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Koudelka (PlayStation) artwork

Koudelka (PlayStation) review

"I'm a bit of a sucker for the overlooked RPGs, and although this has lead me to many an obscure experience, it also gives me the chance to enjoy games that others have overlooked. I first heard and became interested in Koudelka around the time of its release, the press releases promising quite a unique experience, although it wasn't till several years later that I managed to procure myself a copy. It was a game that had long stuck in my mind, a mixture of RPG and survival horror, and bein..."

I'm a bit of a sucker for the overlooked RPGs, and although this has lead me to many an obscure experience, it also gives me the chance to enjoy games that others have overlooked. I first heard and became interested in Koudelka around the time of its release, the press releases promising quite a unique experience, although it wasn't till several years later that I managed to procure myself a copy. It was a game that had long stuck in my mind, a mixture of RPG and survival horror, and being a fan of each genre, my curiosity was piped. It was also set in 19th century Wales, and being of British persuasion, the location only served to add to my interest. If that wasn't enough, the company holding the reigns were Sacnoth, who were made out of former Squaresoft employees. As long as it wasn't the team that had worked on Chrono Cross, a decent game was all but guaranteed.

I apologise for the cheap shot there, but I regret nothing!

You take the role of this games namesake, Koudelka, a young girl blessed (or cursed, as it often goes) with psychic abilities who is drawn towards an old Abbey in the heart of Wales. It doesn't take long before you meet your first team member, Edward (not long as in during the opening CGI), and not much further into the game, your team is complete with the inclusion of James - and it has to be said as good a cast will be hard to find. The cast doesn't have that 'instantly life friends' situation that every RPG seems to have; each member clashes with the others in a refreshingly human way. Koudelka is a cynical, sarcastic young lady, searching for the reasons she was called to the abbey, Edward is a thugish and headstrong wannabe poet, who is a little slow on the uptake abd thirsts for adventure, whilst James is a knowledgeable, yet whiney Priest, sent to the Abbey from the Vatican. With such drastically differing personas, as you can expect, the trio often squabble, something that is captured brilliantly by their respective voice actors. This deliberate placing of personas is highlighted by a clever little touch in the symbolic use of chess pieces to describe each character. Kouldeka receives the Queen, Edward a Knight, and James a bishop.

Another strong point of Koudelka is the plot, which is nothing short of staggering. Starting the game, you have little explanation of why each character is present, or even the importance of the abbey in whose dark corridors you stalk. The story is carried out stunningly, making perfect use of numerous CGIs, in game cutscenes; all the while exploiting the above-average voice acting present throughout the experience. In exploring the Abbey, you'll discover its history and its meaning to each of your party members. Needless to say, it isn't going to be all lightness and cheer, and while you travel the dank recesses and rustic abondoment that unfolds within, you'll soon find out all about the disturbing tales that have taken place within its walls.

These tales are both gruesome and numerous. Perhaps Wales isn't all about scenic valleys and rose-cheeks choirboys at all.

It's not all good news though, and you'll find out Koudelka's biggest flaw very early in the game; the battle system. It's arranged in a turn based strategy predicament where you have a grid formation on which you can move your cast around like chess pieces and engage the enemy. A system that probably wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the dismal pace it is set at. Cast a spell and wait for the below-par spell animation to kick in; attack the evil beasties and wait while the sluggish blow lands; kill the wretched things, and watch as it very, very slowly fades from screen. The main slow down is that when something is happening, only the aggressive character and the intended target are left on the playing field while everyone else is faded from view, only to be brought back at the end of the attack - which is so bloody time consuming! Even when you move your cast about the grid, you are meet with the same slowness, and as the battles drag on, you will grit your teeth in anger and even have enough time to shake an irritable fist at the screen -- and hell, should you wish, finish that book you had started or learn a new language. If this wasn't enough, you and the various monstrosities that roam the abbey seem to emanate a magical and invisible force field that stops them from being passed. if someone is on a line of the grid, an opposable force cannot pass, ensuring there will be not flanking here. As it is, you can strike at angles, so can be diagonally placed, and still attack your target, but it is a puzzling exclusion to make. Who doesn't enjoy surrounding foes in a triangle formation, and giving them a good kicking? Sacnoth, apparently.

Thankfully, it is not all bad. Despite the battle scenes being a rather bleak and poorly disguised grid, they do offer clever little touches according to your location, such as a multicoloured shadow of a stained glass window, or the uneven, rotting wooden floor of a neglected loft, for instance. As for the various ghouls you'll encounter, most of them are simply brilliant designs, reeking of originality and exhuming the feel of a Lovecraftion nightmare. Sure, your basic zombies and ghosts make an expected appearance in between the hybrid human baby/ant hybrids that cry in infantile pain and horror when struck, almost others. Even though recognised faults like pallet swapping are present, it's rarer here then in most games, and cant stop your opposing forces from oozing class. If that wasn't enough, the levelling system is nicely worked. Not only do you have the basic stat-based levels that rise with the accumulation of experience points allowing you to customary build your cast members attack, magic, HP, luck, and all the other usual trimmings, but weapon levelling allows you to become more proficient with the various tools of torture you get to wield. It works in a cunningly simple way; the more you use a type of weapon, the more strikes you can string together in a combo. You can raise most weapons up to lv3, allowing you a maximum of a three hit flurry. Weapon classes are lumped together, so raise your level on, say, a club, and you raise your level on all melee weapons such as pipes, maces and other blunt instruments of bludgeoning. As you have many weapons to wander across, including knifes, swords, axes and differing types of firearms, it's always handy to train up these skills as much as you can. But beware; your chosen weapon has a lifespan of its own, and will often get itself broken in mid battle. Firearms are exempt from this condition, but it helps to know that other weapons are easily found in the first half of the game, and can be regular drops later on. A touch that stops you from being comfortable with one weapon type throughout the game. The same levelling system works for your magical abilities, each level strengthens your spell, and adds to its range.

And their presentation sounds a happy note, seeing as the in-game graphics of Koudelka fit the game well. I've heard complaints that the abbey is full of drab and lifeless colours, cloaked in browns, black and greys. This much is true; but I ask you; do you expect perhaps a neon green decor with powder blue trim in an abandoned and seemingly haunted monastery? The dark pallet successfully sets a foreboding mood while the shadowy backgrounds, despite looking a little flat at times, contain intricate details and housing moving animations themselves, such as a clock's pendulum swinging to and fro. The cut scenes using the in-game engine's graphics do look blocky and awkward at times, but the character models move smoothly, the various gestures and lip sync meshing well with the voice acting. The plot driven CGI's are simply breathtaking for the game's time and really add to the feel of the experiance rather then just being there for the sake of it. The graphics manage to say what they need to, sometimes in a muddled kind of way, but often going above the call of duty.

The presentation does falter a little at times. The game boasts two battle themes, and this is all the music you will be receiving. You have one set of music for random battles, which makes a stab at being a period apt remix of sorts, and a boss battle music, which is altogether a more violent feeling piece. Both tunes in themselves are far from terrible, but the repetition of these tracks throughout the game tends to get pretty irksome pretty quick. I myself was never annoyed enough to ever mute the tv, but the shine of the battle themes had certainly worn away by the end. As hinted at previously, I remain impressed with the games voice acting. A very solid job is done ensuring that each characters persona comes across in the crisply and well read lines, inclusive of corretly placed sighs, pauses and stutterings that in previous games have come across poorly. The one big catch that the voice acting finds itself snagged upon is its curious use of accents. Respectively, you have cast members hailing from Wales, England and Ireland, yet the VA's are very obviously American, and absolutely no attempt has been made to disguise this. It makes me wonder why bother to set the story in rural Wales, then make absolutely no attempt to show the player they are there. You are made to play minus subtitles too, so pay attention! The various sounds made by the game do a great job of adding to the ambience. Floorboards creak, clocks tick, wind whistles and so on.

And one sounds you'll rarely hear is your own cries of frustration; the difficulty level evens out on the easy side. You rarely have to worry about dying, as with each level up, your HP and MP are fully replenished, with the same effect present when you use a true save-in point, as opposed to a temporary save. The saves system in itself is quite clever, with some rooms offering the temp save, of which you can only have one on your memory card and the true save points, in the guise of holy water fountains, often being protected by large boss monsters. The controls are also worth a note, with Koudelka following the D-Pad as you press instead of using a more Res Evil-like rotation system. For the most part, this works well, but thanks to some of the more rather dramatic camera angles, you might find yourself confused now and then. A small price to pay for a relatively simple interface which lends to the game greatly. A nice inclusion is how Koudelka will look at her surroundings as she explores, pointing the way to a helpful piece of equipment or in-game puzzle. The menus too are nicely set out and easy to navigate, helping you change equips, cast healing spells and use items crisply.

If I was to moan about any aspect of the game so far not covered, two things spring to mind. Firstly, the game is ridiculously short for one that spans across four disks, will easily be completed in under 15 hours while holding very little in the way of reply value, although it does boast three different endings. The other letdown is in the form of scares; there are none. For a game that is meant to have a gothic horror edge, and one that sets such a great atmosphere, it really misses out on having genuine jump moments. The various ghouls are found via a RPG random battle encounter which kills the creepy sensation of seeing zombies and ghosts stumbling and floating about the place, and apart from the CGI's, key moments in which a scare could have been easily manufactured are ruined by the decision to have the action played out with text rather than a moving scene. This is a real shame, seeing as several moments would have been in a prime position to make the gamer jump a few feet.

But when it's all said and done, Koudelka is hardly a bad game, but one that finds itself falling short of being a great one. If you can look past the short lifespan and the poor battle system, you will find a great story being told though an impressive cast in a well made atmosphere. It's not for everyone, that's for sure, but it certainly shouldn't be dismissed without fair chance.

And the fact that it spawned the Shadow Hearts series can only be viewed as a plus.


bside's avatar
Community review by bside (July 17, 2005)

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EmP posted October 15, 2008:

Ignore this: I clicked on the wrong Koudelka review,
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wolfqueen001 posted October 15, 2008:

XD You're a mod, goofy. Why not delete it?
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Masters posted October 15, 2008:

Unacceptable. Let this topic flourish anyhow.
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EmP posted October 15, 2008:

I like the little people to know I'm not above mistakes. It makes their droll lifes seem better somehow.
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psychopenguin posted October 15, 2008:

Any review that slams Chrono Cross is okay in my book.

10/10 would read again
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Suskie posted October 15, 2008:

Bside! I remember him! He was the guy who wrote that terrible Phantom Hourglass review then tried to pass it off as satire so people wouldn't hate it as much! What ever happened to him?

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