Friday, November 26, 2021


Monastery Resident Evil

The videogame genre of survival horror saw its inception with the original Japanese release in 1996 of the PlayStation game Resident Evil, itself influenced by games from prior generations such as Sweet Home, primarily with the intent to frighten characters through their ambience and tension. The concept would worm its way into other game genres such as RPGs, a notable example being Parasite Eve by Square, and one of the company’s former employees, Hiroki Kikuta, known for his compositions for Secret of Mana and sequel Trials of Mana, spearheaded a similar contribution to the concept of the fusion of RPGs and survival horror, entitled Koudelka, developed by Sacnoth, published by SNK in Japan, and released internationally by Infogrames, no stranger to RPGs given prior roleplaying productions Drakkhen and Dragon View. Is it a good contribution to the hybrid subgenre?

Koudelka begins with the eponymous Romani gypsy, Koudelka Iasant, who visits the alleged haunted Nemeton Monastery in Wales, and encounters adventurer Edward Plunkett and Catholic Bishop James O’Flaherty, who unravel the violent history of the castle, and meets some of its living but inhospitable inhabitants along the way, along with plentiful spirits of the deceased. The story has a few decent ideas, with some backstory on the manor and various characters along the way, although one could very well describe the game as a Resident Evil occurring a few years before the turn of the twentieth century. There’s also horrible direction on how to advance the main storyline, and the plot in the end never reaches excellence.

There is plentiful voiced dialogue in the game, although there are unfortunately no subtitles, sure to turn off hearing-impaired gamers, and while most of what little text exists is legible, there are occasional errors, mainly during the closing credits, and some of the lines come across as hammy at times. Many of the names of items such as weapons and armor also contain some one-letter compressions of whatever full words compose their names, with little explanation given as to what type of equipment they actually are, and ultimately, the localization never reaches excellence.

One could say the same of the central game mechanics, with a relatively low encounter rate, Koudelka and her two male allies squaring off against at most three foes on a grid-based battlefield in whatever formation they establish in the game menus. Each character, when they reach their turn, can move around the battlefield (although similar to the original Final Fantasy Tactics and its War of the Lions remix, the player can’t undo movement), attack with equipped weapons occasionally gained from random enemy drops or occasionally treasure at various points within Nemeton, wait for their next turn, use a consumable item (with the same rules of random drops or monastery treasure applying), use MP-consuming magic spells, or attempt to escape, this option naturally not working all the time.

Successful and repeated use of weapons and magic grants a character points for occasional powerups akin to Secret of Mana, although weapons may break after excessive use, unfortunately with no indicators as to how close weapons are to breaking, and weapons can very well be in finite supply, given how the random number gods play out. Moreover, while magic spells have charge times, there is no telling when spells will eventually execute, and a turn order meter showing things like this would have definitely been welcome, with a few enemies sometimes receiving more turns than the player’s characters. Battles in general also have a relatively glacial pace with regards to the execution of attacks and spells, not to mention the death of enemies and disappearance from the battlefield, with an unceremonious game over if the player’s guide and victory should the player eliminate every foe.

One positive aspect, however, is that experience levels, points gained for every character who was still alive in the completed battle, tend to rise quickly, with occasions where they might gain multiple levels, especially against harder antagonists. Upon leveling, a character gains four points the player can invest into various stats such as strength, vitality, dexterity, agility, intelligence, piety, mind, and luck. Strength determines attack power, with the game itself encouraging players to invest equal points in dexterity, which determines offensive accuracy. Vitality determines hit points, agility combat speed, piety maximum magic points, and luck determining things such as random drops from combat. Finally, intelligence determines magical attack power, Koudelka further suggesting the player applies equal points to mind, which decides magical accuracy.

Leveling also fully restores a character’s health and magic points, with the use of permanent save points, unlocked mostly through completing boss battles (which may also yield additional magic spells), restoring both as well. Available as well in certain chambers of the monastery are “temporary” save points that the player can save only to a single memory card slot (although these luckily don’t delete upon loading), the mentioned holy water save points largely gained from beating bosses the player can use in multiple save slots. Other things to keep in mind before playing the game include the absence of scan magic to see enemy strengths and weaknesses (with some weapons and magic healing instead of damaging enemies, depending upon their elements), and that during a significant stretch on the third disc, Koudelka has to fight alone when separated from her allies.

Generally, the gameplay doesn’t work nearly as good as it could have, given the various issues such as the ratchet movement in battle, the general lack of availability of weapons and armor (given that both have relatively low drop rates), the finite inventory space (with most consumables, weapon, and armor having some decent redeeming aspects), the fragility of weapons with no indicator as to how long they have to last, some lopsided difficulty at times, the absence of scan magic and need to use a guide if having trouble to discern the strengths and weaknesses of many enemies, the lack of a turn order gauge in combat, the glacial pacing of enemy encounters, and so forth. There are some positive aspects such as the building of weapon and spell levels being meaningful, the full restoration of characters upon leveling, the above-average frequency of gaining levels, among a few other things, but all in all the game mechanics don’t work as great as they could have.

Easily the most terrifying aspect of Koudelka is its control. While there is an in-game clock, easily-navigable menus, and frequent save opportunities, there are issues that bring things down. Weird default controls? Check. Wonky character movement including button-mashing to traverse stairs and ladders? Check. No auto-dash? Check. No in-game maps early on? Check. Some horrid disc transitions without save opportunities? Check. Some annoying puzzles necessitating referencing the internet and/or taking notes? Check. Limited inventory with no place to store excess items? Check. Doors, stairs, and ladders not always being obvious? Check. A few points of no return? Check. The negative aspects in general just vastly outweigh the good, and the game strays far from the realm of user-friendliness.

Sound is one of the game’s more positive aspects, but that’s not saying much. What little cutscene and FMV music exists is okay yet unmemorable, but the main battle theme and final boss tracks have some memorability. However, the normal boss tune sounds off-key, and during the great amount of standard exploration, there is no music, mostly ambience. There is voice acting during cutscenes, which is okay for the most part, although there is much hammy dialogue, and while the characters are allegedly ethnic, they certainly don’t sound like their respective nationalities and come across as ethnically-vague. In the end, the sound of Koudelka is, for the most part, nothing to write home about.

The visuals are another of the game’s better aspects, though again, that’s not saying much. There is plentiful prerendered scenery that very well conveys the dark tone of Koudelka, although things such as doors, ladders, and stairs don’t have explicit indication. The character models look okay in and out of battle, if a little blocky and pixilated, although the scenery in combat consists only of a pixel-laden floor in dark blue space (though the enemy design is reasonably macabre and devoid of reskins). Still, the character models show no indicators of lip movement or expression other than flailing around. Perhaps the high point of the graphics are the FMVs liberally strewn throughout the game’s four discs, but ultimately, the visual aspect is for the most part nothing nobody’s seen before.

Finally, the game is relatively short, around twelve hours minimum to get through, although less-lucky players may need to spend up to sixteen. Despite the low playtime, there isn’t much motivation to go through the game again, given its rather lackluster disposition, ability to perform all sidequests and see all endings in one playthrough, and no New Game+ or story variations.

Overall, Koudelka was definitely one of the far-weaker contributors to the hybrid of roleplaying games and survivor horror, given its deeply-flawed game mechanics, loose control, average storyline, lackluster localization, mediocre aural and visual presentation, and the lack of any real reason to go through again, underclassing even the grayer contributions to the genre fusion such as the original Parasite Eve. Adding insult to injury is that physical copies are nigh-impossible to find in reasonable condition at acceptable price, with the game nonexistent within the digital world except in emulation, and besides the links to its sequel series Shadow Hearts, there’s really no point to try tracking the game down, purchasing, or playing it.

The Good:
+Story is okay.
+Some of the music as well.
+Many decent FMVs.

The Bad:
-Glacial combat pacing.
-Loose control with annoying puzzles.
-Terrible plot direction.
-Lackluster localization.
-Little memorable soundtrack.
-Graphics a bit dark.
-No lasting appeal.

The Bottom Line:
There were better PlayStation games in its time.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation
Game Mechanics: 2.5/10
Controls: 1.5/10
Story: 5.0/10
Localization: 3.0/10
Music/Sound: 4.5/10
Graphics: 4.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 0.0/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 12-16 Hours

Overall: 3.0/10

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