(Review archived from October 10, 2018)
At the time Koudelka was released, there was a marked trend that games should be ‘mature’, and Koudelka certainly adheres to that philosophy. But where many ‘mature’ games from this era flew to close to the sun and subsequently dissolved into ‘tryhard edgelord hilarity’, Koudelka largely hits its intended target of ‘mature gothic horror’. This game is both serious and grim, and there’s very little content here to lighten the mood. It’s oppressive and dark. And it’s all the better for it, because it does it in a way that actually works. Koudelka deftly applies techniques from the Gothic Horror playbook in a way that rarely feels heavy handed or forced. And a great deal of that success can be attributed to the story. It all takes place in a Welsh monastery with a long history of tragedy and the macabre. The story takes its time and unfolds slowly by means of several great CGI vignettes, found letters and diaries, character exposition and so forth, all of which help build out the story details and mood. It eventually develops into this great story of Gothic tragedy and horror, exploring concepts of 19th century Christian piety and unrequited love among others. I need to mention that perhaps more than any other game I’ve played (with the possible exception of Wisdom Tree titles, lol), Koudelka is incredibly nuanced in its treatment of Christian themes. It’s not dismissive or flippant in this treatment (as opposed to a lot of Japanese games), but nor does it handle the subject with kid gloves. I found this to be an interesting and compelling aspect of the game. It is worth mentioning however that the primary character who serves as the ‘lens’ for Christianity frequently ‘overplays’ the part, due both to script and delivery. So I guess that part kind of stands out, but all the same I found this overarching theme to be an interesting element of the game. The monastery setting really serves as a great backdrop in support of these themes.
It also needs to be said that the graphics in the game are gorgeous. Gothic horror is once again the predominant theme and the graphics reinforce that idea beautifully. In exploratory segments we’re dealing with polygonal characters set against pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles. If you’re thinking that sounds like the trappings of a Survival Horror setting, you’re absolutely right. I found both the setting and the visual design here to be reminiscent of Resident Evil, although I’d say that Koudelka is the better looking game in that comparison (my screenshots here don’t necessarily do it justice since they were captured on my PSP).
Many gameplay elements reinforce this feeling of Survival Horror as well. Wise management of resources is key to success throughout the entire experience. Ammunition is limited. Weapons frequently break. Health power-ups are relatively infrequent and often require a keen eye to spot on screen. Even the puzzle elements of Koudelka play out very much like a Survival Horror title.
Where Koudelka deviates from Survival Horror though is in combat. Outside of scripted boss battles, all other combat occurs by way of random encounter, JRPG style. And here again Koudelka reveals itself to be a little bit different and unique. Rather than standard static turn-based combat, the battles here are executed in tactical fashion. Enemies and characters move around a grid based battle field using melee weapons, firearms, and spells. It’s a really nice touch which keeps the battles interesting. Well … mostly interesting at any rate. One of the frequent knocks against this game is that the combat moves too slowly. I didn’t necessarily find that to be the case though being as outside of boss battles, most encounters were over in 3-5 rounds. In point of fact I wish Koudelka had featured more elements of tactical combat. Every battleground from the first battle to the last is perfectly flat and unchanging. I’d like to have seen some differences in elevation, or elements of cover tactics, not to mention that characters can’s ‘cross’ the enemy line. What about some flanking maneuvers!? It’s not that I found the combat in Koudelka to be bad necessarily, I just wish they had done more with it. All the same though, the level in progression in Koudelka is fairly rapid, so it’s not like grinding (and thus frequent combat) was ever a real issue.
All told I really enjoyed my time with Koudelka. For all its JRPG elements, its completion time was much more in keeping with Survival Horror. I think my play through clocked in at somewhere around 15 hours, and my play style tends to be markedly unhurried. What you’re getting here is a JRPG/Survival Horror hybrid that doesn’t indulge in all the bloat found in so many JRPGs from this era (to say nothing of the modern era). Highly recommended for fans of effective storytelling through gothic horror. Also recommended for RPG fans looking to get off a well-trodden path of swords & sorcery, and into something of a distinctly darker timbre.