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Koudelka (PlayStation) artwork

Koudelka (PlayStation) review


"I can only guess that it was Koudelka's lack of polish that scared off the popular crowd, but its merits far outweigh its superficial flaws. Make no mistake, Koudelka is a stellar dark RPG with a great story, one that was sadly overlooked."



Koudelka begins with a grainy CG cutscene of a lovely young lady breaking into a dusty old monastery. Earthy tones and an uninspiring color palette form clutter and darkness around her. A blond-haired man fires at her, thinking her a murderous assailant. Distracted by her would-be killer, she fails to see a grotesque monstrosity behind her--a half-transformed werewolf, stuck horrifically between man and wolf. A boss battle begins, and while the beast looks terrifying and befits Koudelka's grim style, the character model for Koudelka herself looks jagged, somewhat blocky, and primitive even for its time. Boss music cries out from your speakers, but there's something off about it; like the composer was only working with half the materials needed to create a fitting moody track.

After you annihilate the creature and listen to subpar voice acting, you do some thinking. Koudelka lacks shine: environments could go either way, the soundtrack thus far lacks vital elements, the voice acting is straight-to-video quality, and the character models are downright ugly. Weigh that against the positive: a potentially effective battle system, thick atmosphere, and incredible enemy designs despite graphical flaws. Do you discontinue playing or continue and hope that the experience will be worth the while? In most cases, I'd have gone with the former. My free time is important to me, and I don't want to waste it playing nonsense. However, I went against my instincts and found that it was a wise choice.

Koudelka is not your typical RPG. You don't voyage from town to town dropping vast amounts of gold on new sets of armor. You spend your whole playthrough confined to the Nemeton Monastery, an abandoned holy place overrun by evil spirits, vicious demons, and ravenous undead beasts. Exploration is similar to a survival/horror game in that you check various rooms for clues and items to help you advance and survive. You must pay careful attention to detail in each room, and commit to memory various locales and observations. Where the graphics were uninspiring in the opening act, you will find that Sacnoth made the best with the earthy tones to create a fittingly macabre environment. Parts of the dusty construct feel haunted when looking at the dry, deathly scenery, especially inner depths full of disturbing imagery.

Many horror titles work best with a minimal soundtrack, relying on ambient, mood-setting tracks that don't overpower your senses. Koudelka's only music plays during battle, featuring the most ill-fitting tracks for a horror title. Instead of dark chamber music befitting the Victorian setting, the music is awkwardly peaceful and serene. However, the music does little to diminish the experience. You become adjusted to it before long, especially with how engaging the battle system is.

Koudelka doesn't stick purely to tradition with its battle system. You have the usual menu with typical actions--attacks, magic, items--but there's more to battle than menu-selecting. The screen is similar to a tactical RPG with spaces on which you and your opponents move. However, you cannot attack enemies from behind or from the sides. The piece that stands the farthest forward creates a kind of front line that its opponents cannot cross. This makes for great tactical planning, like sending forward a grunt while spell-slingers and long-range attackers pick off enemies from afar.

Joining you in battle is a nasty and creative collection of fiends. While Koudelka has its share of stock enemies like giant cockroaches and bats, there are far more horrifying specimens that confront you. Zombies are expected in any RPG, but how many of them walk on the ceiling and have three heads fused together cheek to cheek? Other vile creatures test your mettle, and taste your flesh if you're not careful: an undead hybrid dog/monkey/velociraptor, a headless peg-legged zombie with myriad swords protruding from its torso, and a dessicated corpse whose blown-away top half doubles as a magical cannon that fires entrails. Each nemesis is like an entry from a pen-and-paper RPG's monster manual re-imagined by Clive Barker. They fit both the horror and RPG aspects perfectly.

Koudelka also sports a nasty horde of bosses, from a vicious man-eating plant to a morbidly obese undead angel to an optional battle against a needle-nosed gargoyle. Defeating bosses gives you access to permanent save points, so there's much at stake when tackling one of these foul foes.

To slay demons and exorcise spirits, you'll need weapons and magic. Since abandoned monasteries don't typically have item shops, you'll have to find your items--usually through exploration or by prying them from the cold, dead hands of your enemies. To make matters worse, every weapon has a hidden durability. After an unknown number of uses the weapon will break, but thankfully enemies drop plenty of them. Using weapons and spells also builds a particular characters aptitude in said weapon and spell types, similar to Secret of Mana. By becoming more proficient in swords, a character can not only cause more damage with swords, but also randomly attack with a multi-hit combo.

Slaying demons leads to leveling up. Upon a level boost, you receive four points to allocate to eight different stats. Characters do not have predetermined classes or roles, so it falls to you to craft the ideal fighter, mage, healer, or some point in between. The depth of customization makes for an enjoyable old school RPG feel. Think of it as a game of D&D with H.P. Lovecraft as your game master and Mary Shelley and Vincent Price as your partners.

However, your journey is not merely a series of arbitrary battles. Along the way, we learn much about our three characters--Koudelka, a psychic gyspy with a chip on her shoulder; Edward, an intelligent thief; and James, a slightly bigoted and pretentious bishop. Together, they learn camaraderie and overcome their own judgments of one another to fulfill an altruistic goal. We begin to feel for the characters as they reveal more about themselves, and perhaps even learn to looks past our own judgments of them. It's a magnificent change of pace from the whiny, spiky-haired teenage punks who wish to save the world from an ancient threat resurrected by power mongers. Koudelka strays from every day melodrama and touches on something much more human.

Despite critical disapproval, Koudelka garnered a devoted fanbase and became a cult classic that would lead us into three excellent sequels. Though the sequels play more to traditional RPG elements and tropes, they maintain the same dark atmosphere and hideous enemy design. I can only guess that it was Koudelka's lack of polish that scared off the popular crowd, but its merits far outweigh its superficial flaws. Make no mistake, Koudelka is a stellar dark RPG with a great story, one that was sadly overlooked.

Rating: 8/10

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Featured community review by JoeTheDestroyer (October 28, 2011)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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Feedback

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SamildanachEmrys posted October 28, 2011:

You do a good job of drawing attention to the game's strengths and weighing them against its weaknesses. It felt maybe a little long, but that could be because I'm hungry and consequently impatient.

Corrections:

'comaraderie' --> 'camaraderie'
'intellgient' --> 'intelligent'
'on which you and your opponents to move' --> add or remove a word
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overdrive posted October 28, 2011:

Some day, I'll have to buy this game. When I last checked on Amazon, it was less than I'd have expected, considering how much some PS1 games are. That "some day" might be a ways off, though. So many games on my backlog now that it isn't even funny.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 29, 2011:

How evil of me to make those corrections without thank Sam... Thanks, good catches! I wrote the rough draft on program that didn't have spellcheck.

Thanks, Rob. This game is worth getting, just don't expect a visual feast. I got very lucky picking it up for a mere $10 right after it had come out. The sales were so poor that it soared into the bargain bin. Opportunistic individuals nabbed several copies of it at a time and sold it on eBay for a decent markup. I recall wanting to do this myself only to find that it had sold out where I had purchased it at the base exchange. Apparently some airmen figured this out as well..
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SamildanachEmrys posted October 29, 2011:

I remember seeing Koudelka knocking around for cheap in my nearest games shop for a good couple of years, but I never got round to picking it up.
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jerec posted October 29, 2011:

I got this back in 2002 or 2003 when I saw it in a bargain bin. I only knew what it was because of bloomer's review. Got to disc 3 I believe, but I never finished it.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 29, 2011:

It's a tough game to finish, especially at disc three when you command only Koudelka for a short while. You even have to fight a boss using only her.
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threetimes posted October 31, 2011:

Minor error Joe: perhaps even learn to looks past - near the end.

Good review, though I totally disagree about the music and the VA. I loved both! I liked the way you started with a negative response (which many people have from the opening of the game) and slowly worked your way through why your decision to keep playing was the right one.

Did you beat the Gargoyle?
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 31, 2011:

Thanks! I did beat Gargoyle, and without the special sword that does a ton of damage to him(because I didn't know it existed). Let me tell you, it was a helluva battle! I almost gave up so many times.
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zippdementia posted November 02, 2011:

I was never able to get into any of the Shadow Hearts/Koudelka games. After your review, I feel the usual disappointment that I wasn't able to, but your review also reveals to me why it was legitimate not to enjoy myself.

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