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Koudelka: Two genres in unholy matrimony

Ben Parry speaks now rather than forever withholding his piece.

Warning: This feature contains major spoilers for the game’s backstory and final boss!

Sophia Dorothea of Celle died at age 60 in Ahlden, Germany. She’d spent the previous 30 years imprisoned in Castle Ahlden for having abandoned her husband and first cousin, King George I. Both Sophia and George had been unfaithful, but only one of the affairs led to a 12-year-old Sara Paxton appearing in a survival horror game
directed by the composer of Secret of Mana. The game was 2001’s Koudelka, and its creative lead, Hiroki Kikuta, cast Paxton as the ghost of the (fictional) illegitimate child born of Sophia’s affair.

Koudelka’s own peculiar marriage of vaguely tactical combat and survival horror render it an oddity with nebulous appeal. The game is set in Wales and its cutscenes were recorded in a Santa Monica studio, with each of its three main characters voiced by actors for whom Koudelka remains their sole voice acting credit.

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The game was also written and directed by Hiroki Kikuta, who had only scored Square RPGs and was eager to
craft a Resident Evil inspired action title over which he had creative control. These ambitions however, were at odds with the development team, who were set on implementing more traditional RPG mechanics, and saw fit to implement grid-based random encounters.

That these disparities in both content and intent coalesce into a functional whole at all is something of a miracle, but that the resulting experience is one with a consistent tone and an intriguing story is downright astonishing. Rather than ending up an oil-and-water type concoction that never gels, Koudelka inadvertently addresses issues that might prevent some from enjoying titles that fit more comfortably within the two genres whose boundary it straddles.

It has neither the world map nor the depth of mechanics that RPG fans treasure, nor the resource scarcity and bursts of action that constitute typical survival titles, but through jettisoning these hallmarks, Koudelka ends up more welcoming than many games that commit outright to the above genres.

How Long to Beat supposes that Koudelka’s credits can be seen in a brisk 12 hours, and its combat is so forgiving that
losing to the final boss leads to the canon ending. Characters also grow stronger by repeating actions, meaning experimentation is rarely necessary, and adhering to a single strategy is probably the most efficient way to beat the game.

Similarly, though Koudelka has a handful of obtuse puzzles, its level layout is mercifully less labyrinthine than the likes of the Spencer Mansion, so disoriented wandering is kept to a minimum. The weapon durability mechanics also necessitate that the inventory is large enough to prevent you from having to juggle key items and ammunition.

These aspects make Koudelka less time-consuming than many larger-scale RPGs, and allow for more streamlined progression than the puzzle-box locales of stricter survival horrors. There’s also a refreshing simplicity to the morbid mystery at the heart of Koudelka’s narrative.

20 years before the start of the game, Elaine Heyworth was murdered during a break-in. Unable to accept her death, her husband Patrick set about sacrificing dozens of abductees in an attempt to conduct an occult resurrection ritual. His ham-fisted attempts at bringing back his beloved backfired however, and the monastery he’d been using as a base of operations ended up a hub for hauntings and heebie-jeebies. The story unfolds steadily, with cutscenes offering
tantalising exposition and ominous developments every few rooms.

Kikuta chose to make a horror game as it would allow for characters to be introduced without the set-up and preamble that other genres require. His logic was that in horror, you could quickly come to care about characters whose backgrounds you knew nothing about.

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The game opens with the eponymous Koudelka Iasant infiltrating the sinister monastery, having been summoned there by an especially troubled female spirit. While there, she teams up with the grounded vagabond Edward and the humourless devout, James. These characters ’ interactions feel natural from the off, and seeing them bounce insults off each other is one of Koudelka’s greatest pleasures.

The game’s script is not without its clunkers (“I won’t deny that you have the killer instinct, but when all is said and done, you are an average Joe”) but it’s commendable that its characters can be identified by the lines they come out with.

As the world’s most flappable priest, James is prone to flowery condescension, while Koudelka is forthright to a fault, and Edward is a realist reprobate wont to quote poetry. The trio bicker incessantly but their chemistry is endearing, and the game cultivates a strong group dynamic between them as they resolve to set right the wrongs the Monastery
is host to.

Kikuta cites Resident Evil as an influence but the voicework in Koudelka is light years ahead of that in its forebear. An early scene in which Koudelka channels the spirits infesting the monastery is enormously unsettling on the strength of how fiercely vindictive she sounds when possessed. Somehow the scratchy texture of the voice recordings lends a rawness to the performances that sounds at once unprofessional and disarmingly genuine. The party’s first interaction with the ghost of Elaine ends with James crying out her name as he reels on the ground. His distraught wailing has
an authenticity to it that manages to transcend its apparent lack of direction and sound heartfelt instead. For better or worse, the people doing the voices in Koudelka rarely sound as if they are acting.

Koudelka’s uncanny ties to reality extend to its setting. Speaking to Square Haven in 2007, Kikuta explained that he read around 100 books on British history in order to gather historical context for the game, which takes place in and around the fictional Nemeton Monastery in Aberystwyth on October 31st, 1898. The monastery was modelled on St. David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, and textures from nearby buildings were used in the game to imbue it with a heightened sense of realism. Plot points throughout are intertwined with real life events, too.

Plot points throughout are intertwined with actual historical events, too. Early on, Koudelka and Edward encounter the Hartmans, an old couple who appear accommodating but slip poison into the soup they serve. Bessie Hartman reveals
later that her husband Ogden has been murdering intruders out of a warped sense of gratitude towards Elaine; Ogden felt indebted to her after she helped ease his regrets at having captained a pleasure boat that sank. Koudelka implies that this boat was the Princess Alice, a steamboat that sank in the Thames in 1878, resulting in upwards of 600 passengers drowning in a section of the river that 75 million gallons of sewage had recently been dumped into.

Turn-of-the-century Wales was chosen as the backdrop for the game because the period’s precarious balance between science and magic seemed a snug fit for a story that straddled the boundary between fantasy and reality. To the writing’s credit, the obscure nature of the people and events referenced make it tricky to distinguish them
from the game’s own fiction. Kikuta also enjoyed that the heady cocktail of gaslight and fog around this time made it hard to discern what was going on in the shadows, and Koudelka recaptures this uncertainty by making its pre-rendered backgrounds so dingy that it’s almost impossible to tell where the doors are. Ostensibly, progress
through the game does not require grinding, but grinding is likely to occur anyway as Koudelka rubs aggressively against all walls but the fourth, searching for something to interact with.

While many of its peers were able to establish mood and guide perspective through fixed camera angles, Koudelka’s angles are more perfunctory than purposeful. Early Resident Evil titles used low-angle shots to intimidate, POV-like perspectives to engender paranoia, and canted angles to unnerve, but Koudelka’s action mostly plays out as if recorded on CCTV. The camera tends to be situated wherever allows for the most unambiguous representation of the scene, with Koudelka appearing more like a displaced shoplifter than a plucky explorer. And like a shoplifter, Koudelka will glance furtively around, her gaze offering hints at clues in the dank environs (The Wind Waker would utilise Link’s peepers similarly a few years later). Unfortunately Koudelka herself does not display much interest in exits and so you must pick them out from the pixelated backgrounds by having Koudelka run alongside any and all obstacles as you mash the confirm button. Bumbling through the sometimes ill-defined environments like this can lead to more random encounters than many players have patience for, so it’s no surprise that Koudelka’s pacing is one of its oft-criticised aspects.

The unimaginative implementation of pre-rendered backgrounds might be down to Koudelka’s non-tank control scheme. Combining Koudelka’s modern controls with more adventurous perspectives might have played havoc with orientation (going through the Resident Evil remake with modernised controls leads to myriad instances of being turned around by abrupt perspective changes), so maybe the standpoints are tame to minimise positioning mishaps. These still occur though, and ultimately while we’re spared the frustrations of tank controls, we’re also denied the more evocative, prescribed angles they might have afforded.

Perhaps the devs saw no need for playful perspective tricks given that the supernatural scallywags that skulk about the place do not occupy environments as models that can be glimpsed just off-screen like T-Virus infectees, but as grim
pinatas that fidget exclusively inside random encounters. Again, those who find the lurking threats of many horror titles a turn-off may find solace in Koudelka’s dangers being confined to turn-based tussles. Kikuta himself was not especially fond of these encounters, saying that he did not want to use them because menu-based combat
quashed the horror atmosphere by reminding players they were in a game. His qualms are easy to understand given the disparity between the (very) leisurely pace at which battles play out and the adrenaline-infused nature of Koudelka’s many CG interludes, which tend to end suddenly, and in dramatic fashion, such as in the middle
of an explosion.

The final boss of the game, the reanimated corpse of Elaine, is introduced in one such cutscene. In it, she bears a disquieting expression and clambers frantically across the ceiling like a panicked spider. Edward takes desperate potshots at her before she leaps down and chases the group towards the rooftop. Moments after this
feverish CG, the game cuts to Koudelka, standing perfectly still without any BGM. Walking her to the other side of the screen triggers a message warning that “Elaine caught up with you!” and the game shifts to a boss fight in which Elaine wobbles about like a nervous inflatable. The intensity of many of these CG cutscenes highlights the disparity between the cinematic experience Kikuta hoped to sculpt, and the low-octane sojourn it is for the most part.

The desperate tone intrinsic to survival horror is further undermined once it becomes apparent how namby-pamby its menagerie of monsters is. Most mandatory fights besides the last can be overcome by simply attacking when given the chance. To be fair, the most involving aspects of Koudelka’s combat occur in the menus outside of it. Stat distribution allows for a handful of builds, and randomised weapons can be equipped for stat boosts and elemental advantages. A decent weapon durability mechanic adds an additional layer of strategy to proceedings. If Edward snaps a rapier on a possessed shelf, he’ll become better at fencing, meaning a weapon breaking is something you can actually look forward to. There’s also an innate sense of risk/reward, as the more powerful weapons tend to be less durable, so smashing them all over the heads of the monastery’s denizens without a second thought might leave you literally without a paddle.

A decent weapon durability mechanic adds an additional layer of strategy to proceedings. If Edward snaps a rapier on a possessed shelf, he’ll become better at fencing, meaning a weapon breaking is something you can actually look
forward to. There’s also an innate sense of risk/reward, as the more powerful weapons tend to be less durable, so smashing them all over the heads of the monastery’s denizens without a second thought might leave you literally without a paddle.

In fact, programmer Kouji Mishima claims that the reason weapons were made so breakable was to ensure that players saw a larger portion of the attack animations ascribed to the game’s 140 available weapons. The attention to detail in these battle animations is impressive, and watching Nemeton Monastery’s eerie occupants strut, shimmy and slither about the battle grid is suitably spooky. One regular enemy is a corpse that ends at the shoulders, and damages your party by bending forwards to stab them with massive shards of jagged glass that protrude from its torso. The four-
armed alien, Gug, is lifted directly from the Cthulhu Mythos, while the late-game ‘Apostle’ boss is a bloated, upside down humanoid whose purple body is covered in eyeballs, and who attacks by firing a laser from a wonky halo that spins above its mangled legs.

Unfortunately, there’s only so many times you can watch James make the mark of the cross mid-battle before the novelty of the animations wear off, and the combat loses its lustre altogether. In an interview with RocketBaby.net, Kikuta lamented that he did not design the battle system himself. He did, however, compose the battle themes, which contribute more melancholy than intensity to the scuffles, and were labelled by IGN as the “very worst battle music that has ever been used in a console role-playing game”.

And while the battle theme “Waterfall” sounds nothing like traditional battle BGM, its twangs and tambourines befit the game’s idiosyncratic identity. Likewise, given that few enemies pose any threat whatsoever, it stands to reason that the encounter music should be gently trepidatious rather than outright imposing. Kikuta produced the game’s music with the help of Nick Ingman, an English composer who also worked on Billy Elliot and Shakespeare in Love. Kikuta also spent close to £4000 on phone bills from Japan to the UK so that he could listen in on and supervise the recording of the soundtrack at London’s Air Studio, a venue Kikuta chose as he felt it fitting that the studio had been converted from a church.

Kikuta produced the game’s music with the help of Nick Ingman, an English composer who also worked on Billy Elliot
and Shakespeare in Love. Kikuta also spent close to £4000 on phone bills from Japan to the UK so that he could listen in on and supervise the recording of the soundtrack at London’s Air Studio, a venue Kikuta chose as he felt it fitting that the studio had been converted from a church.

This almost reckless pursuit of perfection is evident in most aspects of the game, and ensures that there’s an abundance of minor things to appreciate alongside the one potential bugbear. Koudelka’s fundamental caveat is that it’s at once a survival horror burdened with random battles, and an RPG saddled with limited resources and puzzle-based progression. But by the same token, it’s a one-location RPG with a tighter focus and an solidly eerie atmosphere; and a survival horror with a huge enemy roster you’re invited to take on using verbs besides ‘shoot’ and ‘ignore’.

How much you enjoy Koudelka will depend on whether you feel its combat bolsters or bloats, and on how rigidly you prefer games to adhere to genre norms. If you value experimentation and originality, then you’ll likely find something to appreciate in Koudelka’s uneasy balance between RPG and survival horror.

That said, if you approach games with a checklist of expectations, then Koudelka is more likely to underwhelm than intrigue you. Either way, if you’re after a break from the humdrum of safe genre fare, you could definitely do worse than spend a night in Nemeton Monastery.

References:

  1. Koudelka Official Perfect Guide  published by Ascii in 1999
  2. Koudelka Visual Guide Book published by Kadokawa Shoten in 1999
  3. https://www.rocketbaby.net/interviews_hiroki_kikuta_1.html
  4. https://web.archive.org/web/20010218182002/http://www.sting.co.jp/create/interview/003_1.htm
  5. https://www.ign.com/articles/2000/06/30/koudelka
  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20100324230522/http://hirokikikuta.com/blog/hallowmas.html
  7. https://squarehaven.com/news/2007/06/09/Where-Angels-Fear-to-Tread-A-Conversation-with-Hiroki-Kikuta/
  8. https://www.gamespot.com/articles/qanda-sacnoth/1100-2630061/
    https://web.archive.org/web/20081102031454/http://www.zephyr.dti.ne.jp/~deadtech/home.htm
  9. https://web.archive.org/web/20080705055031/http://www.zephyr.dti.ne.jp/~deadtech/koudelkaweb/k-menu.html

2 Comments

  1. Good blog! I played it back in the day and never quite finished it; I was grinding trying to get a superweapon and then got bored. The cutscenes had wonderful atmosphere but I found the turn based combat to be frustrating and dull, and the weapon durability was just a pain. Never finished it even though I had the walkthrough!

  2. Ah that’s understandable! The encounters definitely do a number on the game’s momentum.
    I’d say it’s worth watching the cutscene compilation on youtube just to find out what happens. There are some great scenes towards the end.

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