One of the things that I absolutely love about the PSX era (and most of the PS2 era) was that the game industry hadn’t moved into the whole “yearly release” phase that it did in the PS3/X360 generation. We didn’t get the same game with a different skin over it constantly.
Instead, experimentation was still a huge aspect of the industry.
This is especially true for the PSX, Sega Saturn and N64 consoles, because the industry was still making the transition to 3D graphics. That’s how we ended up with the psychological horror of Silent Hill (born from experimenting with hiding the console’s limitations) and the birth of Gran Turismo (push the console’s abilities in realism).
It’s also how we ended up with Koudelka, which can only be described as a Survival Horror RPG. It was this trial and mixing of the genres that was such a big part of ’90s gaming. But how well did developers Sacnoth handle it? Let’s find out!
Set in Wales, you can already tell that Koudelka’s storyline is going to be very different from other games. Why? Because, honestly, no video game developer has set their game in Wales before… The opening scene alone shows that the game is far more grounded in gothic storytelling that most games as well. The setting of the game is an old monastery, filled with strange and monstrous creatures.
Dealing with themes of depression, loneliness, selfishness and religious belief, Koudelka was never going to appeal to the masses… Its story was just too deep. But then, that’s the beauty of the game.
You see, this is a story of twists and turns that will keep you guessing throughout. It is a story of heartbreak and sadness, yet hope as well, following the tale of a young (and magically gifted) woman named Koudelka.
Koudelka’s is a beautifully written tragedy that plays out in a horror game. And once again, this was all part of that experimentation. Horror games, up until then, had largely revolved around fleeing from monsters or blasting them away with a variety of guns, whilst the main plotline revolved around “we have to escape, now”.
Koudelka was different. You didn’t want to escape – the story was that captivating. Instead, you wanted to know and learn more.
As mentioned earlier, Koudelka is a hybrid of the RPG and Survival Horror genre. Yet, that’s not exactly right. In fact, it is a hybrid of the Survival Horror and Tactical RPG genres (itself being a mix of Strategy and RPG). So, in a sense, Koudelka was a mix of three different genres, and if the idea of pulling that off doesn’t sound daunting, I don’t know what would.
General exploration in the game is similar to Survival Horror, in that there are keys to find and puzzles to complete. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, similar to other horror games as well. Yet, there are no monsters to be seen…
That’s because Koudelka uses the Random Encounter system that is common in J-RPGs (Japanese RPGs). Rather than seeing the enemies on screen, you’ll randomly be taken into a battle scene as you walk around. You have no way to avoid this, as it is entirely at random, but once in the battle scene, you can try to flee.
On top of this, Koudelka also allows you to level up your characters to learn new abilities and change their stats and equipment, just like other RPGs.
Finally, the tactical element comes into play during the battles with monsters, where your three characters are placed upon a grid, along with the enemies. From here, each character and enemy uses their turns to move (a limited amount of spaces) or use a skill, such as magic or attacking with (or without) a weapon.
Oh, and your weapons can break, and you can run out of ammo too (it also takes a turn to reload a weapon). So you need to think and strategise each turn.
All in all, Koudelka’s gameplay takes a bit of getting used to, and is certainly challenging… Yet, it is also so rewarding at the same time.
One thing that I can say about Koudelka is that they developers definitely went for realism in terms of character models. And the pre-rendered background don’t clash with the characters at all, which a lot of developers still had issues with, even in 1999 when Koudelka was released.
The overall aesthetic of the monastery, along with the lighting and ambience, really helped to build up the mystery of the game. The monsters themselves ranged from mildly amusing to downright horrific, and for the time, were really well modelled.
The animations were smooth as well, and the fixed camera angles inherited from the Survival Horror genre were placed in the perfect positions to make the game look amazing.
It’s actually really hard to pick faults with the graphics, other than the UI in the character menu.
As you can see, the gradient places on the menu textures makes some of the text a bit hard to read. But that really is such a minor, tiny little detail… And the fact that it’s the only really negative I can point out about the graphics says a lot about the quality of Koudelka, don’t you think?
And That’s All Folks
Koudelka is a testament to the experimentation era of the video gaming industry; a mix of three different genres that came together to make an amazing game! Too bad that the developers, Sacnoth, didn’t have the marketing and distribution budget of bigger studios… Instead, Koudelka was largely missed from gaming magazines, going under the radar until fading into obscurity…
We did get a sequel eventually, in the form of Shadow Hearts (another absolute gem that was overlooked by most), and that spawn its own trilogy…
But still, Koudelka itself suffered heavily for a lack of marketing. And that’s a really shame, as so many people missed out on one of the most unique and intriguing games on the original Playstation!
If you get the chance to pick this up, do it! You won’t regret it.