It's strange. Typically, when I beat games, I can muster some sort of definite feeling for them. I enjoyed Klonoa, I loathed Final Fantasy II, and Alter Echo was middling but entertaining; these opinions stood firm when I completed the game, and typically made themselves obvious pretty early on in the gaming experience.

Why, then, can I not decide just how I feel about Koudelka?

There are lots of things I like about the game. The setting is brilliant; A decrepit monastery in Wales at the end of the 19th century almost guarantees an interesting experience, a marked departure from the standard swords-and-sorcery (or lasers-and-psionics) console RPG epic. Magic works, but technology does too, and that blend adds even more flavour. That mixture attracted me to Shadowrun back in high school, and it still appeals to me today, especially with the pseudo-historical setting adding a whole "what-if" bent to the story.

The characters delighted me as well. The eponymous Koudelka is a brash, spiteful young mystic who'd rather kick your teeth in than give you the time of day. Edward is a, er, "treasure hunter," who came to the monastery because he heard rumours that it had been turned into a whorehouse. (No, I'm not kidding.) And James, the bishop, comes to the haunted place for reasons unknown and seems to find the sight of dead thieves littering the halls more enjoyable than a holy man should. None of the characters like each other; they stick together because they must to survive, not because The World Is Riding On Their Shoulders(tm). I've never seen such an intriguing party dynamic in an RPG before, and that alone is almost worth the price of admission.

Then there are lots of things that make me hate Koudelka. The battle system uses a poor man's tactical RPG engine, but the load times during fights make it almost physically painful to use. (Every time a spell is cast, all characters but the caster and the target disappear; after the spell finishes, the game must load everyone else back from the disc. Ugh.) Add to that one of the banes of RPG existence--weapons that break--and the standard annoyance that random battles provoke mutates into something resembling dread.

The game uses a Resident Evil-esque camera style, with lots of annoying angles and difficult-to-manoeuvre sections. At least the control is screen-relative instead of the tank-style movement that RE sports, but that's slim comfort when you accidentally brush the "back to previous area" spot on the screen repeatedly.

The voice acting . . . I don't know when American accents took over the British Isles, but they certainly have in Koudelka. Except for the decrepit British mystic, who speaks with (naturally) a Japanese accent. The actual voice actors are quite good, but it sounds mildly absurd, like Shakespeare done without British accents. I wouldn't say that the voice acting does anything so severe as ruining the game, but it certainly doesn't help, especially when the rest of the experience is so immersive.

Except for the battles. And the controls.

This good-and-bad-all-blended-together doesn't stop there. The plot is fairly standard for a survival horror game--while particular twists may surprise you, the story as a whole is pretty standard. But, to get the "true" ending for the game, you have to do two almost totally unintuitive things. The first might occur because you're a meticulous gamer, and the second might occur because, well, it's actually fairly easy for it to happen. That doesn't change the absurdity of the design. The fact that you've got to do stupid things to finish the game properly really pisses me off. It's as if the developers designed sections to sell strategy guides. (That may in fact be the case, but GameFAQs, as usual, covers the bases just fine.)

Much of the game suffers from the same dichotomy. The way that weapons and armor adjust your statistics actually make a lot of sense, but the fact that you never get a single piece of armour except from random drops makes no sense whatsoever. (The fact that guns benefit from your Strength stat doesn't make much sense either, but that's a pretty standard video game conceit, and one I'm willing to forgive.) There are tons of different items to collect, but the game limits your inventory--with no previous indication that it has a maximum--and you're simply required to throw away items at the end of whatever battle puts you over quota. You're given tons of "key items," most of which you can't use for hours, and all of which take up precious chunks of limited space. Thankfully, they disappear once they're no longer usable, but it's extremely frustrating to look at your list of items and realize that almost half of them have no purpose other than to solve inventory puzzles later on.

One positive note about inventory puzzles--the game solves them for you automatically. If you've gathered the information you need in-game, you don't have to do much of anything to solve a puzzle. I actually took the time to transcribe some pictures onto graph paper, only to have the puzzle show me the same pictures again when I got to solving it.

But, really, how positive can you be about inventory puzzles in the first place?

I'm glad I experienced Koudelka. The setting is very original, and--if nothing else--the game provides excellent setup for its successors. Shadow Hearts is a better game, but the story benefits from the setup provided by its forerunner. Unfortunately, that means you have to play Koudelka for the full experience. It's a great setting, it's got great characters, and it does some very clever things--but is it a good game?

I'm still not sure.

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Last Updated: 2005.12.14 [Typographical errors only.]