Koudelka - Retroview

Sugar for Kirby Fong

By: Michael Beckett

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 7
   Interface 3
   Music/Sound 8
   Originality 7
   Plot 9
   Localization 10
   Replay Value 2
   Visuals 5
   Difficulty Easy to Medium
   Time to Complete

9-13 Hours



   The main problem I find in playing a game released more than two years ago is in the expectation - I find myself expecting better graphics, a more trendy combat system, and so forth. Koudelka, released in 1999, brought some of those problems forward for me, but I found that it's intriguing character development scheme, engrossing plot and characters and immersive combat system more than make up for any minor letdowns the graphical style might have presented. Also, as a minor aside before this review begins in earnest, Koudelka wins the award for most bizarre credit given to anyone in an RPG ever; Sugar for Kirby Fong (hence the title of the review).

   Koudelka's combat system is a semi-tactical system; moves are made in turns consisting of one part movement, one part action. It has all the trappings of a game like, say Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics, but I call it semi-tactical for a reason. Characters' movement rates are set. There are no obstructions (usually) on the battlefield, and one cannot move past a tier occupied by a foe. That's right, you cannot surround an enemy, nor can he surround you. The fact that you cannot move freely around the battlefield makes a great deal of your tactical decisions for you. The combat system is by no means bad, but it feels restrictive.

   The second aspect of any combat system is the leveling. There have been a number of unfavorable reviews written about Koudelka, and I think I understand why. The way the leveling is set up, the player decides what attributes of each of the three characters to increase. The characters get no natural bonuses; what each of the three characters becomes is entirely up to the player. The end result is that character leveling is more an art than an aspect of gameplay. You truly have to know what you are doing while beginning a game of Koudelka, a fact sure to scare off new players.

Plants are never good news in Koudelka.
Plants are never good news in Koudelka.  

   The other aspect of Koudelka which may frighten off a new player is the interface. The setup of the controller and the bizarre camera angles which, while doing wonders for the gothic and nervous air of the game, does nothing but aggravate the player while attempting to maneuver. Navigating menus can be repetitive and irritating, having to go through the same sequence of five windows three times just to use a single item on everyone in your party.

   Before talking about music, I should point out that Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3) not only composed the somewhat scant music, but also directed, produced, and wrote the script for Koudelka. That being said, perhaps Mr. Kikuta's multi-faceted duties on Koudelka account for his somewhat lackluster performance on its music. Don't get me wrong, the combat and boss themes are quite good, but they seem like they were written for another game. They sound bouncy and happy and, in short, like a track from Secret of Mana.

   There are very few other sounds in Koudelka - footfalls, a bell, the clock ticking - all of which intensify the very creepy, very realistic atmosphere. Voice acting is top of the line. Seriously. If Final Fantasy X or Kingdom Hearts had voice acting this good, Square fans would be crowing with delight. All in all, it's a job done very, very well.

   The same can't quite be said about Koudelka's sense of originality. It is a very realistic RPG - something of a first, admittedly - but the tactical combat system and the easy and eerily familiar puzzles detract from the sense of wonder. Ultimately, it's the plot which gives Koudelka its real originality.

The opening sequence features a wonderful choral piece called 'Requiem'. Very nice.
The opening sequence features a wonderful choral piece called 'Requiem'. Very nice.  

   The story of Koudelka has to do with a monastery, built by St. Daniel Scotius in the sixteenth century to appease evil spirits. In the late nineteenth century, a man bought the monastery and converted it to a home. You play Koudelka, summoned to the monastery by a strange voice, begging for release. As you go further into the monastery, you meet Edward Plunkett, a treasure hunter, and James O'Flaherty, a bishop on a mission from the Vatican. The greatness of the unfolding story lies primarily in the relationships between the characters. They don't particularly like each other, but over the course of the night they spend together in the monastery, they begin to rely on one another, and even to care for each other. All three main characters are not only fully fleshed out beings, but completely believable - something of a novelty in an RPG plot. Underneath, the story is about acceptance, redemption, and the will to live. If nothing else, the plot alone will push you to complete this game. Mr. Kikuta's screenplay debut - and, it appears, his final hurrah - is engaging, well written, and well translated. The single problem I have with the plot is a purely superficial one - the dialogue is all spoken, with no subtitles. It does add to the realistic feel of the game, but be sure to play it somewhere quiet.

Speaking of which, the translation of Koudelka, which flies leaps and bounds over that of its sequel (Shadow Hearts), is part of the reason the plot is so successful. The dialogue is smooth and sophisticated, and the characters come off as neither ignorant nor overly educated. They appear as they are - normal people, or nearly normal at least, attempting to survive and unravel the mystery that threatens their lives in a place both dangerous and oddly beautiful. This translation is quite possibly the only known example of a perfect translation from Japanese to English.

Replay value is a different matter. There are only one or two side quests, one of which obviously aims to set a tradition in the Koudelka series, that of having an optional boss which is far more difficult than the final boss itself. So unless you feel like switching around the character's combat roles - i.e., leveling Koudelka as a fighter and Edward as a mage instead of vice versa - or seeing the single possible plot branch, which consists of a single additional cutscene, there is very little reason to play Koudelka twice.

Edward is at his best when blowing stuff up.
Edward is at his best when blowing stuff up.  

My first reaction to the graphics of Koudelka was to wonder why they had decided to rip the style directly from Resident Evil 2. Upon a second examination, I think I can agree with their decision. The designers of Koudelka were obviously attempting to make it as realistic as possible - a noble goal in any game, certainly in a game where the point is to freak out the player as much as possible. On the whole, I can say the choice of realism was a good one, but that the PSX graphical engine was nowhere near up to snuff for the task. Perhaps a remake on the PS2 is in order?

Difficulty on Koudelka is somewhat variable. If you know what you are doing, in regards to properly leveling your characters, it's a breeze. If your characters end up flailing in every direction, statistically speaking, your progress through Koudelka will be slower and more labored than a tortoise escaping a black hole. Seriously, all bizarre metaphors aside, Koudelka is not a long game by any stretch of the imagination.

With its high-quality plot, amazing translation and intriguing combat system, Koudelka is a wonderful, if short, example of a truly good console RPG. It has its ups and downs, but the good ultimately outshines the bad. Truly, Kirby Fong, whoever, wherever, whatever he is, richly deserves the sugar he receives.

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