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How Our Hearts Become Dark
Ah, the gothic horror RPG. Released in 1999, this is probably one of the first RPGs ever to be mixed with another genre, namely Survival Horror. While Parasite Eve, that was released in 1998 also had a mixture between RPG and Survival Horror, this game takes place in a totally different setting. Instead of running around the streets of New York, we now travel backwards in time, to the late 19th century, and see the world through the eyes of a young woman called Koudelka.
As almost everything else in this game, the battle system is very original. While it is turn-based, it also has numerous elements of a TRPG. When a character gains a turn, he or she not only has thet abillity to perform different actions, but also move around to more strategic places, for future turns etc. While the battle areas aren't as large as the ones seen in Final Fantasy Tactics, Kartia or Hoshigami, they are large enough for the player to move around quite a bit, making use of different strategies for a better chance of defeating enemies. Koudelka is also built up through random encounters, meaning the battles will have to be a little shorter than the ones in the earlier mentioned TRPGs. Aside from this, there is unfortunately not much the characters can do. They can attack normally, and use magic, and that's about it. Also, the spell library is probably one of the smallest I've seen. Instead of receiving new spells, all the time, the older spells has a bunch of levels. This could've been done in a much better way though, and it wouldn't have hurt with a little more variation in combat. What's cool though, is that each time a character level up, you have the abillity to distribute a certain amount of bonus points to the different stats of that character, such as HP, Dexterity, strength etc. This is quite uncommon in console-RPGs, and I would love to see more of it in the future.
When running around on the field screen in Koudelka, the game looks a lot like ordinary Survival Horror games (Resident Evil, Silent Hill etc). While camera angles always have been a problem in those games, they are even worse in Koudelka. The camera switches angles at odd places, at odd times, and all too often the player loses control of the character when it happens. While the controls are a little different for most people and quite hard getting used to if you haven't played a game like this before, the overall interface is beautiful. Colors and overall design in menus and such fits perfectly into the surroundings and feeling of the game.
With that said, it might be good to explain that Koudelka takes place only in one single mansion, very similar to Resident Evil. The difference is that this mansion actually is beautiful... cool and mysterious backgrounds and textures that never stops surprising the player continues to show up through the entire game. It's the spooky style of this large castle, and the looks of the various monsters that brings the horror into the game. Luckily, the quality of it is high enough to make the player feel a little uncomfortable at times, if you know what I mean.
Although, without music, horror games would be a lot less frightening. Fortunately, Koudelka has a solid soundtrack. Not so solid that it could have a chance against other Survival Horror games, but solid enough to be remembered. Most tracks are calm and slow, even the battle theme has a relaxed touch to it. This is very fitting of course, as you run around in an empty mansion with lots of mysterious secrets. Another thing that was perfectly fitting in Koudelka, that usually failed terribly in most RPGs for the PSX, was the voices! The voice actors of the three main character did an incredibly good job here. It almost felt like a movie. Also, I'm giving the score a boost as well for bringing voices into the beautiful FMVs as well, and there are quite a lot of them in the game (which probably explains why the game is 4 discs long, even though it can be completed in less than 10 Hours). While all dialogue between the main characters had voices, the players needn't read almost anything throughout the game. There are a bunch of text files that you can find in the mansion that you need to read in order to find out more about the plot, but that's all there is to it. While most people probably prefer hearing the characters speak (especially with such a high quality like this), that might also be a problem if you miss something. Then you'll have to replay the whole scene, and that can be quite annoying. Also, keep in mind that you need to boost the volume on your TV quite a lot to actually hear what the characters are saying.
With all that said, one might wonder what this game is actually about. As I said, you play the role as a young beautiful woman called Koudelka. She has a mysterious past that we don't know anything about, and there is no time for introductions. When the game starts, Koudelka is already headed towards the mansion, where she meets up with two guys; a priest and a treasure hunter. After discovering that the mansion is filled with demons and monsters, they decide to help each other out of there. What they don't know, is that the girl in their party is very special, and that they won't get out of there in the first place, and not without a fight. The plot is full of surprises and, if you're sensitive, a whole lot of stomach-turners as well. Most importantly, it has a whole lot of thought behind it, and the game won't leave you disappointed, even though it is quite short.
Long enough though, if you're tired of those 50 Hour games that are so common nowadays. You'll easily beat Koudelka in 10 Hours without leveling up, and that will also bring you some challenge. While some people say this game is easy, I have to say that I had some serious problems with it, especially on the last two discs. This goes for both random encounters and bosses.. so you might want to take it a little easy, and think carefully where you are going to put your stats when you level up. If you do that however, I'm sure everything will be fine. Even if this game is short, the replay value still goes down a bit. There are two endings, but you don't have to replay the entire game to get them. There is also a very hard sub-boss if you want a challenge... but you don't have to replay the entire game for that either. Other than that, the game unfortunately don't have any sidequests worth mentioning.
In conclusion, this is not your ordinary RPG. But still, give it a chance, it might be a lot better than you think. Try something new, go for Koudelka, and later on, you can finish off Shadow Hearts (the sequel) and understand more of it than you would've if you hadn't played this game beforehand. I recommend Koudelka to anyone that needs a break from ordinary RPGs, and is in for something new and different.
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