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CyanideBlizzard's Koudelka Game Review

Koudelka game Review

Story & Playability

When you look at Koudelka on paper, it sounds like a genius project.

Resident Evil-inspired JRPG with survival horror themes throughout the experience, accompanied by beautiful CG and in game graphics that pushed the Playstation 1 to the fullest extent. Add in the fact that the team behind this project is mostly composed of a bunch of ex-Squaresoft employees and the man heading the team is responsible for the soundtracks of Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2) and Seiken Densetsu 3. Adding all of these aspects together and there’s no reason to expect this to be anything less than spectacular. Especially since Koudelka was created with the idea of refreshing the JRPG genre.

While Koudelka refines a great deal of components and brings a great deal of unique and interesting aspects, it ultimately falls short in other areas and has some quirks that may completely turn off gamers.

To start with, I should explain my own history with Koudelka.

During the late 90s, early 2000s I got into a very heavy JRPG binge. Anything I could get my hands on, I did. Strategy based, Action based, or traditional. I gave everything a shot, and along the way found some favorites that I still replay today. Koudelka, released in the Fall of 1999, was a game I had picked up with little knowledge on and was extreme curious to check it out. I played the game for an hour and immediately put it down and got rid of it. I couldn’t stand the combat and the fact that there was weapon degradation, in where guns have limited ammo and weapons will break after X amount of uses. I never actually touched the game again until 2012.

When I came back to the title, I came back this time with a strategy guide in hand and with enough time past, I was ready to give it another go. This attempt lasted for two hours before I lost interest and found myself intrigued by other titles.

Flash forward to 2014. I planned on going through a series of titles, and in order to do so I had to play through a game I already tried twice before. Even talking to a friend of mine, who loves the same series as well, was trying to convince me to not play through this game. However, I decided to give it one last go before I just skipped it.

When I did, I had a tough time understanding why I never finished it before.

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Koudelka is about a young lady of the same name, Koudelka Iasant. Koudelka is a gypsy woman in her 20s who was summoned to the mysterious Nemeton Mansion by a mysterious voice. After arriving, she tries to make her way inside via the top of the mansion, only to slip and lose what appears to be a pendant. After almost falling, she breaks open a window and spots a young man who is terribly wounded. Mistaking her for an angel, he tries to muster his strength to raise his gun to fend for himself. Koudelka, thinking that his bullet is meant for herself, taunts him. However, he is actually aiming at a monster behind Koudelka. After Koudelka stabs the monster and gets knocked back, this mysterious man tosses her his gun. All of this happens in a beautiful-but-outdated CG scene and thus we began our introduction to what may make or break your experience with the game, the battle system.

Two things are immediately spotted, the battle music (which I will discuss in the sound section) and the strangest battle system I have ever played in a JRPG. I’ll cover a bit more on this after the story.

Once the monster has been defeated, the young man asks Koudelka to pray for him, but instead she heals him and thus we are introduced to Edward Plunkett, a young man who came to the mansion because he heard it was turned into a brothel. Reluctant to team up with him, she does so in order to increase their odds of survival. Thus, the adventure begins of discovery, and deception.

Koudelka’s tale is rather unique. Taking heavy influence from survival horror games, and being heavily inspired by Resident Evil one wouldn't be mistaken in treating this game the same. Fixed camera angles are for each and every room, items need to be found and used in a certain order to progress and the game heavily relies on sound to carry the suspense and drama. Unlike Resident Evil, the characters move similar to how most do in a traditional action RPG instead of using the more tankish control design the earlier Resident Evil games were known for.

Combined with the fact that Koudelka heavily delves into the occult, religious undertones and overtones (your third and final party member, James O'Flaherty, is actually from the Vatican), and plenty of creepy and gruesome scenes. Yet, within all of that Koudelka is never disrespectful or aims for shock and awe. The story itself, while dragging its feet in certain areas and sometimes diving too deep into the supernatural, is where the game shines. It’s moody, and more importantly focuses a good amount on character development as the game progresses. We start off with a group of misfits who seem to detest each other and their presence, to individuals who stick by each other until the end.

So, with all of these positives, why would I stop playing the game twice? Well, it really comes down to one major thing. The combat.

The combat system, as previously mentioned, heavily relies upon classic strategy RPG elements. Melee characters can only hit when they are right next to an enemy, or if they have a weapon that has a longer range. Guns need to be reloaded, and spells can be casted anywhere. Standard issue things here, but here’s the tricky bit. Each weapon has a life point to it. You won’t know when something will break, because the game has no indicator. More importantly, there are no shops in the game. A matter of fact, the entire game takes place in one mansion (Resident Evil similarity abound!) and the only way to acquire anything is from enemy drops, or finding the items themselves. Being that there are no treasure chests either, and the only indicator is either spotting it with your eye or by Koudelka’s character model looking at the item. Both are tricky, as spotting items can be a bit tough since the game uses a combination of 2D and 3D elements for the background and the overall game is just dark. While helping for the atmosphere, it makes it also frustrating to find things unless you’re strictly following a guide. As for Koudelka spotting things, this is also a tricky system to get down and more so becomes something you have to either guess with, or comb.

However, the biggest taboo is the fact that if you don’t research the game, follow a guide, or read the instruction booklet you will do terribly with the combat portion. Characters don’t level up normally so much as you get four stat points to put into different attributes. This leads to a great deal of customization, but this can also be overwhelming if you know nothing of character building, or more importantly what characters excel with what. For example, when I first started playing I built Koudelka as a strength character. It was an absolutely terrible idea and I died within my first five battles.

The more interesting aspect of this is actually the polar opposite of the previous problem. If you know how to build your characters, the game becomes hilariously easy. I beat Koudelka in under 10 hours, and the game actually didn’t become even remotely challenging until the 4th disc, and even then that was near the final boss. While offering loads of choices for building, and once you understand you can proceed accordingly this is also overwhelming when first starting. More importantly if you botch how you build your character, or if you accept the attributes, you can’t change them. Building Edward as a magic-using character and decide to change your mind? You certainly can, but you’re also offering heavier difficulties for yourself. It’s just too much of a mixed bag.

Another factor, and this is probably my biggest gripe too, is despite the heavily voiced scenes, the fantastic CG, and the overall strong presentation the game skips on one of the most important elements. Atmospheric presentation. So, during one of the boss battles, you open a closet and see a mummy with a wedding dress inside. Super creepy image, and then you just get the text “You see a mummy inside, the mummy’s eyes open and it jumps to life and attacks you!”. I kid you not, this is actually how they start the boss battle. Still the same static mummy with a wedding dress picture, just the text to accompany it and boom, boss battle. What’s worse, is this isn't the only time this is used. This is frequently done, and completely kills the atmosphere and tension. Every time this happened, I just found myself laughing. Especially so when there would be nothing on the screen expect for my character in a room, and all of the sudden I get this text that I was ambushed by something. For a game that pushes so many boundaries, this is unbelievably lazy.

The third, and final aspect, is the fact that you virtually need a strategy guide to accompany you. Certain elements I wouldn't of picked up on or known what to do, such as a game ending important element of retrieving a certain item. The developers went so far as to offer it as a drop near the end of the game should you not of acquired it when you could of gotten it. It only goes to show that the developers already knew that the possibility of the player missing the item was high, yet they did nothing to change it. Certain aspects of backtracking too are necessary and you’ll be needing to make notes. While enjoyable in a sense, it also ends up becoming a pain in the butt and seems unnecessary in the overall experience.

Yet, within all of it I had a good time. Multiple endings abound and the fact that any character can be built however you like and you got a very unique experience. An optional boss even presents itself, even if it serves no purpose. There's also bonus items for individuals who save at certain times, and having a certain quantity of items. Yet, once again, this is something that you’ll need a strategy guide for.

A mixed experience that is certainly unique and enjoyable in a majority amount of aspects.

Rating: 5

Graphics

So, with that out of the way what about the graphics?

Holy cow, does this game look good. Spread across four discs, this game is absolutely large and for good reason. The mansion itself feels huge, and each section is quite diverse. Furthermore, once more of the mansion can be accessed and it becomes more connected the feel of the place. While certain things will throw you off, and for good reason, the developers certainly did their best to give the impression that numerous things were used for this facility.

I also have to mention the CG scenes. There are an abundant amount of these, and for the majority they are absolutely stunning. You get the impression they wanted to make this game push the system to the max, and it feels like it. Especially for a new company, they want to impress you and they do. While character movement in them can be stiff and awkward, and look especially pixelated in this day and age, they still are enjoyable to observe. While not being as good as Squaresoft during the late 90s, they come in at a close second.

However, battles are where the game takes a dip. Back drops for the backgrounds are incredibly minimal and bare. In fact, non-existent almost seems to be a better word some of the time. Each battle area is in keeping with the location you are in, but they just feel boring. Boss monsters are rather unique and grotesque, but regular enemies are repeated in high frequency, with color swapping used.

Still, with this game I must confess this is a beautiful game. When I saw the four discs, I figured it was due to the length. However, when you see the graphics you get that this game was primarily built as a looker and this is the bulk of the prize.

Rating: 6

Sound

Sadly, sound isn’t the same.

Hiroki Kikuta is the man that is responsible for the sound. If the name sounds familiar, it should. He’s the man behind the studio that produced this game, and more importantly he was the sound composer of Secret of Mana. Building up a strong reputation from Squaresoft, he left to found his own company and rejuvenate the RPG genre. It’s just a shame with that in mind that he produced probably one of the dullest soundtracks ever used in an RPG.

Being a survival horror game, Koudelka relies heavily on ambiance and sound. While sound effects themselves are done quite well in the game, sound is pretty absent from the title itself. Which brings us to the battle theme.

Oh boy. This isn’t a bad song per se, but in this game it just gets tiring fast. More importantly, it feels out of place in this game. You’ll be in this scene where something dramatic and gruesome will happen and here comes this light song that’s very fluff like. Boss themes, sadly, are worse. I don’t know what the basis of the soundtrack was for, but it has a weird Eastern vibe to it during boss fights and I don’t know why. It just feels so off, because once you get out of the battles you are immediately embraced by the macabre. Given the fact that the game tales place in Wales, I can only conclude that this was an attempt to create a bridging soundtrack between East and West and it just did not work. Therefore, I can only assume that because Mr. Kikuta was so heavily involved with so many aspects of the game, he spread himself so thin that the end result was a part of it suffered. Sound is that aspect in this case.

This makes it even more bizarre, because the voice acting is surprisingly good.

Even weirder, the voice acting is only available in English. And I mean by this that even in the Japanese release of the title, despite being developed by a Japanese company, the dialogue was released in English. Though this might explain why the title was first released in the States and then in Japan.

This is incredibly surprising to me, because most voice work in video games and anime during the 90s was absolutely horrendous in English. Being either mediocre, surprisingly good, or terrible, it was a mixed bag that generally was more of the first and the third. However, Koudelka, while having bad spots, is surprisingly enjoyable.

What makes it even more interesting, is the voice actors involved range from no experience (Koudelka’s voice actress) to minor amounts (Edward’s) and someone who had a fair amount, but stopped after 2001 (James'). This is incredibly unusual, since inexperienced voice actors are largely bad, and the fact that this group of unknowns actually impressed me. While James was largely miscast, as he does not sound like a man in his 40s, he still does quite a good job, and the rest of the cast is rather amazing and do a good job of capturing the mood while keeping the flubs to only here and there.

A huge surprise. Though sadly, the majority of audio just brings down the decent voice work. Especially since sound is so crucial to this experience, it just doesn't carry it enough.

Rating: 4

Fun

I don’t really know how to place my recommendation or condoning. Koudelka has elements that can easily draw someone on board, and at the same time there are plenty of elements to easily turn someone away. Yet I can’t help but to fall for the clumsy and weird charm of Koudelka. It’s such a weird experience, and certain things just do not work. However, the ones that do actually work rather well and are more than enjoyable.

It ultimately comes down to how it all sounds to you. Does the game look fun? Does the experience sound exciting? Do the problems sound like they’d detour you? This may be one of the first reviews I’ve ever done where I feel like it truly is up to the viewer to take from what they will, and go from there.

However, if it came down to myself choosing an opinion I would have to say that I am glad that I finished it but at the same time I can see why I dropped it those two other times. With the need to follow a guide every step of the way, the game ends up being painfully easy and without it the learning curve can be incredibly difficult if you aren't familiar with similar mechanics. The game is almost fifteen years old and it definitely has a dated look, but at the same time the charm of the design is still strong even in the current era. Furthermore, by not using tank controls it can actually stand the test of time. It's just a shame that the battle system has gotten worse as time has progressed.

A game I'm glad I played, and while tempting to revisit again I can't see myself doing so anytime soon. Not with my next review project. A personal favorite of mine.

Rating: 6

Final Verdict

5.33 (moderate)

Reviewed by CyanideBlizzard, Apr 14, 2014

Comments

  1. SnickerdoodleNinja Retired Moderator Apr 16, 2014

    It's nice to see a new review from you! And this game sounds like a horror game I might actually be able to handle.

    Just a couple of pointers/questions:
    1. Maybe this is being a bit too picky, but I do feel that the first portion (the history portion) feels a bit awkward to me - and not because of the content, but because a few of the sentences feel awkwardly constructed with more grammatical errors than the rest of your writing (if that makes any sense).
    2. I'm still a little unclear about the game play. While I understand what you did and didn't like about, I'm a bit unclear as to what the gameplay is actually like. Is it turn-based? Free-motion? Do you enter a new screen for battles? I ask because for some reason I have the conflicting images of Parasite Eve and Res Evil in my head.

    Other than my unnecessary nit-picking, in all earnestness this is a strong review. It's easy to be very biased when you have a history with a game, but you avoided that very well. Nice work!


  2. CyanideBlizzard Retired Moderator Apr 16, 2014

    I'll be going back through to re-construct those. I must confess I did this is one go, and didn't give this the proper amount of attention. I haven't written much lately, so I must also confess I am a bit rusty.

    As for the gameplay, I was afraid of that. I wanted to find a good video to accompany it, because it's sort of hard to explain. The short answer is yes, it has the Parasite Eve movement with Resident Evil angles. However, I shall make sure that I go back and fix those mistakes.

    Thank you for your time, Snicker! You keep on rockin' my world!

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