The last time I played Koudelka the game was old enough to be plain ‘old’ but not yet old enough to have passed into the mystical realm of ‘retro’, and I really couldn’t remember much about it other than a vague memory of enjoying the experience so I thought seeing as it’s officially Creepy Game Month it’d be worth spending a few evenings getting reacquainted with the candlelit halls and the corpse-filled corners of the Nemeton Monastery in Aberystwyth. Thankfully this isn’t going to be the usual waffle where I drone on about a little bit of everything; I thought instead I’d look at two very specific and very different areas where Koudelka really shines but either gets strangely overlooked or misunderstood.
Let’s start with the part of Koudelka I consider to be unfairly ‘overlooked’: the game’s script and event cutscene direction. Unlike the (beautiful, but) flowery dialogue found in my beloved Ivalice or the dense detail found in Falcom’s Kiseki series Koudelka’s strength lies in the shockingly natural performances of the game’s tiny cast. Koudelka is an RPG that only has ten characters in total even when you include people that are only present in a single scene so it was absolutely vital that the performances here were spot on – definitely not the sort of thing anyone would even dare hope for from a 90’s Japanese PlayStation game, so it’s nothing short of a miracle that Sacnoth managed to pull it off. As it turns out there’s a very simple reason for this success; Sacnoth went to the USA and employed English-speaking actors and a bilingual director, then mo-capped and recorded the dialogue as the actors performed each scene - essentially creating a digital recording of a play. You can find behind the scenes photos and further details of the process over here (Japanese). It’s clearly a technique that works, so it’s a shame to think how even big-budget modern game acting still has a very definite split between motion and the voice work, and it’s still noteworthy for actors to record dialogue together.
In any case, all this international effort would mean nothing if the script didn’t have good characterisation underpinning it all, and Koudelka excels here too. The main characters are not natural heroes or team players and as such their dialogue reflects their differing moral codes and opinions, with almost every scene peppered with petty insults and needless bickering. But the script never mistakes these disagreements for the characters being wrong or unlikeable, and as such Koudelka’s cast come across as flawed, funny, kind, and occasionally narrow-minded people. You never get the feeling that they exist purely for the benefit of the game, or that everything of significance in their lives happens during the story or is something they want to share in a lengthy monologue set to heart-tugging music.
The other thing I want to spend some time waving a happy little flag for is a part of the game most people don’t seem to like at all – the battle system. I thought it was absolutely fascinating: rather than having characters fill pre-set roles (or have their base stats start off skewed so far one way they might as well be) you’re basically given ‘Sacnoth’s Big Ol’ Fightin’ Toolbox’ and let loose on the unsuspecting monsters of nineteenth century Wales. Between the in-game descriptions and the surprisingly helpful (UK-PAL) manual you’re left in no doubt what each stat does, which is especially great as the distribution of points on level up is left entirely in your hands. This is where I feel some people come unstuck – the natural reaction when faced with such an important decision is to give everyone a little bit of everything, because when in doubt an all-rounder is probably a safer bet than a specialist. Unfortunately this is absolutely not the case with Koudelka, as here an even distribution of stats means your character excels as absolutely nothing and is vulnerable to everything - it’s a much better idea to decide early on if you want to send a particular character along a melee or caster-type path. But what about the inevitable chinks in your armour specialisation causes? Koudelka gives you plenty of options to either cover your weaknesses, boost your strengths so much your weaknesses won’t matter, or find your own sensible compromise between the two.
The most obvious quirk in Koudelka’s battle system is the dizzying array of weaponry on offer. In keeping with the freeform nature of the game everyone can equip anything you have to hand, from water-aligned frocks to steel pipes and, as you may have heard, yes – these weapons can break. Can, but rarely will, in practise. Without grinding, farming, or being careful (and it is possible to kill things quite effectively with bare fists if you fancy), by around disc three I had so many different weapons that I literally couldn’t pick up anything else without throwing away something I was already carrying. That’s not meant to be taken as a boast; the point is to illustrate that while I did sometimes have a very useful weapon break right in the middle of a boss battle (at this point I should probably mention that you can change weapons in battle every single turn if you want to) more than enough will either drop naturally from defeated enemies or be found lying around the monastery to replace whatever you do happen to lose. As characters gain experience using a particular weapon class or spells their proficiency in that field rises, resulting in more powerful magicks and regular physical attacks becoming impressive two-hit animations – it’s a neat touch that adds another layer of tactics for those that would like to specialise, but not to the detriment of those unwilling or unlucky enough to not want or be able to stick with a specific item class.
Then there’s the grid-based floor all the battles take place on to consider too: At first blush you’d think it was just an excuse to add a little ‘SRPG-lite’ movement to the game, but it’s actually part of an infinitely more interesting ‘zone of control’ system that allows you (and the enemy!) to send a party member ahead to act as a vanguard, physically preventing enemies from getting close to weaker characters. To stop this being a brainless case of ‘move the toughest one to the front to win’ you must always keep in mind ranged magical attacks and gunfire, and the end result is a battlefield where positioning is actually about positioning, and not simply a case of everyone huddling around the latest eldritch monstrosity and hitting it until it dies.
Basically it’s a really strong and interesting system that doesn’t allow you to ignore elemental weaknesses or pretend weapon stats are just for show, and it doesn’t fall apart at the seams if you use your knowledge of the system and the equipment you find to your advantage. It’s a game that consciously rewards ‘making do’ – I only ever found three pieces of armour and yet I managed just fine, because in Koudelka the answer when things aren’t going your way is ‘How can I use what I have to make up for this?’ not ‘Let’s grind for hours until we’re so over-levelled it doesn’t matter’.
There is however one flaw that I feel is significant enough to mention even in a blog post that’s all about Koudelka-cheering though: the game is almost impossible to play without a guide for people who are hard of hearing or those who aren’t but can’t guarantee they’ll be playing in an environment that allows them to sit undisturbed with the volume turned up. The problem is all the dialogue in the game is voiced but unsubtitled – an impressive and immersive experience for sure, but also utterly impractical as the instant you cough, or the doorbell rings, or perhaps you happen to live with other people who don’t want to whisper in hushed tones while you play a seventeen year old game, you’ll miss out on not only the beautifully performed script but significant plot details too. It all comes to a head during one mandatory puzzle later on in the game that’s entirely reliant on the player being able to clearly hear and then reproduce a tune played on a little music box - it’s not randomly generated so you can run off and check a FAQ if you have to, but it does feel a bit thoughtless when the rest of the game is so well done (and all the other puzzles rely on visual clues).
In spite of this uncharacteristic misstep Koudelka is a wonderful one-off that I’m happy to internally file next to other off-kilter RPGs I love like Vagrant Story, The Last Remnant, and Final Fantasy XII. Generally polished and joyously unpredictable, Koudelka’s a memorable experience whether you’re hoping to be drawn into an enthralling story or flex your strategic muscles in battle. The best news is that it’s readily available everywhere (the US release seems to be a little pricey, mind) on one of the most popular consoles of all time so if you’d like to try it out for yourself it shouldn’t be too much trouble at all – brilliant!