Koudelka - Staff Retroview  

Victorian Monks
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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Less than 20 Hours
+ Interesting combat
+ Unusual setting
- Quiet ... a little too quiet
- Clunky mechanics
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   Koudelka is a strange creature in the world of RPGs. Sacnoth developed something that tries to fuse standard role-playing mechanics with survival horror, and at least succeeds in being more entertaining than Parasite Eve 2. Its problems are many, and the reward for overlooking them enough to finish the game is not necessarily worth it, but the experience will be unique. My experience with the game was hardly free of impediments, but on the whole I'm glad it happened.

   When moving around the monastery that serves as Koudelka's setting, reminders of survival horror games at the time will be omnipresent. The camera is always fixed onto one view of the area, and moving carelessly into a corner will often shift it to a different angle so that the player must adjust to the goal suddenly being in a different direction. Picking up items is difficult both because they are often obscured by the camera angle, and because it can take many tries before the game finally recognizes it is next to an object that can be retrieved. Movement is slowed because of the need to shift vantage points frequently, and because going up and down is a lengthy process. Such an interface is cumbersome and annoying, but that is to be expected of any game aping the early Resident Evil playbook.

   Instead of having enemies appear directly on the screen, Koudelka employs random turn-based battles. Aside from their random appearances, these fights are more complex than the standard and resemble those in tactical RPGs. The three player characters and their enemies move around on a grid, able to melee attack only adversaries next to their position. Using magic requires no maneuvering, but a charge time is required before the intended spell is actually launched. This delay is at least intentional, though the game provides no means of gauging how long it will be: other actions in battle are tardy just because Sacnoth did not tighten the pace much. The most obnoxious culprit comes from enemies that take several seconds to actually die after a fatal blow has been landed, but little pauses throughout battles make them drag on longer than usual. Another annoyance is the inability to cancel a movement, though the small size of the battlefields keeps this from being an enormous hindrance. Any melee weapon may randomly break in battle, which is unpleasant but compensated for by the frequency with which fresh equipment is found.

   Characters gain four points per level that can be applied to improving their statistics as the player wishes, enabling the three to develop in very different ways. Characters actually gain nothing automatically from gaining a level, allowing this statistic customization and whatever equipment is found to determine their entire makeup. Developing magic and weapon proficiency is done via constant use of them in battle, though it is not at the same customization level as character growth from leveling. Weapons fit into ten different varieties and magic falls under fifteen spells, each of which is improved through constant application. Weapon and spell proficiency can only go from level one to three, but the difference between each is considerable, and worth the time investment.

Did someone import dead steers from a Far Side strip for this? Did someone import dead steers from a Far Side strip for this?

   Koudelka's story would be more typical as a horror movie than an RPG. It begins with the eponymous woman displaying excellent skill at scaling a monastery, inside of which she saves a young man named Edward. The two of them shortly rescue a priest named James, and the trio sticks together in spite of considerable bickering while exploring the monastery. A variety of loathsome creatures living and dead have infested the place, and Koudelka's psychic powers are constantly being triggered by the ill will that floods the place.

   This plot is interesting and unusual among RPGs, but when considered by the strictest standards has some issues. Koudelka and James get some character background, but not enough to make them fully three-dimensional, while Edward gets only a perfunctory life story. The events elsewhere in the monastery certainly deliver some disgusting imagery, and by the admittedly-low standards of modern horror movies supplies a fairly solid rationale for their existence.

   By the standards of a 1999 video game, Infogrames' localization is quite solid. The characters do journeyman jobs and get the point of their dialogue across without sounding bored, while the text conveys the necessary information without seeming stilted or being laden with typos. The voice actors sound nothing at all like people from 1898 Wales, however, and certain modern expressions intrude upon the dialogue to prevent full immersion in the period setting. As for the music — there isn't any except in battle and cut scenes. Footsteps and the occasional sound effect are supposed to enhance the atmospheric qualities of the monastery, but they don't do a good enough job to justify the quiet blanketing the screen most of the time.

A little big for Triffids - a little small for the Guardian - could an Ent live here? A little big for Triffids - a little small for the Guardian - could an Ent live here?

   Koudelka comes on four CDs despite being completable in under fifteen hours, and its FMV sequences are probably responsible for that. They look nice but are nothing jaw-dropping, while the in-game graphics are definitely a product of the PS1's limited polygon processing power. The grotesque enemies have their impact lessened considerably if the player must squint to ascertain exactly what they are, but the images produced do a solid job considering the hardware.

   Many things make the difficulty of Koudelka annoying, in particular the random weapon breaks and a key item that must be acquired in order to have a chance at vanquishing the final boss. The puzzles mostly solve themselves if the right item is possessed, however, and the few that don't are easy to stumble through. Combat is never a problem when characters tend to gain a level at every other battle, and intelligent statistic assignment makes almost every enemy in the game deal pathetic damage.

   Survival horror games have never interested me, so the fact that Koudelka eschews being a Resident Evil clone in battle is a good thing. The game zips by at a rapid pace, and its events are memorable even with the myriad issues that will be experienced. Apparently this game is unhelpful when it comes to preparation for the subsequent Shadow Hearts series. So be it. Koudelka is hard to actually recommend given its litany of issues, but I don't regret experiencing it.

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