Koudelka PlayStation Review
Publisher – Infogrames – Developer – Sacnoth – Genre – RPG – Players – 1 – Age Rating – 15+ Year Released – 2000 – Other console/handheld formats – N/A
RPGS are all too often filled with moody spiky haired heroes and nondescript fantasy worlds, whilst horror games largely lack strong narratives and characterization. But Sacnoth’s Koudelka was a breath of fresh air, blending both these genres, featuring strong elements from each to create something distinct, though flawed.
The 1898 Wales setting is unique within gaming and undoubtedly a highlight. It takes place within Nementon Abbey, a monastery that could very well be a part of our own world, if not for the fact that it’s crawling with monstrosities. The narrative told with a combination of in game sequences and the, then popular, FMV is intriguing, mature in a very adult way (grown up in the sense of story as opposed to the more juvenile blood and guts of many other games) and certainly a strong point of Koudelka.
Koudelka features just three central characters, all of which have their own reasons for coming to the monastery: Koudelka Lasent herself is a sarcastic gypsy, Edward Plunkett is an adventurer and James O’Flaherty is an elitist and pious bishop. They’re all well rounded characters, though it’s their relationship that is the real highlight. Much like real people, the trio don’t always agree with each other and the friction between them is often amusing, particularly when it comes to the topic of religion.
The strength of the story and the characters is typical of an RPG, but exploring the monastery is more akin to a survival horror, specifically the older Resident Evil games. Fixed camera perspectives frame the exploration, there’s a puzzle aspect to the game and the setting is atmospheric and unnerving. Items can be found around the monastery, though these are often stumbled upon just by luck as they don’t twinkle like they do in a Resident Evil game.
When it comes to the fighting however, Koudelka falls into the stat heavy and more tactical RPG bracket. Battles are a random occurrence, though the encounter rate is low enough so as to never become too much of an annoyance, even by today’s standards.
This is a godsend as fighting is ponderous; characters can attack physically, conjure magical spells and use items, all of which is often met with a brief but annoying loading pause. There’s nothing as inventive as the Shadow Hearts series’ judgement ring system and none of the visual spectacle of a Final Fantasy game and, quite simply, it’s just not all that great of a combat system.
Characters level up in typical RPG fashion and when they do you’re granted points of which can be spent on improving their stats, of which should be carried out with care, or you’ll struggle with some of the later battles and will be forced to do some good old level grinding before you’re able to make progress. Proficiency with weapons and magical spells also increases simply through using them and, again, you must be careful with what you opt to improve, though its welcome that you’re able to decide the role that each character plays in combat.
Weapons degrade through use, eventually becoming destroyed altogether and this can be annoying on occasion, particularly when it’s an effective weapon that you’re wielding, and all the more so if you’re aiming for a character to become more skilled with a certain weapon type and aren’t able to find another after it breaks, a problem that could so easily have been remedied by a shop system.
In terms of length, the four discs are deceiving, Koudelka is far from the forty hour epic that they suggest and can be completed in as little as 10 to 15 hours. Additional longevity comes with multiple endings, but many will be disappointed at its brevity and lack of side quests.
Koudelka’s survival horror half is executed to a decent enough level, whilst it has the strong characterisation and narrative that plays such an important role in the best RPGS. It’s the bland combat system that is the real failure, dragging the game into the realms of mediocrity.
Sacnoth (later renamed Nautilus) would go on to craft much better things with the vaguely related Shadow Hearts series, but, as long as you’re able to tolerate its considerable flaws and dated nature, Koudelka is still worth a look for its stronger elements.