I'll start off by saying that this was one of the games I passed over. There was a period some years ago when three games I was interested in were all being released at roughly the same time and quite obviously I was not going to be able to play them all. They were Koudelka, Rhapsody, and some other game that I can't even remember now. I think I actually wound up getting none of them (but since I can't remember the title of the last game I can't be sure). Koudelka interested me because it was billed as the first horror RPG and I wanted to see how that worked. However I heard that it had been plagued by game engine problems and that contributed to my decision to eventually pass it over. Indeed, if not for one other game, I wouldn't have changed my mind and gone out of my way to pick up a copy of this game long after it ceased to be in stores.
That game was Shadow Hearts. When I had picked it up I assumed that it would be a horror RPG like its predecessor and there were several appropriately gruesome events that took place within it. So this, I thought, is what a horror RPG is like. Having enjoyed Shadow Hearts so much, and at the urging of a friend, I decided to go back and play Koudelka so I could better understand what had happened before. (It's not a necessary endeavor though since Shadow Hearts is not a proper sequel so much as simply taking place in the same world as.) Koudelka, however, is a whole different animal. Whereas Shadow Hearts gives one the feeling of "Hey, they put horror in my RPG!" Koudelka is better described as "Hey, they put RPG in my horror!" and therein lay my problems with the game.
Koudelka is really better described as a horror game than an RPG, because few of the staples show up. The entire game takes place within a single location, the Nemeton Monastery, so there is no such thing as going into town or buying and selling equipment. There is no money is this game at all. (What a shock!) Instead weapons must be found or won off enemies. And firearms? Better watch your bullets because you've only got so much ammo. Pistol rounds aren't too hard to come by, but shotgun shells run out pretty fast. Though guns aren't subject to breaking, just about every other weapon can, which is rather annoying because some weapons are harder to find than others and nothing sucks worse than losing a favorite weapon the battle before a boss. And since Koudelka uses a skill-based advancement system, the only way a character can get better at a weapon is to keep using it. This usually means breaking two or three of a particular type along the way to the best possible proficiency. My favorite weapon for Edward was a claw-type (admittedly for stylish as well as functional reasons) but I only found one the entire game and it broke before I even got to the second skill level.
Also, Koudelka makes use of some adventure game staples (now relegated almost exclusively to survival horror genre). All the rooms have fixed camera angles so you can only see things a certain way. There is no scrolling to follow the main character around. To accommodate that, sometimes there's more than one camera angle to the room, so when you walk off screen the view itself changes to show you a different portion of the room. When Koudelka looks at something important, the player is given a close-up shot of what she found instead of a text description of the item in question. You know you've stepped out of the RPG genre when you inspect a closet and instead of being told what you've found, the screen gives you a close-up of the closet door and asks you "Do you want to open it?" At which point, I looked away and selected "Yes," because no self-serving horror game would ask that question without having something nasty in store for the player on the other side. And good thing I did because there was a mummy on the other side who would have undoubtedly startled me if I hadn't given myself the time to gradually look at her.
Because this game is so reliant on searching every nook and cranny to find items, Koudelka is supposed to turn her head and look at important sections of the room as a cue for the player to know where to look. Unfortunately I've only seen this work once in practice about halfway through the game. I rarely had problems finding things though. Once you know you have to look everywhere anyway, you start to do that as a matter of habit. There is one item I missed because I couldn't find the right hotspot to climb on the altar, but it was an optional item (and even though I couldn't get to it, I already was certain it was there).
One thing I did like about the game was the return of the old adventure game interface, where Koudelka will find an item and only after something happens or changes, she has to return to an earlier part of the monastery to fulfill some task. For instance, there's a bottle labeled "acid-proof" found late in the game. There was an acid bath in the underground tunnels earlier on. Time to go back and fill it up. I like those sorts of puzzles. What I didn't like, though, was actually running through the monastery to solve them. I found that after playing a few hours into the game, that I really didn't like backtracking at all. I wanted a teleport system badly.
I'm really not sure why, since rooms seldom bothered me the first time I explored them, but I really didn't like backtracking more than a room or two in this game. Running down an entire wing of the complex just didn't feel like it was worth it, even if that's what I had to do. Even though the encounter rate isn't very high (despite reports to the contrary), I found I just didn't like running into enemies in anyplace other than a new area. I had forgotten to get the Guard's Diary until close to the end of the second disc, and I almost didn't get it because I simply did not want to go through the dungeon again. (I forced myself to do it under the assumption I probably would not play this game again and if I didn't get it I'd miss out.) Though Shadow Hearts sports many of the same enemy types as Koudelka I found a few of the ones unique to Koudelka bothered me more. I could take running into them a few times, but multiple times over the course of hours of gameplay started wearing on me, to the point that at the end of the game I was hoping "Please, don't let me run into that kind of enemy!" (There is no way to view the names of enemies in the game itself, which is highly unusual and I'm not sure if it heightens the fear to not know what you're fighting, but for me that just makes it harder to describe what the heck that thing is on the other end of the battlefield.)
I think the reason that people harp on Koudelka's encounter rate is that even though there is generally only one encounter a room when exploring it for the first time (and quite often none when backtracking), the battles are not quick. Surprisingly, they actually behave more like strategy RPGs. Each encounter consists of one or two enemies (very rarely three) and the monsters and players are arranged on a grid. However, unlike most strategy RPGs, there is a line that neither the characters nor the monsters can cross. You can't surround your enemies in this game, but you can hold the line, and if a monster kills a party member and breaks through the line, then you cannot revive that party member until that monster is defeated or pushed back on the grid (which occasionally happens when struck in combat).
Normal battles also tend to be obnoxiously easy, even late in the game, with few moments when a party member is any serious jeopardy. This creates a false sense of security though because you won't necessarily know your party's weaknesses until you come up against a boss who can hurt you. I realized quite belatedly that Edward really should've been stronger than he was. Since he was beating the normal enemies so easily I actually started leveling up his piety stat (even though he was my primary fighter) so his magic defense would increase instead of dumping the points into strength. I thought I could spare it, but I really shouldn't have.
Despite the atmosphere of the game getting to me, I kept playing, because Koudelka's story is actually quite good, once you get that far. The ball really doesn't start rolling until midway to most of the way through the second disc. Fortunately, since Koudelka is so short that's around eight hours into the game, but that's still a very long time given the game's overall length and might discourage people who don't see signs of a plot the entire first disc. Until that point it's more or less, "let's explore this creepy old monastery and oh yeah, people seem to keep dying in here," which might appeal to the standard horror gamer, but is a bit lacking from the role-playing perspective.
Interestingly enough, Koudelka's story is told almost entirely through actual spoken dialogue, which particularly means that the strength of the game is in its voice acting. Not normally something one would wish for with a English-language title. But in Koudelka's case, this is actually the original language. The Japanese release featured English voice actors, and presumably had subtitles to explain it all to the Japanese audience. The US release is also in English, likely with the same actors since there would have been no need for dubbing, but with no subtitles. I kinda needed the subtitles though since Edward and James are sometimes hard to tell apart. I had expected James to have the deeper voice, but actually Edward does and for about half the game I couldn't always tell who was who unless James kicked into what I called his whiney-priest mode because then his voice goes up a notch and there's no mistaking him for anyone else. This also created a problem because if you can't play Koudelka where there is any background noise (friends, family, etc.) because unlike most games where you can smell a cut scene a mile away, you don't necessarily know when you're going to stumble on a piece of dialogue (it could be in the next room and you won't know until you're through the door) and without subtitles you have to be able to hear everybody and what they're saying as clearly as possible. I normally don't have the volume that high on my TV, but I turned it up for Koudelka to make sure I didn't miss anything, and even then I know I missed a sentence here and there.
The interaction of the characters is actually the highlight of the game and I loved watching the cut scenes with them. Each of them is completely dysfunctional (well, except maybe Edward) and probably would be drummed out of any other RPG. Koudelka is not the most sympathetic main character, having quite the attitude I hadn't expected, James is a self-styled bigot who's really not, and Edward, well, I'm not exactly sure how he fits in. Outwardly he's the nicest of the bunch, but when push came to shove, he also turned out to be the most coldly efficient of the three. He kinda makes me think of an Indiana Jones type character, but he's not entirely in his element in this game. Koudelka's a medium and James a priest so seeing spiritual powers is arguably normal to them, but Edward's just an "average Joe," to quote Koudelka. (And for that reason it's always weird seeing him cast magic in combat.)
Perhaps because of the nature of the game and its characters, that is the reason why the real ending of the game (as determined by the ending Shadow Hearts chose to follow) is the one you get by losing to the last boss. When I fought her, she was so powerful that I was baffled how the programmers could ever expect the player to win without an extreme amount of leveling up. After being flattened I reluctantly sat back to watch the Game Over screen, only to be treated to an ending. It was a bit hokey since essentially God intervenes at James's plea and his beloved Elaine is freed to go to heaven, but it's very touching all the same. We also get the implication of just when Koudelka and Edward got busy having Halley (judging from Halley's approximate age in Shadow Hearts, if it didn't happen then it would have happened very soon after!).
Since Koudelka is a horror title, there is understandable quite a bit of creep and gore in this game. Personally, Shadow Hearts is just about my limit, which is why even though I enjoyed Koudelka's story, it's unlikely I'll play it again. (I need a cut scene only mode.) The level of graphical gore is not too bad. Even though there are some rooms with several bloody and mutilated corpses, the shapes are generally fuzzy and indistinct. If you can handle the background corpses in Diablo II you probably can take Koudelka because it's just a smidge worse. It probably has a little less detail overall, but the corpses are a lot larger on screen and there are a lot more of them. The first few times I saw them weren't so bad, but continued exposure to rooms full of them is definitely a risk for the squeamish.
There is only one thing in this game I absolutely could not look at a second time. So if anyone reading this might have similar gore limits as I do, do not open the secret room in the underground passageway blocked by the stone statue of a woman (you need a bottle of blood to open it so if you don't get that you're in good shape). There are no items in that room, just the most gory random hint generator I've ever seen. If you get stuck, just get a walkthrough and forget about it.