Survival horror and turn-based RPGs have a lot in common. Both feature engrossing storylines with oodles of cutscenes, and both usually contain somewhat spotty gameplay that’s overlooked when compared to the plot and atmosphere. But who am I to complain? I still love both of these genres, warts and all. That’s why Koudelka, a blend of two of my favorite genres, seemed to be quite promising. To sweeten the deal, the game was developed by ex-Squaresoft staff. If anyone could rival Squaresoft when it came to cinematic RPGs, I figured only former Square personnel had the chance. Sadly, that chance was blown with a selection of flaws that bring this title down.
Taking place at the turn of the 19th century, three people are drawn to a European monastery for various reasons. Koudelka, a tough gypsy, is called to the medieval place of prayer by her psychic sense. Edward is simply a thief looking to punish the heathen caretakers. And finally there’s James, an elitist priest on a mission from the Vatican. Each of the characters is far from heroic, whether it is James, who disregards anyone who isn’t Catholic, or Koudelka, whom is a wickedly sarcastic bitch. The three people team up to survive, but the underlying friction between them creates a tension not seen in many RPGs.
Needless to say, all three characters aren’t prepared for what’s in store for them at the monastery. The house of God has turned into a house of horror. Demonic monsters are abundant, and there’s a sickening amount of corpses at nearly every turn. The only people who can be found are a kindly elderly couple, but what exactly are they doing in such a hellish place?
Since all of the action takes place within the decrepit monastery, the claustrophobic gothic setting of Koudelka is a wonderful change of pace from the typical “travel the world while trying to save it” theme present in most RPGs. The very small cast of characters succeeds since the writing is excellent, their motives are interesting and the voice acting is surprisingly effective. Now if only the rest of the game fared this well.
As a survival horror game, Koudelka comes across as painfully clichéd. You walk through many static backgrounds while searching for item after item. The items are then used to unlock doors or solve simplistic puzzles. Of course, there is also a great amount of tiresome backtracking. All of this would be fine circa 1996 when Resident Evil came out, but this game came out roughly four years after and didn’t bother to change the basic formula.
Any sort of scares or jumps are lost in the very silly technique Koudelka uses to present the supposedly “frightening” monsters. Imagine you’re playing the first Resident Evil. You’re walking through the infamous hallway where the dogs are supposed to crash through. Now instead of crashing through the window and starling the crap out of you, a text message pops up at the bottom of the screen that says “Two demonic dogs crash through the window and attack!” This is exactly what happens before many boss battles in Koudelka. It may have worked in ancient text adventures, but it doesn’t do much in a modern game.
I suppose it’s even harder to create anything resembling a scare with slow, turn-based battles that occur randomly. The battles plod along so slowly that Koudelka makes the agonizingly-paced fights of Skies of Arcadia look speedy in comparison. The character move at a snail’s speed throughout the battle, and the loading times makes things even worse. The camera will just stay on the same character for a few seconds even though nothing is happening. Fortunately the encounter rate is fairly low, so you won’t be getting into battles every ten steps.
There appears to be a fair amount of character customization, which can turn the boring battles into a rewarding experience if you spent a lot of time perfected the stats of the characters. After each level up you’re given a few points to increase stats, and this is the only way to strengthen your characters. Unfortunately, the balance is a bit off. Magic attacks are far more powerful than physical attacks in nearly all cases, so making a couple characters proficient in magic is absolutely required. It turns out there actually isn’t as much customization as it first seemed.
Koudelka uses the familiar RPG technique of increasing the power of magic spells and weapons the more you use them, but the results are mixed. The leveling up of spells is pulled off with no problems, but the same cannot be said about weapons. The problem is that most weapons break after used a certain amount of times. Sometimes it takes over a hundred whacks to break your weapons, but usually it takes as little as twenty. There are many different kinds of weapons, and one time I leveled up the hammer, but when it broke I didn’t find another one towards the end of the third disc! This whole “limited usage” thing feels totally unnecessary since it’s such an annoyance and doesn’t really add anything positive to the game.
One part where Koudelka actually delivers too much of a good thing are in the many FMV cutscenes. While these prevalent scenes look quite pleasing, they just make you realize how inferior the in-game graphics are. The static backgrounds are all very dark and murky, so it’s a hard to navigate properly and find certain items. It’s a shame that things are so hard to make out since there are times when you can make out hints of promising art direction. The gruesome piles of bodies and the appropriately deteriorated monastery could have added some atmosphere if such grotesque displays were more visible. The music also fails to add any much-needed atmosphere. No music plays while wandering around the holy grounds, with only some ineffective background sound effects here and there. The battle music feels terribly upbeat and out of place, but at least the rare music that appears during a cutscene fits the tone of the dark game.
For a game that spans four discs, Koudelka is incredibly short. The whole thing will take a little over ten hours to complete. There’s a super-tough optional boss, but when you level up you’ll still have less than fifteen hours clocking into the game. Just imagine how long Koudelka would have been if the battles didn’t move so slowly?
It’s actually a good thing the game was so short. The fusion of survival horror and a turn-based RPG is unique idea, but the execution was not successful. Despite the riveting plot and refreshing setting, Koudelka suffers from obnoxious faults such as poor graphics, obnoxious battles and an uneven balance. I have a feeling this game would have turned out much better if so much of the budget wasn’t allocated to the many cutscenes.