Koudelka - Reader Re-Retroview  

Frightening...for all the wrong reasons.
by Jeremy, the Duke of Otterland

15-20 Hours


Rating definitions 

   On October 31, 1898, three investigators visit Nemeton Monastery in the countryside of Wales: Koudelka Iasant, a girl with supernatural powers; Edward Plunkett, an adventurer; and James O'Flaherty, a Catholic vicar. The three quickly meet one another, and venture through the monastery, gradually uncovering its dark past. Koudelka, developed by Sacnoth, which was founded by ex-Square employee and composer Hiroki Kikuta, saw its American release in 2000, and very much shows its lackluster disposition as the company's first game.

   Throughout the monastery, Koudelka and her male companions randomly encounter and battle a number of unusual monsters on a grid-based field, with each character's starting position set by players in the game menus. Each character, during their turn, can move around, attack enemies with a weapon, use magic, or use an item. There are various kinds of weapons, with their levels gradually increasing (with a maximum skill level of three) as characters attack with them; weapons, however, ultimately break after a number of uses, and unfortunately, the game doesn't track weapon breakability.

   Magic, too, increases up to three skill levels with repeated use, although many times, using magic requires a few turns to charge, and it's unpredictable as to when a character will finally execute a spell. Furthermore, neither your characters nor the enemy can move past one another on the field, with each side basically being confined to whatever portion of the battlefield they occupy. Enemies, though, can move past one of your characters if they're dead, and your remaining allies can't revive that character if the enemy has moved past them. However, characters and the enemy can occasionally push one another back with weapon or magic use.

Exoskeleton means more iron Koudelka serves up fried cockroach

   After winning a battle, your characters gain experience and occasional items, weapons, and equipment (there's no currency of which to speak). Level ups, fortunately, happen pretty frequently, in which case all a character's HP and MP is restored, and the player can freely distribute four points into various stats. Some battles can be somewhat difficult, although thankfully, there are plenty of save points throughout the monastery that fully heal your characters, making decent leveling spots.

   The battle system shows potential, although is hampered by a number of technical flaws. For instance, there are fairly lengthy lags between your characters taking their turns and executing their commands, movement around the field can't be revoked, the game doesn't warn you when a weapon will break, there's no scan magic, and the battle menus are somewhat clunky. A turn order meter might've been nice, as well, given the charge time necessary to cast spells. Given the lags, furthermore, even normal battles against one enemy can take longer than necessary. In the end, the battle system can be sluggish and repetitive, with your characters largely being interchangeable in terms of abilities and strategy not exactly playing a major role.

   Gameplay outside of battle, though, isn't any better. There are some interesting puzzles, though some might drive players to using a guide to try and solve them (and if you miss an item required to advance, you can spend a while looking for it without a guide). Control, furthermore, is somewhat irritating and unresponsive (although players can adjust controls); for instance, ascending stairs and picking up items literally require players to mash buttons until they finally succeed, and time wasted running against stairs during button-mashing can easily land players in an enemy encounter. The number of item types your party can carry, moreover, is limited. Fortunately, though, there are plenty of opportunities for saving, with so-called "temporary" saves in certain rooms (which are in reality permanent), and fountains that both fully heal your party and let you save. Still, the game could've easily been more user-friendly.

It's so...boring Scoping out the monastery

   Those looking for a fresh, original RPG, moreover, are pretty much out of luck, as Koudelka is fairly derivative, filching elements from other RPGs such as a giant mansion with a dark past to explore, grid-based combat, leveling weapons and magic a la Secret of Mana, and the like.

   The plot, too, is fairly generic, generally being a Resident Evil knockoff, with character development being scant as well. There is some decent backstory, although good backstory, frankly, really can't compensate for a weak main plot. Furthermore, there are three endings (thankfully, multiple playthroughs aren't necessary to see them all), one of which ties into Shadow Hearts. Otherwise, however, the plot is hardly a reason to play the game.

   Not even the aurals can redeem Koudelka. Considering that Hiroki Kikuta, who composed Secret of Mana's soundtrack, provided the music, it should've turned out a lot better. There actually isn't any music during exploration, with Koudelka's footsteps largely filling the void, and the battle themes aren't exactly the best ever (the boss battle theme, for instance, is horribly off-key). There's voice acting during cutscenes, moreover, which is passable, albeit stilted at times. Overall, there's really no excuse for the abysmal presentation of the aurals.

   The visuals, though, actually rise a bit past mediocrity. The pre-rendered environments decently fit the mood of the game, the character models are reasonable, and the FMVs were good for their time. However, the battle visuals seem somewhat rushed, with combat taking place on a floor floating in a blue space, and a choppy framerate when your characters and the monsters go at it with one another. Still, the graphics are probably the only real redeeming aspect of the game.

   Finally, Koudelka is a fairly short RPG, with playing time ranging from fifteen to twenty hours and a little leveling up being necessary to make it to the end. Overall, Sacnoth's first RPG certainly wasn't their crowning achievement, although they would ultimately redeem themselves with the follow-up Shadow Hearts series. The franchise's prequel is a rare find nowadays, though frankly, you didn't miss a whole lot.

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