Disturbing the Priest
Genre completionists always make a point to make some room in their libraries for games like Koudelka: A quirky, commercially unsuccessful game that attempts to blend two genres within a unique setting. This is the kind of stuff that makes a retro gamer drool.
Koudelka chronicles the adventures of the titular character as she is summoned by some spirit or whatever to a haunted monastery. In there she'll hook up with a couple of supporting characters and attempt to unravel the plot behind the haunted location.
So far so good. As mentioned Koudelka's strongest asset is the use of somewhat unique primordial elements: The game is set in 1898 on a gothic monastery built along Wales's coastline, the title character is a gypsy girl with latent psychic powers and the ability to commune with the dead, the plot deals with occult magic forces brought about by pagan rituals and so on...
Being a horror game first and foremost, characterization is greatly emphasized, and to my delight Koudelka's characters come off as well rounded individuals fit for the adventure at hand. The game might be pushing the PS1's capabilities graphics-wise, but the great animations, superb voice-acting and solid dialogue scripting breathe life into each of the characters,. Particularly the main character herself, Koudelka, who avoids the stereotypical cutey-pie routine and comes off as a hard-boiled take-shit-from-no-one teen. Her graphic design might put you off (more on that later) but she has lots of character-driven memorable scenes that help build her as a likeable character, such as her constant clashing with the dogmatic priest James or a particularly interesting drunken sequence.
As I mentioned, the game is probably ill-fitted for the PS1's hardware, seeing as how the gothic ambiance relies so heavily on the graphic department. One must take note nonetheless of the efforts made by the creative team to squeeze moody backgrounds and some unique visuals.
Koudelka "the game" is unfortunately a pretty drab and lifeless affair. It manages to combine two different and beloved genres and sap the life out of them.
As a survival-horror title it fails miserably. It may borrow the "3D characters over pre-rendered backgrounds" formula from the Resident Evil franchise, but other than that, everything is done wrong because of the incursion of the RPG elements. All sense of suspense and intensity is thrown out the window when health, supplies and weapons are found in ample supply after defeating the randomly-generated baddies that fight you in generic arenas a la Final Fantasy. This might sound contradictory, but a monster encounter has much less drama involved in it when it ceases to be that and becomes "another grinding exercise till I get to the boss".
Exploration is practically non-existent as aside from some secret items the game throws basically no puzzles your way and your objective is to grind your way to the end of the monastery as if it where all just one loooong dungeon.
Grinding by the way is the word that best describes the game's RPG elements, but unfortunately in the most bland and uninteresting way possible (as a proper grind-fest dungeon-crawler can still be an enjoyable experience). Combat is about as boring and unimpressive as it can be, falling back on all the cliches of Console RPGs from the menu-driven turn-based interfaces to the good ol' "hit the water-based enemy with the fire magic" concept of strengths and weaknesses, with your enemies being a puzzling mix of about 20% unique, inventive creatures and 80% of generic, unimpressive designs. The game earns points for allowing you to customize each character's stats and there's also a weapon/spell leveling system which increases the power of each particular weapon or spell after continuous use. Unfortunately none of these mechanics get to stretch their legs due to the ridiculously low difficulty level. Save for an impossible optional boss you'll find that Koudelka is an embarrassingly easy game, leveling-up seems to be an almost constant feature after fights and you'll find that there's no enemy in the game that needs more than a couple of hits to go down (but still the game drags you through the menus and forces you to stand by watching the battle animations, forcing you to contemplate drinking a bottle of cyanide to just end the whole ordeal). Players who entertain themselves grinding a bit just for fun will find out that by the end of the game they are practically demi-gods, able to defeat even the final boss by staredown.
For as interesting as the source material is, the overall execution is also significantly flawed. The game is set on the late 19th century, yet Koudelka is dressed as if she had just come out of "gothic lolita night" at her local goth club, a design that clashes with the strong characterization in the wrong way by confirming yet again that if you are a female star in a JRPG you have to look like an innocent, dewey-eyed cutey chick, even if your character acts nothing like that. James (the priest) is also a particularly baffling character, as he acts as the stereotypical religious fanatic in a way that seems to ignore everything that happens around him. That someone keeps negating the supernatural while they are casting fire spells at a floating eye is puzzling to say the least.
Finally, I know the game is set on a single location and all, but many other titles have managed to include more varied stages with similar formulas. Alone in the Dark had a haunted house, yet also managed to take the player into Lovecraftian hell for a bit of a change of pace. Same with Resident Evil and the underground research facility. Koudelka has the monastery and... that's it I guess. There are different sections and places to explore, but all feature the same designs, the same drab palette over and over.
The Bottom Line
As far as quirky titles go Koudelka has its merits and really stands out from the rest of the crowd. Not necessarily because of its quality but there's a certain unique flavour to it. If you feel curious about the roots of the Shadow Hearts lineage or feel like you can put up with lackluster gameplay for the sake of some decent characterization and ideas be my guest. But the reality is that Koudelka's novelty factor wears thin really fast and while I can't really say that it was a dreadful experience I can certainly think of dozens of better things to do rather than play it.