December 16th, 1999 (Japan), June 29th, 2000 (N.A.), September 29th, 2000 (Europe)
Cover art for Koudelka.
What Is This Game?
Koudelka is the original Playstation game which served as the predecessor to the cult Playstation 2 RPG series, “Shadow Hearts.” Koudelka created the universe in which the Shadow Hearts series takes place, and serves as the first entry, both in release and chronology, in what became the Shadow Hearts series. Koudelka plays quite differently than the Shadow Hearts series, however; the game can best be described as a hybrid of survival horror and turn-based RPG gameplay.
The story is set in the year 1898, and occurs mostly in and around the mysterious Nemeton Monastery in Wales. Koudelka, a young gypsy woman, arrives at the monastery after a series of supernatural visions, and soon encounters two others: Edward Plunkett, an adventurer and looter, and James O’Flaherty, a bishop there to investigate the mysterious “Émigré Document” at the monastery. Both end up joining with Koudelka to investigate the monastery for their own reasons, and end up uncovering the dark past and terrifying secrets of the monastery together, as their unlikely alliance slowly gives way to the companionship they will need to explore the monastery, and return from it alive.
Koudelka scales the walls of the Nemeton Monastery in the game's opening cutscene.
Koudelka was a game so obscure at the time of its release that it probably would have been totally forgotten by now, if not for the moderate cult popularity of its Playstation 2 successors, the Shadow Hearts series. At the time of its release, however, I recall being totally fixated on it. The rare previews I’d seen in various video game publications had completely grabbed my interest; a dark, gothic, M-rated horror RPG set in the 1800’s? Now HERE’S something different, I thought. Even when the game was released to average and mediocre reviews, I was still transfixed by the look and concept of it, and it did nothing to deter my fascination with this obscure and unique game.
The game proved oddly elusive to me upon its release, and whether it was bad luck on my part or an actual lack of copies produced or shipped, I have no idea, but within the first month or so after its release, I went through hell just to get my hands on it. None of the stores in my area were carrying it, so I, naturally, turned to the internet to acquire a copy; upon trying to order it from EBWorld, I found the game listed as out of stock, despite even a small advertisement for it on the side of their homepage. So I backordered it……and received an email a week or two later saying they were not expecting any more copies of it to arrive, and thus cancelled my order. So I turned to a number of other online retailers, including the once-popular Chips n’ Bits, all of whom either had it backordered or not listed at all. I finally backordered it from Chips n’ Bits and, after waiting a couple weeks for it to come back into stock, I FINALLY had a copy shipped to me. A strange sequence of events, for sure, especially since the game isn’t notably rare or expensive nowadays (not common, mind you, but not terribly rare), and it became more readily available within the following couple of months. At any rate, when I finally acquired the game, I was jonesing to play it, even with a slight paranoia that the mediocre reviews might be right…..and that I might be disappointed…..
Those fears were quickly washed away, however. Shortly after popping in the first disc, viewing the game’s beautiful prerendered opening, getting into the first battle, and then moving on and doing some exploring, I was sure; this was no mistake, I was going to love this game. Koudelka was, and still is, a game that is fascinating and unique, and lives on as one of my favorite games of the Playstation era. To be clear, it has some issues, namely with the battle system, which may deter some players, and its unconventional hybrid of the survival horror and RPG genres, while interesting, puts it into a weird niche that seemed to ensure its obscurity. However, these questionable issues and quips did little to take away from the fact that Koudelka is a memorable, atmospheric experience, with excellent characters, a fascinating story, and a dark setting and style rarely seen in RPGs of its time.
Koudelka is filled with a dark style and atmosphere unique to its genre.
History, Release and Reception:
Koudelka was developed by the somewhat short-lived and obscure developer, Sacnoth. Sacnoth was a development company founded by Hiroki Kikuta, who had previously worked as a musical composer for Squaresoft in the mid-90’s, and eventually decided to set out on his own to create his own video games. Sacnoth was the result of his creative venture.
Sacnoth founder Hiroki Kikuta has spent much of his career as a musical composer, his work including the soundtrack for the SNES classic Secret of Mana, in addition to his own score for Koudelka.
1999/2000 saw two releases from Sacnoth: the highly-regarded, but extremely over-looked and under-produced, NeoGeo Pocket Color mech-strategy game, Faselei, and Koudelka. Koudelka was to be Kikuta’s masterpiece and Sacnoth’s flagship game, it seemed. Kikuta felt that the RPG genre was generally plagued by immaturity, and that it had become stagnant, relying too much on repeated genre conventions. Koudelka was to be Kikuta’s masterpiece that would take the genre in a new direction and change all that. Indeed, none could claim he wasn’t passionate about it: he claimed to have read over 100 books on British history and took the design team on a trip to Wales, all in an effort to perfect his would-be masterpiece. However, disputes and disagreements between Kikuta and his team on the direction which the gameplay should take lead to an ultimately compromised vision. Kikuta wanted a more action-oriented battle system, whereas much of the team felt it would be wiser to stick close to the turn-based conventions established by industry giant, Squaresoft. This dispute is quite likely what lead to that which became the game’s heaviest criticism; it’s somewhat odd choice of a grid-based, tactical-RPG style, battle system.
Kikuta also created the mech-strategy game Faselei, but Koudelka was the game he envisioned as his and Sacnoth's crowning achievement.
Koudelka eventually was released to little fanfare and mediocre-to-average reviews. Most critics felt generally the same way about it; the prerendered cutscenes and environments were pretty, the concept original, and the characters and story intriguing. However, the main qualm most critics had with it, which was largely what dragged down its scores, was the aforementioned battle system, along with some of the more frustrating aspects tied to it. Due in part to its lukewarm critical reception, coupled with a general lack of coverage and awareness, Koudelka was quickly forgotten. A short-lived Koudelka manga sprang up in Japan around the time of its Japanese release as well, but only lasted for three volumes and was largely overlooked and forgotten due to the game’s lack of popularity.
The game enjoyed a bit of recognition when the Shadow Hearts series came around during the PS2 era, and developed a small but dedicated cult following. By this point, however, Kikuta had already left Sacnoth due to the aforementioned disputes and Koudelka’s lack of success. Sacnoth eventually ended up making three Shadow Hearts games for the Playstation 2, changing its name to Nautilus, and getting acquired by Aruze Entertainment along the way, before finally being announced as officially “dissolved” by Aruze in 2007. Koudelka, meanwhile, while by far the least known and most rarely mentioned game in the series, still managed some recognition amongst Shadow Hearts fans as the predecessor to the series and the origin of its tale. A bittersweet story, for sure, but at least, in the end, Koudelka managed to avoid being completely forgotten thanks to its ties with its slightly more successful successors.
Although Kikuta left Sacnoth after Koudelka, the Shadow Hearts series carried on the game's legacy, expanding on its story and universe.
Koudelka really doesn’t have a lot of flaws outside of its battle system but, unfortunately, an RPG’s battle system can often go a long way toward making or breaking it.
I’ll be honest; I had no issues personally with Koudelka’s battle system. I understood the issues it had, why it detracted from the game for some, and that it did feel somewhat odd and out-of-place with the rest of the game. However, to me anyways, its flaws were not much of a big deal, and I even found myself enjoying the battles despite them. That said, the issues with it can’t be overlooked or denied, especially since enough people took issue with them that it dragged down its overall critical reception, and even the creator was apparently dissatisfied with it.
Koudelka features random battles which take place on a small grid which the player and enemies move around on. Think strategy-RPG, but on a smaller scale, with flat terrain. The battle system in and of itself honestly works, and it’s never unmanageable or too hard to tell what you’re doing, really. The problems lie much in its lack of explanation, slow-pace, frustratingly random breakable weapons, and, once again, the jarring transition to battle, and the whole feeling that the battles are disjointed from the rest of the game.
While random encounters happen at a completely reasonable rate, where you are never overwhelmed by them, the pace of the actual battles is still a bit too slow and protracted for most. During battle, certain actions, like spell casting, can take a while to load after selecting them. Moving each of your three characters around the grid, positioning them correctly for attack, watching the enemies do the same, then going through your menus and actually attacking takes a bit of time, too. While it adds an interesting element of strategy to the combat, it also throws off the pacing of the overall game by moving at its own, slower pace and once again, ultimately making it feel like the battles exist in their own little world, without a lot of connection to the rest of the game.
Koudelka's battle system employs a strategy-RPG-esque grid, which allows characters to move around and reposition themselves on the battlefield.
It doesn’t help to dispel this feeling of disconnection with the fact that battles visually appear to take place on a whole other plain of existence. The battlefields which random encounters transport the player to have no real variety, and are more or less just a small piece of land on which the characters move around, surrounded by darkness. One minute you’re in a side room or roaming the courtyard of the monastery, the next, a random encounter hits and your party is fighting enemies in a black abyss. It didn’t bother me to any real degree, but it’s a noticeable issue, and a bit more detail, backgrounds and variety to the battlefields would have probably gone a long way towards solving that feeling of disconnection between the bulk of the game and the battles.
Likewise, the game leaves the player to figure out the details of combat, for the most part. Again, the battles are manageable and menus and commands clear enough that most people shouldn’t have a lot of trouble operating them. However, it also makes some elements, like move and hit rates, and the power of magic and attacks, seem random at times. More troubling, however, and probably the element of battle I found could be most frustrating, were the game’s breakable weapons. Any weapon you pick up and use in battle can pretty much break at any time. While it’s not entirely random, and different weapons have different levels of durability, any old attack could break your weapon at pretty much any time. Before long, I found myself not using good weapons I’d picked up in all but the most important fights and boss battles, for fear of them breaking on some petty monster and being lost forever.
Koudelka's battle system was its greatest complaint from critics and fans. While some players enjoyed it, many others were unhappy with it, including Kikuta himself.
Besides the issues with the battle system, though, there’s really not much wrong with Koudelka. Yes, you could point out small things here and there. Save points can be a bit infrequent at times. The preset camera angles on some rooms can occasionally be a bit confusing, or make for a jarring transition between areas. But that’s something one could say for just about any Playstation game with prerendered environments, and rarely ever produced any real problems or confusion. Outside of that, the only real issue that springs to mind outside the battles is the requirements for getting the best ending (there are three endings total), or for completing a few other optional parts or obtaining some optional scenes. The game is pretty unspecific about said requirements, and the actions or items required for them, and it would be very easy to overlook a few of them without a guide or walkthrough. These are not numerous, particularly difficult or easy to miss for any player who is attentive or thorough, however, and simply looking at a walkthrough and quickly checking said requirements/optional actions or items solves the problem easily. Overall, outside of some qualms with its battle system, Koudelka is a well-crafted game that has a lot of great things going for it.
Why it’s Worth a Second Look:
Koudelka is worth a second look because, despite what differing opinions say about its battle system, it is otherwise a damn fine game and an incredibly memorable experience. The game is well-crafted, good-looking, and filled with style and atmosphere. It also has a wonderful and refreshingly unique setting, a great story, and excellent characters, all of which are fully voiced throughout the entire game. Not only that, but the voice acting, dialogue and writing are shockingly good, especially for a game of its time. And on top of it all, the Nemeton Monastery and its surrounding areas are an extremely enjoyable and engaging place to discover and explore.
Koudelka looks very good for a Playstation game. Its prerendered cutscenes look crisp and cinematic, and show off the game’s dark gothic style and great character and monster designs nicely. In-game graphics are pretty nice, too. Prerendered backgrounds are good-looking, and while they aren’t as crisp and clear as those in, say, the Final Fantasy or Resident Evil series, the environments are detailed and dripping with dark, atmospheric style. Character models are actually nice-looking and detailed for a 32-bit game, as well, and are very well animated during in-game cutscenes. Overall, the only area where the game stumbles graphically is in its lack of detail on its battlefields. Otherwise, Koudelka is a nice looking game.
Koudelka features many prerendered cutscenes, and all are cinematic and impressively detailed.
Speaking of visuals, one of Koudelka’s greatest strengths is in its style, artistic designs and atmosphere. Hiroki Kikuta certainly succeeded in his goal of creating a dark, mature and unconventional RPG, and it shows right from the beginning. Koudelka’s gothic architecture, gloomy environments, strange and disturbing monsters, and realistic character designs all come together to create a foreboding and mercilessly dark atmosphere. Further enhancing Koudelka’s dark and unique atmosphere are its sound and music. Subtle details in sound bring the creepy old monastery to life, with wind howling distantly in the background, fire crackling, and character’s footsteps and voices echoing through its seemingly abandoned depths. The sound is minimalist, but it should be; the game is often quiet, but is haunting in its silence. Koudelka’s music is similarly minimalist and atmospheric. Most of the musical tracks appear during battles, and while unusual in style, are befitting of the game’s atmosphere in a certain way. Outside battle, music is minimal, often relegated to cutscenes or dramatic moments. While critic’s opinions seemed somewhat divided on the music, I personally found it minimalist, unique and fitting.
Prerendered backgrounds are detailed and stylish.
Of all the game’s aural aspects, however, special note should be made of not just Koudelka’s surprisingly high-quality English voice acting, but also its extremely well-written dialogue. Not only is the writing and voice acting well above the standard of most games of its time, it’s still better than many of the games being released today. The game is heavy on dialogue, with many extended conversations, and that’s a very good thing, because not only are the characters interesting, but they are so interesting partially because the script and voice work do such an excellent job of bringing them to life. Conversations actually sound like conversations, not stilted dialogue, and help to develop the characters and story naturally.
Koudelka's cast is endearing and diverse.
Much of the writing comes off with a bit of a theatrical charm; which is a good thing. Since this is a Playstation game with prerendered backgrounds, and without the ability to create highly detailed character models, one could liken the presentation and effect of in-game cutscenes to that of a theatrical performance; while Koudelka’s prerendered cutscenes are, of course, very cinematic, in-game ones usually play out from a single angle on a prerendered environment, with all the characters of the scene on the stage of that particular environment. This creates an effect similar to watching a theatrical play, and so it seems appropriate, and works perfectly, that the voice acting, along with the animated, motion-captured character models, have the expressive, dramatic quality of stage actors during a performance. Not only does it make for consistently entertaining dialogue and cutscenes, it also makes up for the lack of subtle cinematic expression the fixed camera angles, prerendered environments and low-detail 3D character models of a 32-bit game lack. The one strike I could issue against the voice acting is that most of the accents are not native to the setting in which the game takes place; however, the writing and quality of the acting overcome this discrepancy easily, and it never detracts from the game or the characters.
Koudelka is fully-voiced, and the acting and writing are surprisingly good for a game of its era.
Koudelka is indeed a well-written and well-acted game, and on that note, the characters and story are creative, in-depth and thoroughly interesting. The story was fascinating, unique and well-told when I first played it, and time has not diminished it. After Koudelka, Edward and James come together, they slowly unravel an increasingly dark, tragic and twisted story, which they, in turn, become entangled in. I don’t want to spoil too much, since the story is one of the game’s driving forces, but the story becomes much more than a haunted house mystery; including elements of historical fiction, dark supernatural forces, the story of an old seafaring vessel, and plenty of tragic human drama tying it all together. Tied right into the story is the rich and three-dimensional cast. Koudelka herself is a great character and an interesting protagonist; she has a unique look about her, and a strong personality which truly evolves throughout the course of the game. Koudelka, Edward and James are fascinating to learn about, and just as fascinating in the development of their friendship and the excellent chemistry and character interaction between them. They are three people who are seemingly very different, and watching them converse, bicker and slowly develop from grudging comrades by necessity to companions who genuinely care about one another is satisfying and entertaining because of how well the game handles it.
The thing I loved the very most about Koudelka is the maturity with which it handles itself and its subject matter throughout the entirety of the game. There are no stupid gags, no comic relief characters, no ridiculously over-the-top moments. There are moments of humor, but they come in the form of realistic character interaction true to who the characters are and their relationships to one another. The historical setting has a coldly realistic look and vibe to it. The supernatural elements are handled with maturity and care, and never become an excuse for ridiculous superpowers or super-human fight scenes. The atmosphere and story stick adamantly to their dark and dramatic nature. The cast is filled with adult characters, who interact like adults, have adult personalities and problems, and are never over-dramatized nor become stereotypes or caricatures of themselves. In short, when Koudelka claims to be a mature game made with a mature audience in mind, it actually means it: this game is aimed at an adult audience. Even today, amongst the many games attempting to become a mature, adult, artistic form of entertainment, Koudelka still stands out as a rare example of a game that really WAS for adults, and not in a superficial sense.
The story is dark and filled with mature and often disturbing themes.
On the gameplay side of the equation, opinions may be divided on the battle system, but the other elements are actually fun and satisfying. Exploring the Nemeton Monastery is exciting, intriguing and appropriately mysterious. Roaming its long hallways, dark side rooms, gloomy courtyards and forgotten depths should prove exciting to any gamer with a curious and adventurous attitude. There’s a real sense of discovery as you uncover items hidden in dark corners, read dusty old letters and documents, solve puzzles, and unlock doors which lead you further into the mysterious depths of the monastery. Random encounters are present throughout the game, but occur at a completely reasonable and well-spaced rate that rarely feels overwhelming or irritating, unlike in so many other games.
While opinions differ on the battle system, the leveling system, on the other hand, is satisfying and rewarding. Players are free to level and customize each character as they see fit by distributing points they earn at each level up into the areas of their choosing, and thus outfitting characters of their choice with magic, melee, guns, defense, MP, HP, etc. This, in turn, adds to the battle system and, at least for myself, made battles an overall enjoyable and rewarding experience despite their issues, as I visibly watched my character’s skill sets grow to my own liking.
Exploring the monastery is both mysterious and intriguing.
Koudelka is a game of decent size and length, and it is well-paced overall, without ending too soon or running on too long with fluff or filler. I’ve heard varying reports of Koudelka’s actual length, and I’m going to assume that it is a matter of playstyle coupled with the amount of battles and exploring you do. Personally, my file clocked in at around 35 hours by the end of it all, but I also explored every nook and cranny, including a few optional parts, and spent some time level-grinding after each boss fight, so I’m sure that increased the play time a bit. I’ve heard other sources say the game is closer to 20 or 25 hours, while yet others say they blew through it in around 15. Whatever the case, Koudelka felt just the right length to me. It never droned on or hit any ruts, and the story remained focused throughout. It should be noted that the game does have multiple endings; three to be exact. However, it should also be noted, without any spoilers, that the best one isn’t hard to obtain and is, well, the best ending to see (and of the other two, one is pretty much the "dud" ending). So most probably won’t find themselves replaying the game just to see the others, especially since another full playthrough would not be required to view them, anyways. I do not say this as if it were a problem, though; the ending wraps things up nicely and the game feels full and complete by the end of it all.
While the battle system has been a subject of debate, the leveling is deep, open-ended and satisfying.
Koudelka may have been a compromised vision, which lead to some questionable decisions for its battle system, but even this couldn’t change the fact that Koudelka was an inspired game with real passion and a great idea behind it. And its creator’s passion and inspiration shine through to create an experience that is still unique, mature and fascinating today, if sadly overlooked and forgotten. Make no mistake, while the Shadow Hearts series are some of my personal favorite games, and I loved each of the entries in the series pretty much equally (including Koudelka), it is also increasingly clear with each entry that Kikuta was not behind those games. While the Shadow Hearts series is indeed strongly tied to Koudelka in its stories (which, in turn, enhances the stories of all of the games, in my opinion), it also delved, increasingly so with each of its three entries, more into the over-the-top events and superpowers, the RPG conventions, and the moments of slap-stick humor which Kikuta originally tried so hard to avoid with Koudelka. In this, Koudelka remains something all its own; a surprisingly mature, adult game which, while perhaps flawed or compromised in some areas, is still to this day a unique and inspired vision; a memorable experience worth rediscovering.
While Kikuta's vision may have been compromised in some regards, Koudelka still proves to be a unique, engrossing and truly mature game.
Who Should Play It?
Any fans of RPGs or survival horror looking for something out of the ordinary. Adult gamers looking for an intelligent, well-written story with a realistic style, or anybody with an interest in historical fiction or stories dealing with the supernatural or the occult. And, of course, any fans of the Shadow Hearts series owe it to themselves to check out Koudelka and see where the story began.
LOOK WHO CAME: