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Developer:
SNK
Publisher: Atari
Platform: Playstation
Release Date: December 16, 1999

by Aaron Slater




Koudelka claims to be a "Gothic horror RPG," and it fulfills upon its claim. The game has a strong plot, which has roots set in Gothic horror, as well as the conventions of a role playing game. It has a gorgeous cover, and the pictures that appear on the packaging seem to promise something horrific, unexpected, and exciting. Sadly, although it does fulfill its claim, it does little more than that.


Koudelka is the story of a psychic young woman, the titular Koudelka, who has been summoned to a monastery by a spirit. She meets up with two accomplices in the course of her adventure, the charismatic Edward and the pious James, and together the three of them attempt to unravel the mystery of the monastery. As it would happen, the monastery has been overrun by monsters, and the three of them must battle in order to survive and hopefully find out the secret that the monastery holds.


The storyline of Koudelka is a solid one. The monastery and its history prove to be interesting, and as the player unravels more and more they will be more compelled to finish the game and hopefully tie up all the loose ends. The storyline is aided by characters who are both dynamic and engaging. The three characters all have radically different backgrounds and ideologies, and when their philosophies clash they tend to argue amongst themselves. Although their dialogue is well written and the voice acting is very well done, the spats often take the player out of the game. It is highly unlikely that after being attacked by a giant demon and nearly losing your lives, the characters would decide to argue about their faiths. However, suspension of belief is something that almost all survival horror games call for, and since the spats are so interesting the player will hardly mind.


The storyline is told through in-game cut scenes and the occasional CG cinema scene. The cinema scenes in this game are very well done. The characters appear lifelike, the lip-syncing is very accurate, and when a CG scene depicts an ominous building or a terrifying demon, there is a large sense of excitement. Unfortunately, the cinema scenes are the graphical highlight of the game, as the rest is not so pretty.


The in-game graphics are about average for a PlayStation game. The characters are all sufficiently detailed, and the enemies show a great amount of detail, but unfortunately the rest of the game misses the mark. Most of the areas are dark and covered in shadow, and although this may have been intended to make the game more foreboding, it only ends up making details of the environment harder to make out. Some of the areas looked great, but for every area that was effective, there was another that was bleak and dismal. The battlefield is also very bland, consisting of a tiled floor upon which the characters stand and do battle.


Speaking of battles, the system of battling is promising. The game is a pseudo-strategy game. Characters move about on a flat area, moving from square to square like in a tactical strategy game. Although this could have been a great system, it misses the mark. Whenever an attack, spell, item, or practically any action of any sort is used, all the other sprites (enemies or characters not involved in the action) disappear from the battlefield while the action is performed. When the action is over, the player must wait for the game to render the enemies and characters all over again. This wait is tedious at best, and unfortunately you'll be waiting quite a lot during boss battles. The boss battles in this game tend to take forever, in part due to their high HP and the challenge that they offer, but mostly due to the fact that the player must wait for the game to reproduce the battlefield after every action. The player also uses a turn when a gun must be reloaded or a weapon must be changed in the midst of battle. Although it is nice to change weapons on the fly, losing a turn in an already slow battle is not so fun.


While the battle system is tedious, the exploration portions tend to use only the standards of survival horror. Items are scattered about the environment for you to find and use to gain access to more areas. There are simple puzzles involving inventory items, but nothing too challenging. A nice feature about the exploration is that Koudelka's head will turn to indicate that something has caught her interest, pointing out where an item is in an area. This is a great system that helps out a lot. Sadly, however, exploration is not the focus of this game. The majority of the game time will be taken up by the random encounters that the player will face while exploring, and although encounters aren't frequent, they are annoying.


Another system which the game uses is in its status system. When a character gains enough experience points, he or she will level up. The player is given four points to allocate to any one of eight statuses. This level of customization makes leveling up more fun and allows for more control over your party. Also, as a character uses a weapon or a spell more often, the spell will level up and become stronger. This is a great system that allows a more realistic and dynamic experience, and also adds some strategy to powering up characters. A character with a level two sword skill will be able to attack twice with his or her sword instead of just once, and a level two spell will be stronger and have a larger effect radius than a level one spell.


The reliance upon weapons in customizing characters is not fully realized, however, as weapons have a durability level. This means that a weapon has a set amount of uses before it breaks, and once a weapon breaks it is gone forever. This means that you may have found a great weapon, use it in a battle, and it breaks on you midway through. That great weapon you obtained is now gone forever. There are also no shops in the game, meaning that all weapons, items, and armor must be obtained by exploring the environment or by winning them in the battles. Although eventually you will have a large amount of great weapons at your disposal, initially you may find your characters fighting with just their fists for a while.


Koudelka is a game with a lot of potential, and it could have turned out to be a masterpiece. Despite the excellent writing, stunning plot, solid sound, and nice cinema scenes, the game fails in the most important department. Gameplay comes off as unoriginal and tedious, with a battle system that is far too drawn out and exploration segments that involve backtracking through many dark and bland environments. Koudelka still delivers an intriguing experience, and the story will make the player want to finish the game, but playing through it will not be as pleasant of an experience as it could have been.


Final Grade: 64%




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