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Koudelka (PlayStation)

Published by
Developed by
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168604)
Written on  :  Jan 16, 2004
Rating  :  4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars

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One of a kind horror survival RPG

The Good

Koudelka is a very interesting mixture of RPG and survival horror, spiced by an impressive narrative and original setting.

The game has excellent writing; that came to me as a total surprise after I had already made peace with the "soap opera" style of Japanese RPG. The characters discuss their lives and philosophical topics - sometimes ironically, sometimes passionately - and their conversations are always well integrated into the narrative and the setting.

The game's setting is unusual for RPGs: it is an accurate historical setting, the "stylish" nineteenth century, and the characters are historically correct, not some multinational and chronologically mixed hybrids, like most Japanese RPG heroes.The narrative is suspenseful, well-paced, and contains some nice twists, including a really surprising optional ending.

The game's graphics are top notch, especially the marvelous CG movies. Done mostly in dark colors, the graphics reflect the sinister and mysterious atmosphere of the game. Like most horror games, the game is confined to a secluded location, but it is always interesting enough to explore.

Despite the survival horror elements, Koudelka is first and foremost an RPG - and, quite unexpectedly, a really deep one! Its role-playing system is a rare mixture of Japanese and Western styles. The battles are random, turn-based, and the menu choices which pop up during the battles remind of a standard Japanese system. But the customization of characters goes beyond it and comes close to the Western type.

Surely, the role-playing system of Koudelka can't be compared to the one used in games like Arcanum, but it offers you more freedom than in most other Japanese RPGs (except perhaps Megaten games). First, the weapons are not "glued" to your characters, and you can freely exchange and experiment with different kinds of weapons, switch them between the characters and see how they affect your statistics. There are also a lot of different weapon types in the game - various types of guns, swords, knuckles, and many others. Each weapon influences your characters' attributes. A very interesting feature is weapon development - the more you use a certain weapon in combat, the higher your proficiency level becomes and the more damage you inflict next time you use a weapon of the same type. This way, you can really train your characters to be experts in particular weapons.

To make things harder (and more interesting!), weapons also break down after some time, and each weapon has its own "hit points" which make it unusable when depleted to zero. In my opinion that was a great feature; it brought the game closer to the desired "survival" element, putting the player in a position similar to the one when his avatar runs out of ammo in "normal" survival horror games.

A particularly enjoyable feature: you can level up your characters the way you want, not according to the automatic routines of most other Japanese RPGs. Want more strength? Sacrifice some HP. Want to resist better to poisons? You'll have less turns in a battle. There's a nice balance between different abilities, and I personally liked it more than more rigid systems such as AD&D.

The combat itself is quite fascinating for those who prefer strategy over action. Again, it is quite different from the standard Japanese RPG combat, and reminds me more of the system used in Fallout. You have action points, which are the core of the system. The more dexterity you raise, the more action points you get per turn. Actions include not only attacking or using items, but also reloading long-ranged weapons, and moving closer to the enemy, because you can't hit an enemy with a hammer while standing far away, and the game doesn't move your character for you, like it happens in most other Japanese RPGs with turn-based combat.

I tend to pay a lot of attention to seemingly insignificant details in games, and I'm especially interested in concrete historical, philosophical, or mythological references that can be found in games. Koudelka is one game that gave me plenty of such material: there is a lot of rare information to find in it, about historical events as well as the history of occult sciences in Europe. The developers made quite a serious research here. For example, in a certain cutscene, a strange device appears with Hebrew letters written on it - and those are real letters that form real words - Keter, Hochma, and Bina, which are symbols taken from Kabbala, the Jewish mystical teaching.

The Bad

The battles play well, but they look bad. Most of the combat takes place indoors, so the backgrounds are normally the dark-brown walls of the monastery rooms, which look great during exploration, but don't fit the battle style of the game. The monsters usually appear somewhere from the dark corners, and also stay there during the combat, thrown backwards by the player's attacks, and the battle overview doesn't even give you the opportunity to get scared. If the game had employed real-time combat, its dynamic evolution would have compensated for all that; but the slow, strategy-based combat of Koudelka should have been given some embellishment.

Much has been said about the game's combat being a "mood-killer". In fact, practically every review I read about the game criticized it severely for its combat system, and many review sites rated it very low, accusing the combat system of destroying what could have been a great game. While I don't share this opinion, I do understand those complaints. Koudelka can be very frustrating for fans of survival horror, because it takes the player's attention away from exploring the mansion and experiencing the atmosphere, and throws him into a combat which seems to belong to a different game.

On the opposite side, RPG fans are bound to find Koudelka's world much too small, and the challenges insufficient for its well-developed role-playing system. If you hated random battles in usual RPGs, you'll hate them twice as much in Koudelka. They surely ruin a great deal of the game's adventuring spirit, and it takes lots of concentration to treat them as a game within a game, in order to fully enjoy the whole experience.

The Bottom Line

Koudelka is undoubtedly great, but it is not a game for everybody. Horror fans who got interested in the game because of its setting and story might be annoyed by its strategy-based combat. RPG fans who got interested in the game because of its combat style might be disappointed by its limited world and lack of things to do.

Games are normally made to satisfy fans, and Koudelka is likely to annoy fans of both genres it represents. It makes a strange impression of a peculiar, but unsuccessful hybrid, until you understand how well it uses the advantages of both genres it belongs to. It will enter the history as a curious attempt, not as a revolutionary game that created a new style; but on its own, it offers quite a lot to someone who is willing to take chances with his games.