Koudelka is the first game brought to us by Sacnoth, a team of developers formerly in the employ of RPG juggernaut Square. Combining the popular survival horror theme of Capcom's Resident Evil games with the vision of Sacnoth leader Hiroki Kikuta, Koudelka is a game that could have been something truly great. However, its potential is left almost completely untapped; despite excellent localization work from US publisher Infogames, Koudelka stands as one of the most tedious and unenjoyable RPGs to play through.
The story of Koudelka takes place in 1898, and it revolves around 3 strangers who meet for the first time in Nementon Abbey, an ominous monastery in Wales that houses terrible secrets. Koudelka Iasant is a beautiful, mysterious woman whose appearance belies a tortured secret past. Edward Plunkett is a rash, womanizing adventurer in pursuit of thrills and riches. James O'Flaherty is a bible-thumping bishop whose origin is also shrouded in intrigue; the only thing known about him when the trio of heroes meet is that he was sent from the Vatican.
Each of the three has his or her own reasons for traveling to the monastery, and together, it's up to them to discover what lies within the dank walls there. More is revealed about each character as the player progresses through Koudelka and gets closer to heart of the cursed locale. RPG fans will also have the opportunity to discover just what went wrong in the formerly peaceful place of worship.
Although the horror theme of Koudelka is a rather novel concept in traditional RPGs, the game's storyline fails to inspire more than a passing interest. The event-based portions of the plot are predictable, and at no point does it even come close to riveting you to your Playstation. Some events are inadequately explained, which is likely to leave many a gamer pondering exactly what happened, if they're still awake at that point. In addition, the storyline progresses quite slowly; it pretty much takes a long time for very little to happen in this one.
On the plus side, Koudelka does feature some of the strongest character development seen in a recent RPG. Each of the three major player characters has a complex past, and much of their history is revealed as the plot moves along. Koudelka, Edward, and James all exhibit strong depth to their personalities, too, though this doesn't become apparent until later in the game.
In addition, Infogames has performed a remarkable job with their localization effort, coming up with a translation job that ranks as one of the best that this reviewer has seen. The dialogue flow is excellent, with character responses following the continuity of their initial inquiries near-flawlessly. The dialogue resembles 21st century American speech more than it does authentic 19th century English, but its fluidity enables it to draw players in unequivocally.
Another nice bonus for Koudelka players is the fact that every line of dialogue in the entire game is voiced over, and the voice acting is among the best that US-released games have yet to offer. The actors are expressive, and they deliver each line with a near-perfect blend of drama and realism. The actual sound quality of the voices leaves a little bit to be desired, though; during some of the more sedate moments in the conversations, the dialogue gets muffled considerably. This problem is compounded by the fact that none of the spoken dialogue is accompanied by onscreen text in Koudelka.
The rest of the sound department doesn't fare anywhere near as well as the voice acting, unfortunately. The sound effects are pretty feeble; there's nothing at all memorable about them. The soundtrack also fares poorly, which is somewhat surprising because composer Hiroki Kikuta is one of the more renowned music talents to have worked with Square. Generally, no background music plays during area map play; the tunes pretty much restricted to battles, so there are very few of them. In addition, even though most of the music tracks contain promising ideas, none of them ultimately prove to be anything more than run-of-the-mill game music compositions.
Much like its sound department, Koudelka hits highs and lows in its visual presentation. The CG movies used to tell certain parts of the story are absolutely stunning. Featuring strong direction and smooth animation, these clips do a great job of drawing the player in with their atmospheric and sometimes spectacular presentation. Perhaps my only complaint with the CG is the overtly exaggerated facial expressions on the characters, and the fact that mouth movements during speech are not at all realistic. Instead, characters just flap their gums when they talk, kind of like that talking horse Mr. Ed used to.
To players' dismay, though, the in-game graphics fare a lot worse. Koudelka's area map presentation consists of polygonal characters on prerendered backgrounds, and the polygons look terrible. They're blocky and lacking in detail, especially up close. They also animate poorly. The backgrounds are detailed, but they are so dark and lacking in contrast that objects just kind of meld together in the background, making it difficult at times to tell what you're looking at. Other than the fact that Koudelka is pretty hot, the character art is unremarkable.
The battle graphics are even uglier than those of the area maps. The backgrounds are plain, flat, blocky polygonal tiles, with poorly drawn debris thrown in once in a while. The characters are even blockier and more lacking in detail than in the area maps, and you have to see them close up much more, too. The animation of characters and enemies alike is extremely clunky, and the spell effects are similarly unimpressive.
Even in spite of its inconsistency in the other departments, Koudelka could have been a passable game. However, its absolutely atrocious gameplay brands it the worst playing US-released RPG that I've yet experienced. Koudelka is flooded with overwhelming problems, both in its execution and in its design.
Koudelka's biggest problem is its excruciatingly slow pace. It's without a doubt the slowest-executing traditional RPG I've ever played, and it pretty much makes the recently reviewed Breath of Fire III look like Pavel Bure. Lengthy load times inhabit virtually every command players attempt, especially in the turn-based battles. For example, in order to complete one character's turn, players have to wait through loading times for the character to become ready to accept commands, then wait through more loading for the character after you command him or her to attack, and then again after the character attacks. At this point, you can either end your character's turn or move to a specific location on the battlefield, both of which result in even more loading. All of the aforementioned load times can take up to 10-15 seconds, which pretty much makes you want to throw your controller through your television after about 5 of these battles.
Compounding the speed problem is Koudelka's ill-advised use of a ridiculously asinine tile-based system in its battles. Tile-based battles are a bad idea in any RPG that executes slowly, but Koudelka takes poor gameplay design to new lows with an inanely restrictive engine. Movement is slow, and no player character can move beyond the plane of the closest enemy to your party, regardless of how far that enemy actually is from the character. So not only is movement highly restricted, you can't attack any enemy other than those in the foremost row unless you use ranged weapons or magic. On top of that, characters can't even move through each other, so players will find themselves pinned very often in these amazingly unenjoyable battles. The point of most tile-based battle systems is to add some strategy to combat, but Koudelka's is so restrictive that it knocks all of the possible strategy out of its battles. Therefore, the only net result of its tile-based movement is that it wastes a lot of time.
Other than using a strictly turn-based system, there are other ways to compensate for slow execution. Unfortunately, Koudelka completely misses the boat on the other obvious one: a reduced encounter rate. Sacnoth's first game features an annoyingly high encounter rate during exploration, which is incredibly frustrating when coupled with the amount of time that it takes to get through the battles. To the game's credit, though, the encounter rate seems to drop dramatically to an acceptable level when you are simply traveling through areas rather than exploring them.
It's also annoying that in the area maps, the game makes it unclear where one screen ends and the next one begins. Because there are often long load times between screens, this also wastes a lot of time for players.
Although Koudelka's biggest shortcoming is its super-slow pace, it runs into other problems with its design. Weapons tend to break after a random number of uses, and the frequency with which you acquire replacement weapons is highly variable. So, sometimes you'll go completely weaponless for a long time, and other times, you'll have more than you know what to do with. Items are pooled, but there's an item limit, and it's extremely annoying, especially since key items and equipped weapons, armor, and accessories occupy slots in your limited inventory. By the time you get 75% of the way through the game, key items and equipment will occupy about 75% of your carrying capacity, so there's very little room for useful items.
Also, the entire game is a dungeon crawl, with no towns or a world map, or even areas outside of the Abbey grounds. It's not a very large one, either; if not for its slug's-pace play, the 15-20-hour quest could have been easily completed in 2 or 3 hours.
Koudelka does get a few things right with its gameplay, though. Player characters level up fairly often, and players get the opportunity to raise characters' statistics to their liking by manually distributing bonus points to their attributes of choice. Koudelka also provides extra depth in its gameplay by leveling up characters' magic and skill with weapon types after certain numbers of uses, respectively.
Koudelka also controls poorly, though its control problems don't come close to touching its gameplay problems. Onscreen characters can move in 8 directions, and a dash button enables them to travel through areas more quickly. However, the characters aren't particularly responsive to the control pad, they get stuck on objects in the background frequently, and the cursor movement is pretty rough in battles. The camera can be rotated in 90-degree increments in battles, but players likely won't bother; just about everything is readily visible in the primary viewpoint, and anything you don't see probably isn't worth the effort to go looking for anyway. The menus are poorly done; they're pretty disorganized, and navigating them is a chore because they don't give you the information that you need.
As far as RPGs go, Koudelka's feel is most similar to Square's Parasite Eve, so fans of that game may find something appealing about Sacnoth's debut. However, it plays so poorly that I can't recommend it at all to anyone.