Release Year: 1999
Genre: Role-Playing, Survival Horror
Koudelka is a horror themed role-playing game, released exclusively for the Sony PlayStation in the Winter of 1999. It was developed by Sacnoth, who would later to become Nautilus, and serves as the precursor to their PlayStation 2 role-playing trilogy, Shadow Hearts.
Set near the end of the 19th century, the story revolves around the mysterious Nemeton Monastery and takes place entirely within its grounds. The game's namesake, Koudelka Iasant, a gypsy woman gifted with psychic abilities, arrives to investigate the callings of a spirit from within the walls. Shortly thereafter, she encounters two fellows, Edward Plunkett, an adventurer based loosely on the author of the same name, and James O'Flaherty, a bishop sent to recover an artifact of the Catholic Church. The trio soon discovers that the house of God has been tainted by the misguided experiments of a man trying to revive his deceased wife.
It's important to place heavy emphasis on the party members, as they're possibly the game's greatest asset. Edward, James, and Koudelka play off of one another very well, making the most out of every interaction, injecting much-appreciated humor into the potentially stagnant survival horror formula. The three are drastically different from one another, and the game does a good job of expressing their connection as a team, even if they don't necessarily get along. Beyond the central three, the game features only a handful of additional characters. The development team chose to work with a limited set and got the most out of them. Each is given a fair amount of backstory, which is very beneficial for getting the player invested in the game's world.
Meet Your New Friends
A Bump In The NightThe sound design does a slight disservice to that investment. Hiroki Kikuta, the primary composer of the Mana series takes the reigns of the music department, and while quality is a non-issue, there are several oddities with regard to the soundtrack. For starters, music is incredibly scarce, appearing almost exclusively during battle, and there's little in the way of variety. You'll be listening to the same tune over and over again in random battles. Thankfully, bosses receive a different soundtrack, but it's little comfort, as you'll be reverting back to that mind-numbing tune before long. Additionally, many of the songs feature light, upbeat tones, which simply don't fit a game purporting Gothic horror as a primary theme. Still, while the game offers very little in terms of musical accompaniment while exploring, the atmosphere created by ambient sounds does a commendable job of creating a believable environment.
With the game's reliance on a singular Goliath building as the central area, it may start to seem somewhat familiar to Resident Evil beyond both being deemed survival horror. Exploration is done in a very similar fashion, going so far as to include tank controls as the method of moving the heroine. Also much like the aforementioned PlayStation classic, several notes and files are available, which serve to add some flavor and provide hints to assist the player in discovering the solution to one of the several puzzles that litter the game.
Home Sweet Home
Battle relies on random battles as the method for entering into combat, however, the combat system itself includes a few noteworthy additions to shake up the formula. Namely, it takes place on a 5x6 grid, similar to many tactical role-playing games in a sense. The party moves around the squares based on turn timers, which are determined by their stats. These are determined as the player levels the group. One is able to distribute points into their attributes, allowing you to determine their effectiveness and specializations in combat.
Troubled WatersThe greatest fault lies in the lack of cohesion between the genres. Ultimately, the fundamentals of the two just don't mesh. Survival-horror conventions, such as ammo and limited items are completely undercut by role-playing mechanics that have been carried over, healing magic being a major offender. Further exasperating the problem is the combat system itself, which maintains item drops as a mechanic, and with that, one is able to collect items by simply grinding through enemies. As a result, any potential tension raised by a middling supply line is quickly alleviated.
Koudelka is something of an oddity in the PlayStation library. Survival horror themed role-playing games are a rarity in and of themselves, and while I can't say it excels as either of those things, I found something remarkable during the adventure. The high-quality writing, characters & monster designs come together with the flawed execution of the central ideas to form a package far greater than the sum of its parts.
Time Spent: 13-24 hours per playthrough.
Recommendations for further playing: Sweet Home (Famicom) Shadow Hearts series (PlayStation 2)