North American Release Date: June 29, 2000
Noth American Publisher: Infogrames
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, a company that 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 one the game's greatest assets. Edward, James, and Koudelka play off of one another nicely, 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 reliance on one another, 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 a fair amount out of them. Each is given a fair amount of backstory in a relatively short amount of time, which is beneficial for getting the player invested in the game's world.
The 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. Ultimately, music is incredibly scarce, appearing almost exclusively during battle, and there is very little in the way of variety. You'll be listening to the same tune over and over again during random battles, and it eventually becomes mind-numbing. Thankfully, bosses receive a different soundtrack, but it's little comfort, as you'll be reverting back to that mind-numbing tune before long.
A Bump In The Night
Additionally, many of the songs feature light, upbeat tones, which simply don't fit a game purporting Gothic horror as the primary theme. Still, while the game offers very little in terms of musical accompaniment while exploring, the mood created by the ambient sound effects 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 just the similarities attached to the genre. 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
Koudelka relies on random battles as the method for entering into combat. The battle 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 a turn timer, much like the one seen in the Disgaea series, with a character's stats determining when they'll be able to move.
The player has a lot of customization in a sense, as one is able to freely distribute points into the party's attributes, allowing you to determine their effectiveness and specializations in combat. Unfortunately, because their base stats were already molded to establish them as a certain type of character, it is difficult to truly implement your own playstyle for each character and is better to just follow along with what the game decided on its own.
Koudelka's 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. Adding to this, most of the game's firearms are outscaled by melee weapons quickly, and thus the thought of running out of ammo falls further out of your mind, and you don't have a reason to worry. Similarly, the magic is far more powerful, so the guns, which should ideally be among the most useful items in a survival horror, become nothing more than an item in the inventory to be tossed should you have space issues.
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 had a great time discovering the game's mysteries. The mix of humor from the characters and their constant one-upmanship was a key source of enjoyment for me and the tremendously strange creature designs helped it to come together to create a package far more enjoyable than the sum of its parts.
Time Spent: 24 and 13 hours per respective playthrough.