R³PG (Recommended Retro RPGs) - Koudelka - PS1

In a previous blog, I started writing some Retro RPG reviews and patted myself on the back for coming up with R³PG (Recommended Retro RPGs) as a way of advising retro RPG lovers looking for some solid retro RPG offerings. It's not quite Retro Gamer but on a regular-ish basis I'm going to write about some of my favourite retro RPGs and why, if you're so inclined, you should play them.

Starting with...

Koudelka - Playstation One

  • Buy from: eBay, Amazon.
  • Expect to pay: No more than £9 for a used copy.
  • Released in Europe: 29th September, 2000
  • Gameranking score: 59.65%
Ok, first off, I can't tell you how wrong the gamerankings score is for this one in my opinion. Koudelka tried to do something different and did it very well. In an RPG market which was saturated at the time by second tier, flouncy, fiddly, fantasy titles trying to emulate the success of Final Fantasy VII, like The Granstream Saga and Shadow Madness, Sacnoth came along with Koudelka, a dark, gothic and often disturbing take on the genre.

Sacnoth was founded by a chap named Hiroki Kikuta who had worked previously for Squaresoft as a composer on the quite brilliant Secret of Mana series. Their aim at the time of founding was to produce darker, more adult orientated titles for a supposedly maturing RPG audience. Unfortunately, there was some fall out after Koudelka flopped both critically and commercially and Kikuta parted ways with the company he had founded.

Sacnoth became Nautilus after the release of Shadow Hearts and went on to develop Shadow Hearts 2: Covenant and Shadow Hearts: From the New World. Nautilus were then sucked into Feelplus who co-developed with Mistwalker the marvellous, Lost Odyssey for Xbox 360. That was just for anyone who was looking for a bit of RPG trivia to impress their mates down the pub with.

Koudelka's story takes place entirely within the magical fantasy wonderland of...er...Aberystwyth, Wales, circa 1898 where by chance a young gypsy girl named Koudelka, man of the cloth, James O'Flaherty and thrill seeker, Edward Plunkett are thrown together to investigate some seriously dark goings on at the Nemeton Monastery.

You see, Patrick O'Flaherty (James' brother) thought it would be a cracking idea to use an ancient text, known as the Emigre Document (referred to later in the series as the Emigre Manuscript) to bring back his deceased wife, Elaine from the dead by murdering innocents at the monastery and feeding their fresh corpses into a cauldron. As you can imagine, this went horribly wrong and Elaine was revived without a soul as an uncontrollable monster.

Elaine, she'd make a great coffee table.

So the tone is set and reflected by the various grotesque enemies you encounter throughout the game. Ghosts, amalgamations of tortured souls manifested as huge, slimey, bug eyed critters and reanimated corpses with twisted bodies and flapping limbs all serve to add the haunted house theme Sacnoth so carefully created. It's somewhere between Resident Evil and Final Fantasy Tactics and as you wander through Koudelka's beautifully gothic pre-rendered environments you're almost annoyed to be pulled into one of many, repetitive random battles.

Big, man-eating plants are also scary.

The combat system itself isn't amazing. Played out on an isometric grid, it's a cross between classic SRPG style combat and good old turn-based battling though unfortunately lacks the finesse of the respective system's best offerings. Encounters can be long and tedious with boss battles in particular frustrating if you're defeated. However, this is almost completely excusable as the story is so compelling with twists and turns around every corner that you will grind through with gritted teeth reloading again and again to get to the next beautifully produced cut-scene. Here's an example:

You won't have to wait long to unlock this cut-scene. It's the intro.

Spanning a massive four discs (it was massive at the time ok?), Koudelka should be praised emphatically for its wonderful CG, its strangely competent voice-acting and its alternative styled soundtrack which successfully mixes chilled out pan-flutes and tribal rhythms with dark overtures and orchestral depth to help create a perpetual atmosphere of foreboding. Ultimately, these aspects are what will keep you ploughing through the competent, yet uninspiring battle system. Be warned though, there are two endings, one is not satisfying for the investment in time you will pour into Koudelka so it's definitely worth consulting a guide to ensure you don't miss the one or two secrets which will grant you the better ending. While I strongly believe Koudelka is a genre contrasting RPG with many good points, only the most ardent fans would play through a second time to unlock the better finale.

It's worth noting that Koudelka is the prequel to cult Playstation 2 series, Shadow Hearts. While it's not essential to have played Koudelka to understand the story in the first Shadow Hearts game, those that do will be rewarded not only with a well thought out and chilling story of murder and betrayal but also with that tingly feeling of understanding when they discover who is responsible for the voices in Yuri's head towards the end of Shadow Hearts, in addition to numerous other references which I won't spoil for you.

Recognise him Shadow Hearts fans? Yeah that's right, it's your Mum.

To sum up, if you're slightly twisted and looking for a darker, more adult retro RPG offering, then I really can't recommend Koudelka highly enough. If you can look past the clunky combat system and the occasionally frustrating boss battle to the captivating story and extremely likeable, varied characters within you will have a lot of fun here for the less than the price of a small Texas BBQ Pizza from Dominos.

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