When Hiroki Kikuta, composer for Secret of Mana, left Square to found his own game company, he wanted to produce something fast-paced, exciting and dark, citing Resident Evil as his inspiration. The developers working for him at Sacnoth, however, wanted something more like Final Fantasy and other games being released by Squaresoft. I enjoy cross-genre works. They take bits of the familiar and twist it into something fun and new. Sacnoth’s 1999 release, Koudelka, takes the best of both worlds, combining the fast, exciting combat of Resident Evil with a well-written, progressive storyline like an RPG.
Just kidding! It’s actually all the backtracking and item hunting of a survival horror game with the repetitive random-enemy encounters of an RPG! Congratulations to Sacnoth for totally missing the point of playing either of those genres.
The story opens in 1889 when a voice calls a young Gypsy girl, Koudelka, to the Nemeton Monastery in Wales. Equipped with nothing but her traditional Victorian-Era hot pants, bondage corset, and a personality that would strip the skin off a crocodile and rust off a Buick, she climbs the wall into a Medieval torture dungeon full of fresh corpses and stale plot premises.
From the point where she meets up with the game’s two companions, the story kind of flows freely, like a soda that Sacnoth spilled in a lake and then tried to put it all back in the bottle. The characters seem to want to investigate the bulk supply of mangled corpses stocked in the monastery, but kind of lose interest when the ghost of a little girl dumps them into a hole, and that plot kind of peters out in favor of a mystery surrounding the back story of one of the games lesser noticeable characters, who literally dies in the second scene he appears in, at which point the game drops even that plot. Eventually, it settles on something somewhat interesting; as it turns out, a priest tried to resurrect his wife, who happens to be the former love interest of one of the playable characters. However, messing with dark magics never ends well, something went horribly wrong, yada yada, and now we have to fight her soulless body.
In a game that clearly attempts to build a Lovecraftian atmosphere, that part of the story rouses interest. Still, the story stands on a foundation of apple sauce, jello, and the hopes and dreams of lousy game designers, and it falls somewhat flat.
The semi-strategical combat system attempts for something interesting, but doesn’t work right. The player can move characters around on a grid like most tactics games, but every battlefield consists of a flat, featureless floor. Only one battle bothered to include any obstacles, and due to a weird quirk where the game refuses to let you step past the entire line containing the foremost enemy, it ended up looking like a bunch of people who couldn’t navigate themselves around an inanimate wooden box. Furthermore, considering the small size of the battlefield, large move capabilities of the characters, and lack of limits on ranged and magic attacks, it ends up amounting to a system almost exactly like the SNES Final Fantasy games where players and enemies line up and face each other like colonial armies. Actions in battle consist only of standard attacks, moving, and casting a handful of spells–four attack, two healing, and a smattering of support–that might level up by the end of the game if you cast them enough. The game lacks money and shops, so all items and equipment come from either picking up randomly placed items that blend in with the environment, or from random creature drops. As a player, one strategy fits all, and with very few options to choose from, most battles in Koudelka–which, I remind you, calls itself a strategy game–end up playing out exactly the same as every other battle.
Koudelka stands as a shining example of how unlike in Hollywood, games sequels can succeed even when the original holds itself up to standards I wouldn’t accept from a kindergarten school play. Sacnoth apparently understood that the only interesting things about this game were the magic spell used to resurrect the dead and the creepy old monk, Roger Bacon, who wanders around the monastery like a madman. They went on to develop a little-known but excellent series called Shadow Hearts, recycling very little from the Koudelka universe other than those things.
Still, I won’t say I hated Koudelka or that I had trouble rousing up interest in it. It just feels like they needed to screw up before they figured out what would work in subsequent games. I can tell they put some work into the Lovecraftian monster design, but on the rendered polygons of the PS1 they intimidated me about as much as a Lego Cthulu. And while themes of dark magics and forbidden knowledge work well in Shadow Hearts, Koudelka had all the consistency of a story narrated by Leonard from Memento.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have a tendency to like games even when they don’t deserve it. For the most part, I feel that way about Koudelka. As a long-time fan of Shadow Hearts, I still consider this a must-play for series completionists. Still, I’m not likely to come back to it any time soon.