Nearly all games strive to be perfect, yet all fail in one way or another. A game with brilliant graphics may be hiding a mediocre story, just like a story with the most incredible gameplay may be lacking in polygon count. Most times, however, the brilliance of one aspect make up for the lackings of another aspect. Koudelka, the first RPG by Sacnoth, a development team made of ex-Square employees, happens to be another story all together.

   One of the first areas that Koudelka excels is on the actual story of the game. The storyline centers around a haunted monestary in the north of England, and the three characters who find themselves strangely drawn there. While some games have party members who might quarrel a bit, none have had the amount of internal clashing that goes on between the young medium Koudelka, the womanising Edward, and the God-fearing Father O'Flaherty. At first, this might appear to hamper the story, but in fact, it proves for one of the most interesting stories in recent gaming memory.

Pure atmosphere
Moody? Yes. Good? No.

   The story is told through extremely well-done FMV cutscenes and voice acting. Reading dialogue has become a thing of the past in Koudelka; every single line of the story is done through well-acted voiceovers. The B-movie cheesiness that other games have relied on is gone, replaced with very well done, very professional voices. These voiceovers, when coupled with the moody cutscenes, produce quite an effect on the player. And unlike other recent games, there is no shortage of either voice or FMV; the disc takes advantage of its four-disc length to pack as much into a small amount of time as possible.

Such fun
Because every RPG needs killer tables.

   However, it is at this point that the game begins to go downhill, and quickly. While storylines are important, games have always been about playing, and when the gameplay is as it is in Koudelka, playing is about the last thing that you want to do. And it is in the fighting system that the game shows its more hideous side. The game uses a strange version of a turn-based, tactical RPG system (think Shining Force or Final Fantasy Tactics), yet on a flat, dull, uninspired landscape. Players cannot advance beyond the enemy; this takes quite a bit of strategy away from the system, and makes some gameplans, such as having one character sneak behind an enemy while another attacks from the front, useless. Without having a reason for the turn-based system, the battle system seems to ends up being nothing more than a traditional RPG system, but with the requirement to move (very, very slowly, I might add) thrown in just for kicks.

   The fighting system also suffers from the worst multimedia aspects of the game as well. Character models are crude and clunky, as are the animations that go along with them. The monsters are uninspired at best, and the fact that the game removes all extra polygons (such as weapons and characters that are not acting) while attacks are being done slows the gameplay down to a crawl. And to add insult to injury, the battle music is, quite frankly, the worst that I have ever encountered, and inspires feelings more to the extent of letting the monsters maul you than driving you to fight.

Decent locations
At least it looks pretty.

   A battle system is not everything to a game, however; Koudelka might have been lucky if a decent system was present. Quite obviously, though, this is not the case. Weapons are done on levels; the more that you use a weapon, the better you get at it. This system is a good one, and has been used before, but Sacnoth thought to throw a few wrenches into it. Weapons break after a random number of uses. Once again, this might not prove to be a problem except for the fact that there are no weapon stores in the game. Being set in a haunted monestary, Koudelka relies on the enemies to give you weapons, giving you very little control over what weapons you get. Between the lack of shops and the breakage of weapons, useful items in the game become few and far between. Many times players will find themselves fighting with their bare hands, saving their good weapons for a boss, yet when the boss is reached, the level of the weapon is so low that it becomes useless. Situations like these simply do not make for a good game.

   At first glance, Koudelka appeared to be nearly pristine. The very thought of an RPG with Square-quality cutscenes crossed with a moody, dark survival horror game was one that had gamers drooling at the mouth. In the end, though, an intriguing story and quality cutscenes are not always enough to keep a player going through a game that is lacking in other aspects. Koudelka lacks so much in the gameplay side that continuing throught the game becomes quite a painful experience. Thankfully, Koudelka is also one of the shortest RPGs in recent memory (the first disc alone clocks in at a mere 2 hours, including time spent leveling up), so the pain need not last long. With so many other quality RPGs coming in the near future, players will find that their money is better spent in many, many other different ways.

Review by J.T.Kauffman, GIA.
Developer Sacnoth
Publisher SNK
Genre Adventure
Medium CD (4)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date  12.16.99
 July 2000
E3: Koudelka impressions
24 screenshots
SNK's TGS promotional catalog