Koudelka first gained media attention at the 1999 E3 show. Anyone who saw its looping demos admitted that the game showed promise. It sported impressive CG graphics, rich prerendered backgrounds and was made by a collection of developers who once worked at Squaresoft—all the things needed to garner some attention and positive early reviews. However, once it came to getting the game to store shelves in the U.S., it seemed to stumble a bit. It was only recently that Infogrames picked it up for release, and that was only after a disgruntled SNK shopped it to many a disinterested publisher. Perhaps the reason was that despite a promising start, Koudelka falls into such a deep malaise that it practically erases everything good built into the game.
Koudelka certainly starts strong. The opening intro, for example, isn't the usual loud and overblown affair that seems to be the norm these days—instead it is very low key. It consists of a lone, dark figure riding horseback through a countryside at night. All the while a low, melancholy musical tune plays in the background. It is quiet, reserved and barring the obvious similarities to that of The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time's intro, it works wonderfully. The game delivers initially with very high quality—albeit, a bit brief—CG full-motion video. The model renders are impressively detailed and on par with work from the likes of Square and Namco. The other excellent features are the prerendered environments and solid voice acting. The voice acting and lip-synchronizing is so good, in fact, that had I not known the game's Japanese origins, I would have believed it was made on these shores.
I have to say I found the characters in the game to be really interesting—a first for me in a while. The main character, Koudelka Iasant, is a refreshingly crass young heroine. Born a medium, which for all intents and purposes means she's a witch, Koudelka was ostracized by her village and has grown to be a bitter and untrusting individual. She is even more abrasive towards her reluctant party mates: Edward Plunkett, a rich man's son turned world adventurer-thief and James O'Flanery, a bigoted, contemptuous, elder bishop who arrives at the Monastery on secret orders from the Pope. Each character has his or her own unique reasons for joining the group and their conversations are usually good for a laugh or two. What is really great though is the conflict between O'Flanery and Koudelka. At almost every turn O'Flanery throws out Christian comments and proclamations only to be vehemently attacked by a non-believing Koudelka. It is one of the most refreshing exchanges in videogames I've come across in a long time.
As good as these points are, the problem with Koudelka is that it peaks almost entirely during the few hours of playing. By the time I finished the first (of four!) discs, I realized that it had long since ceased being fun. The biggest obstacle has to be its dual nature. Koudelka appears to be Sacnoth's attempt at making a deeper survival-horror experience, with the addition of traditional turn-based role-playing game elements. The problem with this move is that there are flaws inherent to each genre that must be overcome, but Sacnoth never does. Once such flaw are the random battles that abound in the game. I couldn't walk more than a few steps in either direction without being thrown into a fight. And what's worse is that these battles weren't even enjoyable. In an attempt to make the turn-based element of the game seem more interactive, having characters move along checker board-like grids is not the way to go. It just slows the game down when I have to select areas to move to and then sit through the animations. Even Battle Chess let me turn off the monotonous animations knowing full well that it gets old quickly.
For all my raving about the graphics in this game, you would never know it if you saw the graphics used during battles. For one thing, the backgrounds are bland and heavily pixelated, and the character designs for the monsters are appallingly unimaginative. Some are so badly done that I went after them first in battle just so I wouldn't have to look at them. Given their former connection to Squaresoft, I was dumbfounded by the boring spells at my disposal. For all my complaining about the waiting time for spells to be cast in Final Fantasy VIII, at least there was a pay-off with spectacular visuals and sounds. With Koudelka there is neither.
The game further stumbles with the character statistics and weapons maintenance. With each level increase, Sacnoth incorporated a system whereby you can customize your characters by selecting which attribute you want to build up. This sounded like a good idea until I actually tried it and found that with each level up, I never felt that anyone in my party was gaining in any particular way. In fact, it was only after a needless amount of battles that my characters would level-up to respectable levels. And as far as the weapons go, there was no shopping system in the game, so anything I used had to be found or taken from dead monsters. This is all well and good, but the one stipulation is that weapons break down, so after a few uses they are gone forever. It resulted in a viscous cycle where I had to fight to acquire more weapons that I lost from other battles.
As for as its survival-horror side goes, Koudelka falters there as well. The prerendered backgrounds may be amazing to look at, but traveling in them is an amazing endeavor. As with other games of its type, I found myself sliding along the background losing any illusion that I was "walking" in it. Another mistake was in not making the items I was supposed to be looking for stick out from the prerendered backgrounds. I could be in a room and simply pass by objects because they looked to be part of the scenery and this only lead to more pointless backtracking. Speaking of which, Koudelka takes place on essentially the same area so no matter how deep in the game, I still found myself going through the same areas repeated as I "unlocked" a secret door in one place with a key located on the other side of the building. I realize that it is a mainstay of the genre, but that doesn't make it any less of an annoyance.
Looking back at Koudelka, I can see how it caught the eye of many an editor at the E3 show. Giving Koudelka a quick go through will give anyone a false first impression of the game. It is only after playing through the game that its myriad of flaws pop up. Sadly, for all its ambitious intentions and grand accomplishments in graphics and sound, there really isn't anything else to hold the game up in between the impressive CG scenes and dialogue.
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