Aberystwyth, 1898

Koudelka refuses to be bound by neat descriptions. On the one hand it’s definitely a dark horror game set in a Welsh monastery and as such contains all the pre-rendered backgrounds, torture chambers, murders, ghosts, suicides, and gruesome half-resurrected bodies the genre required at the time. On the other it’s also definitely a ’90s console RPG filled with magic, XP, elementally-aligned armour, and vast swathes of spoken dialogue about feelings, as serious about these aspects of the game as it is any other.

And so Koudelka isn’t really like anything other than itself, more than content to leave potions, swords, and spiritually charged objects lying around one compact survival horror-like location, a place where keys must be found and then used elsewhere and guns might run out of bullets. Even amongst the PlayStation’s famously varied library, Koudelka still stands out as something experimental and unique.

The game’s wilful disregard for common gaming conventions run right down to its bones – take saving, for example. Every traditional save spot is locked away behind a significant boss battle in the same room, the area in question not “purified” until they’ve been defeated. Standard game design would dictate this approach was wrong at best and grossly unfair at worst, but in context I felt they were balanced more like intense all or nothing encounters trying to encourage me to make good use of everything in my inventory (what use are spare items to a dead team?) and also engage fully with the battle system, because it was always perfectly clear I’d lose a fair bit of progress if I tried to play more conservatively – if I tried to play this like a typical RPG.

And what a battle system it is. Weapons break at the worst possible moment with no prior warning. Ammunition for powerful guns and crossbows is finite, replacement bullets and bolts scavenged from dimly lit rooms or off the bodies of enemies. Almost everything you can make the cast hold or wear has some sort of unique quirk – an elemental alignment, the ability to drain an enemy’s MP rather than their health, bestowing a significant boost to a particular stat or each hit healing the weapon’s owner – there are always interesting questions to ask beyond “What hits the hardest?“. These layers of strategy are further enhanced not only by some weapon types/elements being clearly more effective against certain monsters than others (thankfully changing equipment mid-battle is quick and easy) but also each character’s personal proficiency with the type of equipment in question as well. Encourage one person to attack with swords and those initial single swipes will with practise eventually turn into automated multi-hit combos – but they’ll still need to work on their axe swings and spear thrusts. It not only brings a little more personality and customisation to the fighting but it’s also an effective balance against the weapon breaking and elemental weakness systems – an unremarkable yet frequently dropped dagger of the wrong alignment may not be able to match the raw damage per hit of a rare mace, but a weapon that does 130HP damage, twice, is still going to kill enemies faster than something that hits for 220 per turn, once.

A similar system is used for when casting spells, magical incantations becoming more powerful through a combination of repeated use and the caster’s (and sometimes the receiver’s) stat distribution rather than traditional levelling up (the game encourages players to spread stat points around – power means nothing if the character doesn’t have the accuracy to land the attack or the speed to not get wiped out before their turn comes around). By making spells something you really should use every chance you get Koudelka encourages you to see them as a simple tool rather than something special to be saved for later, every single cast not a waste of MP (which completely refills whenever someone levels up anyway) but another positive step towards a stronger variant of the same spell regardless of the outcome. Koudelka being Koudelka even this is something that can be worked around with a little thought, as all temporary spell-based buffs stack (even to a “I think I just broke the game” degree if you have the patience and MP for it), so for example two level one spells offer the same overall boost as one level two buff – it just takes either an extra turn or roping in another character to cast the same spell on the same target in one.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking this all sounds like a bit of a system soup when written out like it is here, the sort of thing that’s easy to mess up or where the best course of action is to Final Fantasy II this thing, artificially performing illogical actions to try and game the system. The truth is more straightforward: Koudelka wants your characters to accurately reflect your own playstyle, preferences, and circumstances. It wants you to improvise, to reward clever thinking, to use whatever you have to hand, to see all consumable items as something to be used when needed rather than saved for some special “later” that may never come, and to take every battle seriously. That’s why there are so many ways for you to approach everything – not because you have to if you want to win, but so the game can mould itself to you, notice your efforts, and reward clever thinking.

Almost all of the combat is handled by a fixed team of three characters: the titular psychic outcast Koudelka, Edward the thief with a chip on his shoulder, and James, a narrow-minded bishop who if he had been written for modern times would be exactly the sort of person to loudly insist tofu burgers were the end result of woke lefty veganistas forcing their pronouns on decent ordinary people.

They all meet very early on and rarely separate, even though they rarely agree with each other about anything (if you’re wondering why they stick together, a lot of it’s down to the fact that pretty much everything else in the monastery is trying to eat them). It’s an unusual – and risky – dynamic. Playable characters are expected to be some sort of surface-level good, and preferably likeable with it. Koudelka instead invites us to spent time with a cast that aren’t that shallow, their personalities and experiences running a broader range of human emotion and morality than simply “good” or “bad”. Koudelka is quick to anger and assert herself, but she is also prepared to put herself in mortal danger for people who aren’t even alive enough to appreciate it. During the story classical literature fan Edward shoots someone dead partly out of self-preservation, partly to make a point – and it’s hard to say he was wrong to do so. James is correctly called a bigot to his face on several occasions by just about everyone, his continuing insistence that clean, polite, people must be good and anyone else must be “liars and thieves” (or “pagans”, or “immigrants”, or – you get the picture) regardless of the mounting evidence to the contrary just how he sees the world – but it’s also clear he’s a true believer in the divine, he isn’t quite as narrow-minded as he first appears, and when push comes to shove he is prepared to do the right thing at any cost to himself.

The performances given during the group’s frequent conversations are nothing short of extraordinary and still shine today without needing to dish out any pre-emptive caveats about the era, hardware, or the game’s budget.

Like more than a few horror-themed games at the time, the primary dub (and also the one used in the Japanese version of the game) was in English – the difference is this one was motion captured by the actors at the same time, the cast working together on basic sets as if they were performing a stage play.

In many ways it’s a simple idea – let actors actually do some acting for the best results – but Koudelka shows us exactly how much this technique adds to a game. There’s a sense of physicality and presence shining through in every movement (aided considerably by the game’s artistic use of contrasting warm and cool tones to give everyone bright highlights and soft shadows): characters look directly at each other when they converse, and they lean and shift their weight in entirely natural ways as they emote. Secondary actors observe the action and naturally react on cue even when they have nothing to say or aren’t the focal point of the current dialogue – every scene thrums with life and fine detail in a way not even Squaresoft’s most bombastic ’90s CG scenes can match.

And like the unusual battle system, they’re a defining part of the Koudelka experience. They may not help us find a neat and tidy box to put the game in – it’s still an unlabelled mix of many things that typically don’t spend any time together – but that’s very much the point. Koudelka is… Koudelka. It only wants to be itself. And Koudelka’s this story and these battles and all the things that happen in and around them, and what’s here is so good, so full of life and detail and heart, that any concerns about its “real” genre and how to approach it based on everything we know about how to play games “correctly” crumble to dust in the game’s presence like the insignificant mumbles they are.

[Ko-fi supporters read this a week ago! Why not hop on over and join in the fun?]

3 thoughts on “Aberystwyth, 1898

  1. I played quite a few hours of this back when it first released, but the one thing that stopped me finishing it was the high encounter rate and relatively slow pace of battles. I do like the setting, though!

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  2. I own Koudelka since release but every time I tired it before the battles felt way to slow and cumbersome to stick with it past the first hour. But this year’s october I finally stuck with it. Once I was past the first disc and into its groove, it ain’t so bad after all.

    To me it still is a bit too much of a game that tries too many things, often at odds with each other, and is a bit too clunky to call the playing it _fun_ fun. But the experience was fully worth it. There is so much earnesty put into this game, so many cool ideas in the presentation. Such an interesting product of a more experimental time in RPGs.

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