game is not quite as entrancing. The track which plays during all normal fights severely clashes with the overall tone of the game. The music during bosses and cut scenes however offers a stark contrast with faster paced tracks that accentuate the action. Strangely enough, while in the normal exploration mode, there is no music at all, leaving only the ambient sounds of wind and your footsteps. This of course is typical of horror themed games, but without even the eerie breathing of creatures lurking out of sight, it's merely silence. Where Koudelka's audio really shines is in the voice acting. All the dialog in the game is very well voiced. Characters even scream, gasp, and cry in a totally convincing manner, things english speaking voice actors are notorious for botching. Not just the humans sound perfect however. Monsters, particularly bosses, make extremely unearthly and unnerving sounds when damaged. The are only two real problems with the sound in the game. There tends to be a strange echoing constantly, which is either a sign of poor sound equipment, or yet another device to convey the feeling of being in a large stone building with a crypt like atmosphere. Also, the entire game is very quiet. In order to hear everything, one must crank the volume on the TV nearly all the way up.

   The plot and setting for Koudelka really stand apart from other games. It takes place in a very accurate representation of the year 1898 in Aberswythe, Wales. Three characters with vastly different backgrounds run into each other while exploring a vast cathedral turned prison turned laboritory which has come to be infested by innumerable ghosts and Lovecraftian fiends. Each have their own reasons to be there, which slowly unfold as the game goes on. While the entire game is set within a single building, it has a very rich and well developed history, and contains a fair number of inhabitants, living dead, and undead, who make interesting conversationalists. The dialog for the majority of the game is also a far reach from what is normally found in games. Instead of the standard philanthropic melodrama which permiates most RPGs, and indeed most games of any kind, the characters in Koudelka speak largely about such mundane things as their preferences in poetry. Other times, the central characters argue strongly over matters of their differing moralities and philosophies. The end result is a shocking degree of realism that strongly conveys the real world setting.

Gorgeous intro movie. Gorgeous intro movie.

   The translators of Koudelka had very little work to do. The original Japanese version of the game contained the same english voices with Japanese subtitles. What little text is in the game, mostly in scattered notebooks and letters, is perfectly translated, and fitting. Apart from these, text is limited more or less to menu options and the names of items, the latter of which can be changed at any time.

   While Koudelka was being developed, there was some talk of it having a branching plot. While this is not actually the case, there are places in the game where an event unfolds in a very different manner depending on whether you have performed a certain action or obtained a certain item. There is also a very difficult optional boss in the game, and three different endings. While the three endings branch off within the last five minutes of the game, between the short length of the game, and the few variable points, there is some incentive to play through a second time.

   Graphically speaking, Koudelka is wonderful. The introductory FMV features a fabulously realized foggy landscape and the most realistic clouds ever seen in a game. This gives way to the wonderful prerendered backgrounds of the game, with very well textured, high poly count characters. When zoomed in far enough, you can make out the embroidery on the characters' clothing. Best of all, the characters are anti-aliased well, which is rare on the playstation. There are also four disks worth of FMV to highlight important events. In battle graphics don't seem quite as captivating however. The high polygon counts in character and monster models take up most of the system's memory apparently, leaving a simple flat rectangle as a battlefield. Additionally, whenever a spell is cast, all models are removed except caster and targets, returning afterwards with a little too much slowness and pop-in for comfort. Not only is everything well rendered, nearly everything is very well animated. Each character has a unique stance with every kind of weapon, and monsters, particularly the last few bosses, tend to move in a highly articulated and unearthly manner. The final boss in particular moves in a very surreal and grotesque manner which is disturbing to a more than satisfactory degree. Some other monsters however are simply odd, such as the skeletons which double over and straighten constantly.

   As stated previously, battles in the early portion of the game are very easy. After a while however, the difficulty shoots up quite rapidly, which can make battles nearly impossible if one has upgraded their character in a careless manner. Koudelka also features a number of puzzles, again drawing inspiration from the survival horror genre, which for the most part are simplistic find the key, or solve the combination affairs. There are however one or two puzzles which require a fair amount of thought, and one with such a blatantly obvious solution that one may spend hours trying to solve it after already doing so.

   In summation, Koudelka is an odd mix. Horror fans would pass it over for being too dull, Tactical fans for being too simple, but if approached with an open mind, it can be a very satisfying experience. It features a wonderful atmosphere, an intriguing plot, and very good visuals and music. While its short length may steer one away from purchasing it, it's at least worth a rent if you're in the mood for something different.

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