In 1997, composer Hiroki Kikuta, known for his work on the soundtrack of Secret of Mana, founded his own developer, Sacnoth, set up with funding from the videogame company SNK. A few years later, the company developed its first role-playing game, Koudelka, which features survival horror elements along with a turn-based tactical battle system, the result of internal friction within Sacnoth, whose employees wanted combat similar to Square’s games. Does this combination work?

The player randomly encounters enemies within the game’s large monastery/prison dungeon, with players able to adjust the initial starting points of the three playable characters, the eponymous Koudelka and her two male companions, Edward and James. Fights begin with the player’s characters and the enemy on opposite sides of the battlefield, with each side able to move around during their turns. One flaw is the inability to undo movement of the player’s characters, though this isn’t too big a problem as long as players remember this particular shortcoming.

Whenever the player’s characters and the enemy are near one another, each can execute normal attacks on one another, either face-to-face or from a diagonal. Whether equipped with a weapon or barehanded, the player’s characters gain experience with their current mode of melee (or in some instances ranged, in the case of firearms and crossbows) combat, up to three levels. Koudelka, Edward, and James are also able to obtain experience beyond the third level, although they cannot proceed beyond 999 experience points for whatever kind of attack they use in level three.

Each character can also use magic, with new spells gained occasionally by defeating bosses, and which the player can also build through repeated use to a maximum of three levels and 999 experience points beyond the third level; higher-leveled spells, however, mean higher MP consumption, with no ability to alter a spell’s level, for instance, if the player just wants to target one enemy. The range of attack spells also increases with higher levels, though the player can’t see their range when choosing a target, and what’s more, spells often take a few turns from other characters and the enemy before they actually execute, with no turn order meter showing when they will do so.

Most weapons that enemies drop also have a tendency to break after a certain number of uses, with no indications as well of when equipment is about to do so, although given the limit on the different kinds of items the player can have at once, this can actually be a bit of a blessing in disguise. Characters can further change their current weapons in the middle of battle, though doing so consumes their turn, and players can’t see how changing equipment will affect their stats before doing so, with such a feature only being available in the game interface outside combat.

One perk of combat, however, is that level-ups are fairly common, and recover all of a character’s HP and MP, with players able to use four points to increase a character’s stats during a level-up. Thus, if a player is having trouble with a boss, they can more often than not easily grind to make the game slightly easier, and since the player can also obtain armor and accessory drops from items in addition to consumable items, killing many enemies can be a good thing, particularly given the fact that armor and accessories provide generous stat increases and can be the difference between victory and defeat. Ultimately, while combat has things going against it, it also has many things going for it.

The same goes for Koudelka’s control scheme, with things going for it such as generally easy controls and menus, although there are some points where, for instance, ascending stairs or entering other areas can be difficult, given the lack of indicators on the game screen. There are also two different kinds of saves, “temporary” saves that allow the player to save their progress in certain rooms and permanent saves accessible after beating bosses that recover all characters’ HP and MP. While it can be annoying that save opportunities don’t always come before bosses, the game actually gives decent warning at times on when a room has a boss fight, and there are usually temporary save points nearby, and leveling in between permanent save points can keep players going during opportunities when permanent save points are far apart. Moreover, there’s the ease of getting lost within the game’s giant dungeon, with maps being generally hard to find, and the specific items necessary to advance the plot sometimes being obscure. In the end, interaction is slightly above average, but has quite a few flaws.

The story is decent, with the prison-turned-monastery being the star of the show, what with its decent backstory in the form of in-game texts, and some development for the three playable characters as well, though the game more often than not tends to tell their background more than show. There’s also the difficulty of figuring out where to go next, but otherwise, the narrative serves the game decently. The translation is mostly adequate, as well, although there isn’t any text during cutscenes, sure to turn off hearing-impaired gamers, but aside from one misspelling during the ending credits, the localization is definitely above average.

The aurals are probably the low point of the game, what with the lack of music during exploration, although the voice acting during cutscenes is decent, even if somewhat miscast, since the supposedly-European characters don’t actually sound European. The normal battle music is decent and there are occasional pieces that accompany cutscenes, but the standard boss battle theme is somewhat off-key. In the end, there isn’t much to prevent players from listening to other music while playing the game.

The graphics could have also been better, although the prerendered scenery looks nice in spite of being somewhat dark, adding to the difficulty at times of advancing through particular rooms. The character and enemy models, however, are blocky, and the low point of the visuals is the battle graphics, with only a floor serving as the scenery and everything else around it being dark blue. The FMVs are okay, but haven’t aged very well, and ultimately, the visuals are average at best.

Finally, a straightforward playthrough of the game can take around fifteen hours, maybe a little less if the player lucks out, although things such as leveling every weapon type and spell can take longer, and getting lost can somewhat pad out playtime. There’s also a little replay value in the form of items the player can only acquire when they don’t exceed a certain playing time, not to mention a few different endings, as well.

In conclusion, while Koudelka definitely shows its status as Sacnoth’s first title, it definitely has plenty things going for it, such as its decent battle system, story, and voice acting, although it has things going against it such as the ease of losing oneself within the giant dungeon, the lack of music during normal exploration, and the slight darkness of the game visuals. Despite its flaws, the game would serve as a prequel of sorts for the much-improved Shadow Hearts series, although elements that define that particular franchise are lamentably absent in its prelude.

The Good:
+Solid battle system with plenty variety.
+Decent story with multiple endings.
+Good voice acting.

The Bad:
-Easy to get lost.
-No music during most of the game.
-Graphics are a little dark.

The Bottom Line:
Decent short game.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 7/10
Music/Sound: 4/10
Graphics: 5/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 9/10
Difficulty: Medium
Playing Time: 15-25 Hours

Overall: 6.5/10

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