Koudelka (PlayStation) review
"A young black-clad woman trots on horseback through the dismal green-grey landscape of turn of the nineteenth century Wales. A soprano cries a monk's hymn in the background. Chimes are struck, and the funereal rumble of a drum suggests that this woman's journey will lead into mystery, or her doom. "
A young black-clad woman trots on horseback through the dismal green-grey landscape of turn of the nineteenth century Wales. A soprano cries a monk's hymn in the background. Chimes are struck, and the funereal rumble of a drum suggests that this woman's journey will lead into mystery, or her doom.
This is the haunting opening sequence of the gothic RPG Koudelka, and when I first experienced it, I immediately knew that this woman, Koudelka, was taking me exactly where I wanted to go... It has been a long time since my own eight-bit heyday of roleplaying in videogames. The proliferation in the thirty-two bit era of prince and princess tales, overblown received stories, too-thick conflicts of warring houses or of one-dimensional characters claiming to be more than that, had repelled me from the genre. So I took to lurking in the wings, and there I waited and watched for something unusual.
Enter Koudelka. With its historical settings, realistic presentation, an intimate cast of adult protagonists, and a great deal of threat, darkness and gothic horror, it is the RPG to stalk its gaudier cousins and dare to be what they are not. Koudelka's creators at Sacnoth are ex-Squaresoft, but the only major hangover from Square here is the inclusion of the four elemental affinities of magic, and the light and dark affinities of monsters.
You will play Koudelka herself, a mysterious young wanderer 'cursed' with psychic powers, who is drawn for reasons (initially) unknown to the grim charnel-house that is Nemeton Abbey in Abbertswyth, Wales. Within its dungeon-like confines you will learn of ancient murderous plots and secret plans to meddle with the fabric of the world. You will strike up with a pair of cross-purposed companions and hack your way through waves of grisly monsters.
The greatest shock of this game in relation to what I was expecting, is that our heroine, Koudelka Iasant, is a truly nasty piece of work. Cruel, cynical and venomously tongued, she's entirely aware of her own considerable magic and intellectual powers and has no compunctions about holding them over her companions. When I first heard her treacle-warm drinker's voice (which plainly sounds older than the character's nineteen years) breaking into callousness, it dispelled whatever ideas I'd garnered from the doe-eyed stare she'd been giving me from the cover.
It's both brave and dangerous to have such a harsh character as the heartbeat of a game - What if we don't like her? - yet Koudelka possesses more than enough mystery to compel you to go with her and possibly find out why she is the way she is. The game's boldest stroke isn't executed perfectly, but it is riskier than what most RPGs have to offer, and I can see why a Squaresoft would have baulked at such material.
To accompany Miss Misanthropy 1898 on her journeys into darkness are Edward Plunkett, a strapping blonde brat turned free-spirit criminal, and James O'Flaherty, a somewhat fanatical bishop and university scholar. In rough character terms that gives you a trio of the magical one, the brawny one, and the jack-of-both trades. However, these are merely predispositions reflected in initial stats. Koudelka is a wonderfully flexible RPG in that any character can use any weapon or cast any spell. Ability improvements are arrived at through one method alone: repeated useage. Beyond that, it will be a character's Ability Point (AP) distribution which amplifies and articulates any one skill. So through the generous levelling up system, you can inject APs exactly where you want them to engineer the trio of characters to express your own fantasies. You could turn Koudelka into a gunslinger, Edward into a mage and the bishop into a pipe-busting thug, if that's your curiosity.
The central game presentation arrives directly from survival horror, with lush graphics of Koudelka picking her way through the pre-rendered scenery of the Abbey and its grounds. The overpowering atmosphere is what will stay with you longest after you've switched off the Playstation. Think of mazes of forbidding masonry, stained glass ornamentation and luxurious but ancient repositories of dread knowledge. And darkness - there are areas of darkness in every single image. There is no incidental music; the game is a triumph of pure atmospheric sound as design. The ever-present and hyperbolic (but still quiet) crackling and popping of the period's gas lanterns on the soundtrack immediately became one of my favourite sounds in this world. Koudelka is all boom and subsonic rumble, sighs of air and roaring space.
On the downside, physical direction from scene to scene is often messy. In league with weakly implemented 'push the pad the way you want to go' controls, there are plenty of obnoxious moments of confusion. This sort of thing really makes you appreciate the tightness of Capcom's taken-for-granted direction of the Resident Evil saga, for instance. Fortunately, this soreness of navigation is made up for by the excellent status controls. Items and stats are rapidly accessible by a few taps on the shoulder buttons, and the character profiles are attractively presented as sepia playing cards which you can shuffle through.
Battles can strike at random, whirling the screen into turn-based dungeon environments. For 'random haters', I stress that the scale and timing of these encounters has been nicely judged to derail any potential frustration. The tiled combat system has depth, but its implementation is simple, graceful and fun. (Probably too simple for some - if you absolutely demand nested menus of commands and being given the statistics for everything, Koudelka might anger you.) In the thirty-two bit style, you will be saturated with numerous glowing animations and musical stings whenever certain magical attacks are made. Pretty as they are, I still breathe a secret sigh of relief that none of them are particularly long, and that the game's small scale in which you'll never face more than six foes at a time, staves off the dreaded R.A.I. or Repetitive Animation Injury.
You will become strongly aware of your adventurers' pros and cons as individuals in battle, which is my definition of successfully implemented character development. Weapons break frequently, but replacements are thick on the ground. The 1898 setting has allowed for a truly interesting variety of arms, from blades to crossbows to primitive shotguns, and I also love the very appropriate chess metaphor on the character formation screen where Koudelka is your Queen.
The greatest intrigue of Koudelka's combat is definitely its wordlessness and horror. Not a single foe is named or explained, and these are absolutely bizarre creations. Faceless ghosts who giggle, headless torsos which have chunks of glass shoved into their wounds, a triple-headed gunman who walks on the ceiling, slithering foetuses, cyclonic runestones... Koudelka and her friends take this whole bestiary in their stride, which is unsettling as often as it is funny.
Thanks to the fact that the whole adventure takes place in one enormous locale, Koudelka is very rich with door, lock and pattern puzzles. It is a shame then that these puzzles are often dispensed to the player with the flinching nervousness of a bad poker player. On my first trip through the game, I spent hours gathering dozens of statues, tablet fragments, pendants etc... without a clue as to where or how to use a single one of them. I considered the meaning of paintings on the walls, and I read diaries I'd found, some with genuinely shocking content, but I remained bewildered. The sense of mystery was replaced by anxiety as I pressed on into the game's daunting four-disc world, hoping in faith that I hadn't overlooked something crucial. Then suddenly, the game would throw all its cards down on the table at once, and I would encounter and solve three puzzles in a row.
Puzzles should suggest solutions, or vice versa, but in Koudelka the two can seem like strangers until the moment of meeting, at which point they both frustratingly disappear. Often when the elements are brought together, the game solves the puzzle for you, which is anti-climactic, though still a relief. This is bad training for those brick-wallish occasions when Koudelka expects you to produce and execute an entirely abstract solution all by yourself, like finding the path across the rune-covered floor.
The character drama is the most ambitious element of the game, with extended scenes of argument, meditation and even theological bickering taking place amongst your trio. Koudelka is nasty, Edward is spirited and the bishop is pompous. These cinemas are handled by the game engine, not in CGI, which gives the entire experience a great cohesive feel, and also shows off some very clever motion capture. True, the drama lurches about in consistency as often as the dynamics of the whole game. Some scenes lose their dramatic force because they occur entirely in an extended long shot. Some are clunkily or anachronistically scripted. But at its best, Koudelka can be the best, because it shoots for adult complexity and sometimes scores. To see a psychically possessed Koudelka screaming and thrashing as she relives the experiences of a torture victim is hair-raising. And the four minute tour de force of drunken bonding which sneakily evolves into the big revelation scene facing Koudelka's tragic misanthropy, is phenomenal.
In the end, cliches do not rear their ugly heads, love does not conquer all (though it does smirk briefly upon the proceedings) and much that was in chaos remains in chaos once the dust has cleared.
In terms of replayability, the atmosphere will never fail you. At around twenty hours of playtime, Koudelka might seem relatively short for an RPG, but on its own intense and intimate terms this length makes perfect sense. The strongest drawcard is the open-ended character development, with the ability to build the three adventurers completely against type. Alas, if you do develop super-powerful characters, the space in which to use them in the final stages of the game is frustratingly small, and the most heinous monster which you'd really love to go back and challenge - the Gargoyle - cannot be reached again from the final disc!
In spite of the weird overall dynamics and these design flaws (and in spite of my distaste for Square, the truth is that these oversights would never remain overseen in a Square game), Koudelka was one of my three favourite gaming experiences in 2001. It turned out to be everything that I hoped it would be. Dark, intimate, richly atmospheric, and a simply graceful RPG with edgy adult themes. The puzzles aren't well-handled, but they are still intriguing and numerous, and the plot touches on every gothic horror phenomenon from Frankenstein to Jack The Ripper. Perhaps most importantly, Koudelka is different to all the other RPGs out there.
For better or worse, I strongly identify with Koudelka's misanthropy, and I'd follow in her ruinous footsteps any day.
-- Koudelka -- 8/10 --
Final Free Advice: When you move from disc three to disc four, DON'T get cocky and erase your last saved game on disc three. You can't go back at that point, and I've learned from experience that there's a certain horrible mistake you can make.
1. Koudelka bills itself as 'The Sexiest Gothic Horror RPG on Playstation', which is a bit cute since it's almost the only Gothic Horror RPG on Playstation. While the marketing department might have seized on Koudelka's foxy stockinged legs and venomous outlook, she is really a spindly and pleasingly unusual-looking woman. In any case, there's no denying the total effect of the game's gothic warmth and artery-coloured trappings on those of us who like this kind of thing.
2. While the game is set in 1898 Wales, all the voice actors are Americans doing American. I accept that it might be too much to expect Welsh, but really... even British would have been a gesture. If you're going to go to the trouble of setting your game in Wales, go to the trouble of setting it in Wales!
Community review by bloomer (March 08, 2004)
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