Genre: Horror RPG
Release Date: November 30th, 1999
Set in the late 19th Century, Koudelka follows the titular character to a centuries old monastery in Wales, guided by a mysterious voice. There, she encounters an injured thief, a priest, and a horrific history of violence, torture, and death within its walls. Unable to escape, the three must explore each room, learning of its twisted history, all the while fighting the hideous creatures within. What will they find in each room? How will they escape? Most importantly, will they survive the night?
My full review after the break.
So, a witch, a priest, and a thief walk into a monastery…
In all seriousness, there is no joke about how serious this story is, and that’s a good thing. Koudelka is a game of discovery, as much as it is an RPG. The story unfolds as you explore the monastery. Nothing is revealed until you find it. Right from the beginning, all you know is that there is something about this place, it’s not good, and that’s about it. The more you explore, the more you learn about what made it so twisted. Each revelation is also quite the shock. It’s hard to see things coming in this game until closer to the end, when it becomes pretty clear what you have to do to escape.
What’s interesting about this story is that it is genre-interchangeable. This story could have been designed with other game genres in mind. This could have easily been a point and click adventure, a Resident Evil-esque survival horror game, or a flat out action game. I love that they went with an RPG, but I can understand how one development decision could have made me miss this game entirely.
Fun fact, Koudelka is actually a prequel to the Shadow Hearts series for the PS2. At first, I thought it was a very loose connection, but it turns out I was wrong. Key elements of the story were connected to Shadow Hearts in a way that makes it worth playing. Two characters in this game resurface in Shadow Hearts, and several references to Koudelka can be found throughout the game.
Much like the story, Koudelka’s cast of characters develop along with the progression of the story. Since everything in this place is trying to kill you, trust is a huge issue. No one reveals much about themselves until it’s absolutely necessary for them to. In fact, Koudelka herself doesn’t even get into her life story until near the end of the game. What’s great about this is that it keeps you sucked in. You actually WANT to know more about these people and what’s going on, if for no other reason than to figure out why the hell they would even set foot in this godforsaken place.
Koudelka pushed the PSOne’s graphics pretty hard with its 3D modelling. Its cutscenes were incredibly well designed and fully rendered in 3D.
Items were relatively easy to find on the ground, as they stood out in the environment. I do think more detail was put into the enviroment designs rather than the items, but it was still easy enough to find things laying around.
The overall design and attention to detail in the horror elements were also impressive. While nothing overly gruesome was shown in game, you could tell just by looking at things what kinds of inhuman and terrible things happened in each room.
So normally I would talk about the soundtrack, but there isn’t a lot to talk about here. Apart from combat, there is very little background music going on during exploration. Granted, the silence does add to the terror. What I can say about the combat music is that it’s catchy. I find myself humming the boss fight music when I’m bored.
Koudelka also has a series of fully voiced cut scenes. For game of its age, I can understand people being concerned about the quality of the voice acting. The thing is it’s actually good. I think there was some dry runs with the voice cast to really get the feel of their situation. At first, I thought that maybe Koudelka was a little too angry at times, but her tone really made more sense when she reveals more about her life. There is a real sense of care that went into things from an audio perspective, and I appreciate that in a game that could have easily been ruined by bad voice acting, and an unfitting musical score.
Gameplay – Exploration
Since the game revolves around a huge monastery, you spend your time going from room to room, hallway to hallway, floor by floor, and so on. As you progress, you will be able to pick up a lot of different items. These things include weapons, items, and tools that are used to solve the many puzzles and unlock the many locked doors. If a door can’t be opened for some reason, find another route, and you will likely come back to it later on.
Several of the rooms or hallways give the opportunity to provide a temporary save. Proper save points can be found throughout the building, but they are protected by boss monsters. Once beaten, you can refresh your party and save at each one at any time.
Encounters are random, with the exception of bosses of course. Since a good portion of your time is used running around looking for clues to solve puzzles, the encounter rate is not that high. Don’t get me wrong, you will be able to grind if you’re having trouble with enemies or bosses. It just doesn’t get in the way of exploring too much.
My one issue with exploration would be the button requirements to take certain actions. For example, you need to press the confirm button to open a door. That makes sense. But you also have to use the confirm button for mundane tasks like walking up or down stairs. I didn’t realize this the first hour or so of playing, and I missed several rooms thinking I couldn’t go up the three step staircase to go into the next room. Once I knew this, things were very straightfoward, but it definitely is frustrating at first.
Gameplay – Combat
When an encounter does happen, it is laid out with a grid-like system, with your group on one end, and the monsters on the other. Much like a Strategy RPG, turns allow for one movement, and one action per player each round. Actions include attacking, casting magic, using items, and changing weapons. Changing weapons on the fly is nice, since weapons have different effects or elemental properties. They can also break, so you aren’t left hanging without a weapon in a pinch.
Actions have skill levels that increase by usage. For example, if you use a sword to attack often, that character becomes more proficient with that weapon type. The same can be said for magic, as you can increase proficiency in that specific spell by usage.
One of the main tactics for combat is making sure that the monsters don’t advance past members of your party. If you send someone all the way up, they die, and a monster gets past him, you cannot revive him until the advanced monster is dead. Granted, most fights are fairly easy, but it’s better to exercise caution at times.
Fights are very much slower than a typical RPG, given its age. I can understand running from fights often just so you don’t have to deal with them when needing to go from one end of the monastery to the other. Still, combat does provide a nice distraction from the many puzzles, creating a wonderful balance of RPG and adventure game.
Gameplay – Character Progression
Along with increasing weapon and spell proficiencies, your characters will level up with a standard EXP system. When a character levels, they are given four ability points that you can allocate as you see fit. This allows for full customization of your characters. If you want three physical tanks, you can (although it’s not recommended). It’s fairly clear what each person’s role should be, and stats should be assigned accordingly, but there’s no reason not to experiment if you decide on a second playthrough.
Gameplay – Optional Content
Since the monastery is so big, there are some things you can potentially miss. I know there was a combination safe that I didn’t find out the code for in my first playthrough, so who knows what other things I might have missed.
There is one super hard optional boss available to fight before the end of the game. Beating it provides one of the best weapons in the game, so it might be worth getting.
In my opinion, I think that Koudelka is a very misunderstood game. Many of the reviews I saw for the game found it mediocre, and some downright slammed it. While not to discredit the reviews of an individual, I would hope that these people would give it another chance. This game took two different genres and blended them together in a way that was actually cohesive. You can’t think of it as just another RPG. It’s as much a puzzle adventure game as it is anything else. As for it being a rewarding experience, you are rewarded with plot development, character background, and some really twisted imagery. For a game that can be cleared in about twenty hours, Koudelka is really worth your time to find, even if you’re only in it for the Shadow Hearts connections.