In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
Have you ever watched the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood and thought you couldnít take it seriously because of the Welsh accents (and not on the account of the schizophrenic writing involved)?
Well, Iím Welsh. So up yours, racist!
Okay, maybe that was a little extreme. Many people donít even realise Iím Welsh until they look at my profile on Xbox Live...then laugh at me. We donít all sound like that, nor do we shag sheep in the large city areas and sometimes weíre not comedic Ďvillage idiotí sidekicks. Yes, even in games, we get to be the hero. Your wretched lives are in our hands, but we are proud people, a sort of Ďpoor manís Scottishí if you will, and we get the job done just as well as the Americans.
I remember when I first played this game and within the opening sequence it told me we were in Wales. To see the word ĎAberystwythí blew my mind somewhat and I donít even like the place! After that, I thought if the game was truly appalling then it was still alright since an obscure game had already gone one step further with an obscure setting. Maybe my Game Snobbery Radar was acting up, but after that opening FMV, I felt the game couldnít do anything wrong.
Set in the 19th century, Koudelka is the story of a psychic Welsh gypsy girl who is summoned by the usual spooky voices to seek out a rundown abbey in Aberystwyth. Upon entering by using sneaky methods (which contributes to many a crime stats spike when gypsies decide to settle nearby) , Koudelka Iasant saves Edward Plunkett, an adventurer/grave robber, from a monster that has left him for dead. Oh, it also turns out that she has healing powers, unlike most gypsies who will usually try and sell you some pegs before cursing you. Anyway, as Edward and Koudelka aggressively flirt away while exploring the grounds, they meet a grumpy Irish priest called James Oí Malley. The trio form a fragile alliance to survive the monsters that stalk the abbey and find out why there are more than bats in the belfry. They soon meet up with an old groundskeeper couple, who still run the place like normal despite the ownerís disappearance (theyíve obviously gone Ďcoo-coo bananasí) and eventually stumble upon the infamous alchemist, Roger Bacon. It seems that only the rag-tag trio can defeat the abominations created by a tragic past and quell the restless voices in Koudelkaís head...since prescription pills werenít available at the time.
Despite the familiar gothic tale, Koudelka is a game of two halves; they sit awkwardly side by side on a chair only made for one. Thereís a constant battle of acceptance between the survival horror and RPG genres on display. For a majority of the game, players take control of Koudelka in a pre-rendered world full of gothic imagery and visceral horror. Here, you run around searching for key items, ammunition, health and scraps of information. Itís your typical survival horror fare with a period spin, but the world you inhabit is startlingly empty. Thereís some memorable art direction, minor lighting animations and sound effects to suggest the world around you is alive; but itís devoid of enemies. Itís completely devoid of life and this is where the RPG element comes into play.
Every few minutes, Koudelka is warped into chessboard-style arena where her gang of adventurers take part in turn-based battles. Instead of standing around like a lemon though, your turns involve moving the characters around on the board. The battles are more to do with strategic placement than rapidly hitting the attack/magic options. Your enemies will do the same, but neither side can overstep; so nobody can move around to attack from behind. If a character is knocked back a step, then the enemy is allowed encroach further and vice versa. The idea is not have everybody pushed back, side-by-side, to last row; the game wonít end, but the enemy will have the playing field before systematically taking each character down. Players have to take into account the range of their weapons too, since you can only engage the enemy face-to-face or with a gun. Itís a hard fighting system to describe, but itís pretty easy to pick and play once you see it in motion.
Each character gains experience and levels up like any other RPG. At every level, you can get bonus points to upgrade a certain quality; Koudelka is essentially a low HP healer, Edward is a brawler/swordsman and James is the paladin archetype. The items you find come at a rationing price, incorporating the survival horror element into the limitless power of levelling up. There are a variety of guns to find, but thereís only so much ammo to be found in the entire game. You have to constantly juggle between magic and items in preparation of tougher battles. Itís supposed to give you the sense that while you feel invincible in the RPG aspect, youíre actually walking a fine line when the vital items start running out. Though in reality, itís never really that dire since the RPG trappings like recharging are always interfering with the survival horror rationale. It only really matters towards the end of the game, but by this point youíve probably grinded to ridiculous levels, gained powerful magic and collected the most powerful sword in the game.
The game mechanics involved are obviously refreshingly unique, but it also feels like both are missing the key ingredient that makes either of them so special in the first place. The survival horror exploration never captures that terror of the unknown, while the RPG strategy feels somewhat clichťd despite the addition of movement. Thereís the usual repetition of random battles, the recycling of forgettable foes and the Ďweak against elementí bosses; nothing you havenít really seen before. That said, the story holds things together quite well for gothic horror in a RPG world. Itís a mixture of HP Lovecraft and forgotten mythology, with a tragic love story thrown in for good measure. Youíll probably see the game through to the end more for the twists than the initial wonders of the offbeat design.
Itís refreshing to play a bunch of rogues who didnít really get along with each other too; Koudelka is ultimately using her companions to serve her needs, Edward selfishly wants the abbeyís treasure and Jamesís bigoted religious views make him the abrasive outsider. They do share some semblance of camaraderie towards the end, but they never truly resolve their differences unlike the usual RPG stories where everybody learns something about themselves and are better for it. The only real flaw seems to be Roger Bacon, a decrepit old monkey skeleton who seems to be competing with actor Sylvester McCoy (The Seventh Doctor from Doctor Who) for the Ďbest hammy actor who can roll his rís to epic proportionsí award. I know many fans of the Shadow Hearts franchise would tell me Iím wrong, but I just donít think comic relief has ever worked in horror games. Wait, does Shadow Hearts have any fans? A bit of homework for you there.
Oh did I forget to mention that everyone has an American accent?
Even though theyíre all British and Irish, everyone has an American drawl. Probably marginally less disconcerting when somebody dubbed the original Forbidden Siren game with a cast of upper class twits who probably went to RADA. Oh well, itís not like this game will be remembered for anything Oscar worthy. I doubt itís even that good in any department (other than in my head), which probably goes a long way to explain why itís not fondly remembered in the ten years since its release. Strangely for a game that spawned a spin-off RPG franchise that successfully went on to be confused with Kingdom Hearts (helpful hint: itís the one without Disney characters), the actual origins have been lost in time. Anyway, if you havenít, check out Koudelka someday. It might not be the greatest RPG hybrid out there (yes, yes, we all know about Parasite Eve), but itís nice to know there are developers willing to experiment out there even if it ends in a failure or two.
Helpful Hint: When encountering gypsies, they will not heal you but they will give you head lice. Oh and donít go to the local pond since theyíll steal your fishing rods as Ďpaymentí for using it. Both are true stories.