Sharing the love: Koudelka

The last time I played Koudelka the game was old enough to be plain ‘old’ but not yet old enough to have passed into the mystical realm of ‘retro’, and I really couldn’t remember much about it other than a vague memory of enjoying the experience so I thought seeing as it’s officially Creepy Game Month it’d be worth spending a few evenings getting reacquainted with the candlelit halls and the corpse-filled corners of the Nemeton Monastery in Aberystwyth. Thankfully this isn’t going to be the usual waffle where I drone on about a little bit of everything; I thought instead I’d look at two very specific and very different areas where Koudelka really shines but either gets strangely overlooked or misunderstood.

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Let’s start with the part of Koudelka I consider to be unfairly ‘overlooked’: the game’s script and event cutscene direction. Unlike the (beautiful, but) flowery dialogue found in my beloved Ivalice or the dense detail found in Falcom’s Kiseki series Koudelka’s strength lies in the shockingly natural performances of the game’s tiny cast. Koudelka is an RPG that only has ten characters in total even when you include people that are only present in a single scene so it was absolutely vital that the performances here were spot on – definitely not the sort of thing anyone would even dare hope for from a 90’s Japanese PlayStation game, so it’s nothing short of a miracle that Sacnoth managed to pull it off. As it turns out there’s a very simple reason for this success; Sacnoth went to the USA and employed English-speaking actors and a bilingual director, then mo-capped and recorded the dialogue as the actors performed each scene - essentially creating a digital recording of a play. You can find behind the scenes photos and further details of the process over here (Japanese). It’s clearly a technique that works, so it’s a shame to think how even big-budget modern game acting still has a very definite split between motion and the voice work, and it’s still noteworthy for actors to record dialogue together.

In any case, all this international effort would mean nothing if the script didn’t have good characterisation underpinning it all, and Koudelka excels here too. The main characters are not natural heroes or team players and as such their dialogue reflects their differing moral codes and opinions, with almost every scene peppered with petty insults and needless bickering. But the script never mistakes these disagreements for the characters being wrong or unlikeable, and as such Koudelka’s cast come across as flawed, funny, kind, and occasionally narrow-minded people. You never get the feeling that they exist purely for the benefit of the game, or that everything of significance in their lives happens during the story or is something they want to share in a lengthy monologue set to heart-tugging music.

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The other thing I want to spend some time waving a happy little flag for is a part of the game most people don’t seem to like at all – the battle system. I thought it was absolutely fascinating: rather than having characters fill pre-set roles (or have their base stats start off skewed so far one way they might as well be) you’re basically given ‘Sacnoth’s Big Ol’ Fightin’ Toolbox’ and let loose on the unsuspecting monsters of nineteenth century Wales. Between the in-game descriptions and the surprisingly helpful (UK-PAL) manual you’re left in no doubt what each stat does, which is especially great as the distribution of points on level up is left entirely in your hands. This is where I feel some people come unstuck – the natural reaction when faced with such an important decision is to give everyone a little bit of everything, because when in doubt an all-rounder is probably a safer bet than a specialist. Unfortunately this is absolutely not the case with Koudelka, as here an even distribution of stats means your character excels as absolutely nothing and is vulnerable to everything - it’s a much better idea to decide early on if you want to send a particular character along a melee or caster-type path. But what about the inevitable chinks in your armour specialisation causes? Koudelka gives you plenty of options to either cover your weaknesses, boost your strengths so much your weaknesses won’t matter, or find your own sensible compromise between the two.

The most obvious quirk in Koudelka’s battle system is the dizzying array of weaponry on offer. In keeping with the freeform nature of the game everyone can equip anything you have to hand, from water-aligned frocks to steel pipes and, as you may have heard, yes – these weapons can break. Can, but rarely will, in practise. Without grinding, farming, or being careful (and it is possible to kill things quite effectively with bare fists if you fancy), by around disc three I had so many different weapons that I literally couldn’t pick up anything else without throwing away something I was already carrying. That’s not meant to be taken as a boast; the point is to illustrate that while I did sometimes have a very useful weapon break right in the middle of a boss battle (at this point I should probably mention that you can change weapons in battle every single turn if you want to) more than enough will either drop naturally from defeated enemies or be found lying around the monastery to replace whatever you do happen to lose. As characters gain experience using a particular weapon class or spells their proficiency in that field rises, resulting in more powerful magicks and regular physical attacks becoming impressive two-hit animations – it’s a neat touch that adds another layer of tactics for those that would like to specialise, but not to the detriment of those unwilling or unlucky enough to not want or be able to stick with a specific item class.

Then there’s the grid-based floor all the battles take place on to consider too: At first blush you’d think it was just an excuse to add a little ‘SRPG-lite’ movement to the game, but it’s actually part of an infinitely more interesting ‘zone of control’ system that allows you (and the enemy!) to send a party member ahead to act as a vanguard, physically preventing enemies from getting close to weaker characters. To stop this being a brainless case of ‘move the toughest one to the front to win’ you must always keep in mind ranged magical attacks and gunfire, and the end result is a battlefield where positioning is actually about positioning, and not simply a case of everyone huddling around the latest eldritch monstrosity and hitting it until it dies.

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Basically it’s a really strong and interesting system that doesn’t allow you to ignore elemental weaknesses or pretend weapon stats are just for show, and it doesn’t fall apart at the seams if you use your knowledge of the system and the equipment you find to your advantage. It’s a game that consciously rewards ‘making do’ – I only ever found three pieces of armour and yet I managed just fine, because in Koudelka the answer when things aren’t going your way is ‘How can I use what I have to make up for this?’ not ‘Let’s grind for hours until we’re so over-levelled it doesn’t matter’.

There is however one flaw that I feel is significant enough to mention even in a blog post that’s all about Koudelka-cheering though: the game is almost impossible to play without a guide for people who are hard of hearing or those who aren’t but can’t guarantee they’ll be playing in an environment that allows them to sit undisturbed with the volume turned up. The problem is all the dialogue in the game is voiced but unsubtitled – an impressive and immersive experience for sure, but also utterly impractical as the instant you cough, or the doorbell rings, or perhaps you happen to live with other people who don’t want to whisper in hushed tones while you play a seventeen year old game, you’ll miss out on not only the beautifully performed script but significant plot details too. It all comes to a head during one mandatory puzzle later on in the game that’s entirely reliant on the player being able to clearly hear and then reproduce a tune played on a little music box - it’s not randomly generated so you can run off and check a FAQ if you have to, but it does feel a bit thoughtless when the rest of the game is so well done (and all the other puzzles rely on visual clues).

In spite of this uncharacteristic misstep Koudelka is a wonderful one-off that I’m happy to internally file next to other off-kilter RPGs I love like Vagrant Story, The Last Remnant, and Final Fantasy XII. Generally polished and joyously unpredictable, Koudelka’s a memorable experience whether you’re hoping to be drawn into an enthralling story or flex your strategic muscles in battle. The best news is that it’s readily available everywhere (the US release seems to be a little pricey, mind) on one of the most popular consoles of all time so if you’d like to try it out for yourself it shouldn’t be too much trouble at all – brilliant!

Obligatory October Opuscule: Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece of gaming horror… which is something anyone who’s been within 20ft of a games console at any point over the past fifteen years will know already. James’ intimate journey of damnation/redemption is a masterpiece of the genre and high praise has been rightly heaped upon the plot for its mature and surprisingly sensitive treatment of dark and difficult subject matter; never making the mistake of condemning or excusing the characters, or encouraging the player to do so in its place.

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So I’m not going to bother – I don’t think the internet really needs yet another article analysing how the monsters reflect different aspects of James’ subconscious thoughts or which of the four potentially canonical scenarios he ‘deserved’ at the end of ordeal. What I’ve noticed is that while everyone and their dog’s happy to talk about Silent Hill 2’s story there’s not an awful lot of discussion these days that looks at it as a game, so I thought I’d try and approach Konami’s sacred cow from that angle instead. I suppose this’ll mean the text below ends up reading like every other blimmin’ blog post I write but there’s something to be said for banal consistency, isn’t there?

Let’s start with something obvious – the graphics. Technically speaking the game is virtually peerless when compared to other titles of the era, and even when looking across the entirety of the PlayStation 2’s library only its own sequels or titles of Final Fantasy XII’s visual calibre (a game that came out almost five years later) that come close to pushing the hardware the way this game does. The character models look fantastic and the animations hold up exceptionally well even today – even the real-time cutscenes are beautifully shot; often enhancing the mood of a scene but sometimes stunning just for stunning’s sake.

It’s not just within purpose-built stages that the game excels either – even in normal circumstances enemies glisten in the light cast by James’ torch while he pushes through fog that has real volume and substance to it; it’s enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine, and players brave enough to stop and stare will find a world filled with high-resolution textures and incidental details that most will miss as they run in a panic through the gloom.

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Unfortunately these details do come at a cost, and it’s not just Silent Hill’s signature fog either. Areas of all shapes, sizes, and states of reality are almost exclusively bowling-green flat and enemies only seem to come three at a time at the very most – even the streets of Silent Hill has its horror deliberately sprinkled far and wide to prevent any potential framerate drops: completely understandable from Team Silent’s perspective, but as a player it diminishes these shattered fragments of James’ fears and suppressed desires to little more than a mild annoyance that can be easily sprinted past before he’s even noticed what ever the heck it even was.

Indoor locations generally don’t fare much better either, all narrow corridors connected to small and sparsely decorated box rooms. What’s there is always incredibly detailed and the layout is infinitely more sensible than Resident Evil’s ridiculous police stations and spooky mansions could ever be, but ultimately this strict adherence to realism, even when deep in the bowls of a prison in the ‘other’ Silent Hill, means that locations often lack the visual impact of Midwich Elementary School’s decorative cadavers or the sight of a blood-smeared rabbit slumped on a bench in Lakeside Amusement Park: far too often Silent Hill 2 leaves players in yet another long hallway rattling anything up to twenty-one doorknobs (Brookhaven Hospital 3F, if you were wondering) with only three or four of these actually leading anywhere.

The good news is that Silent Hill’s map system is more than up to the task of keeping track of not only the vast array of permanently locked doors and blocked-off areas but also puzzle locations, save points, and just about anything else you really need to find or get to. More games of any genre could use an active annotation system just like this one, with James’ note-taking always nudging the player in the right direction without ever breaking the fourth wall. This in-character help can also seen in James himself – whenever he’s near an item or within range of an enemy he’ll look in that direction, ensuring that even when the camera’s pointing in the opposite direction to an incoming monster or a health drink’s hiding in the corner of another pokey apartment kitchen you still have a fair chance of spotting it.

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Sadly you won’t need James’ help to spot any of Silent Hill 2’s bosses, as all the deep symbolism and care that went into their visual design didn’t extend to their attack patterns or battle mechanics which all come down to whatever it is moving in a straight line towards you at a fixed pace and then using one of two possible attacks when it gets in range. It doesn’t help either that even on the normal difficulty level they’re all total bullet-sponges; the overly-long rinse/repeat ‘strategy’ of jogging a safe distance away before firing a few shots only giving you even more time to notice how unengaging the whole experience is. For a game that prides itself so highly on its atmosphere it’s sad to see what could have been highlights of the game reduced to encounters so bland the adversaries and their arenas could have easily been swapped between themselves with little to no impact on the player’s tactics or experience.

While fending off the physical manifestations of James’ need for punishment may feel sorely lacking, the gameplay shines in a magnificent way as far as the possible conclusions to his journey are concerned. There are three standard endings available by default, and the one you get isn’t determined by any single event or key item but is based entirely on the player’s behaviour throughout the game. So if you spend a lot of time not keeping James healed up properly and dwelling on certain macabre details the game will assume you don’t care whether he lives or dies, and the ending ‘In Water’ reflects those choices. Take care of Maria and check in on her as much as possible and James will give up on finding his dead love, accepting instead the willing replacement before him. The final normal ending is called ‘Leave’, and as the main requirements for this ending are pretty much ‘Don’t overdo anything that might land you with one of the other two’ this is more than likely the one you’ll end up with first time through, and technically the ‘happy’ ending.

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As a story Silent Hill 2 is almost beyond reproach, and when the gameplay manages to reach the same dizzying heights the transcends into a magical experience where the lines between plot and gameplay are seamlessly blurred; the player themselves having more input into James’ final outcome than any key or magical trinket they come across along the way. But when it gets it wrong – and it does do just a little too often - players are left brushing up against rows of painted-on doors or wandering into the right place at the wrong time, the game refusing to unlock a door until an unrelated event or scene has been triggered elsewhere first. But when the illusion works – and on your first time, or on a nostalgia-fuelled Hallowe’en run years later it certainly will – Silent Hill 2’s a genuinely shocking experience that will stay lurking in the dark crevices of your mind long after the console’s been turned off. However it’s not a game that benefits from the repeated play that’s awkwardly encouraged by the post-credits ranking system or unlockable novelty endings as it ultimately lacks the underlying ‘gaminess’ of Resident Evil’s sublime time attack design, Fatal Frame’s ghost-baiting Camera Obscura, or even the more immediate horror of other mainline Silent Hill games. Silent Hill 2’s at its best when it’s treated as a one-off event in your gaming calendar – something to be savoured and appreciated, then left alone to haunt your dreams.

A little look at… Lord Monarch: Tokoton Sentou Densetsu

I tend to not get on well with Falcom’s ‘pure strategy’ games – I can certainly appreciate the depth and quality to be found in Vantage Master and Lord Monarch but as far as playing them goes I’m like a bear learning ballet – technically speaking I’ve got everything I need right here, but it’s just not happening.

This is why I’m eternally grateful for this partnership with Sega (although this was actually developed by OmiyaSoft of Culdcept fame) that produced amongst other things this more accessible version of Falcom’s rather unfriendly real-time strategy series – a new take on the series blessed with a plot, characters, and people actually explaining things to you.

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The main event here is an all-new and exclusive eight-chapter story mode, but if the thought of sending off Prince Alfred, Spanky the Fairy, and Princess Rubia to forcefully bring peace to King Monarch’s (yes, really) kingdom and the neighbouring lands doesn’t appeal then you’ll be pleased to learn a story-free campaign is also available, gathering together all the maps from the original computer releases from Lord Monarch and Advanced Lord Monarch under one visually revamped roof.

But what is Lord Monarch anyway? I’ve been trying to come up with a good comparison and the best I can do is ‘A bit like Populous… but not really’ – which isn’t all that helpful, but it’s the best I’ve got. The most important basics are that you need to increase your own population of soldiers either by building on unoccupied land before anyone else reaches it, or by razing your opponent’s territory (and there can be up to three per map) to the ground then moving in before they have the time to rebuild. You don’t get to directly alter the landscape like you do in Bullfrog’s classic, but you can build barricades to keep enemies at bay and construct bridges across otherwise impassable rivers and ravines, allowing you to ‘sneak in’ to your opponent’s lands at a weak point or perhaps reach a cash-filled treasure chest before anyone else does. Both of these activities, and indeed pretty much any other direct order you can give a unit, are a heavy drain on your ruler’s war chest and must be mitigated by temporarily raising taxes – an act that quickly replenishes your funds at the cost of reducing the amount of units produced each day. So the game’s all about balancing unit creation, special actions, and taxes while trying not to get your king’s head bashed in by everyone else on the map.

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If it sounds overwhelming that’s because at first blush it definitely is – and this is why they went to the trouble of creating story mode. Giving everyone names and voices, even if these can literally boil down to ‘A BOSS: I’m gonna beat you!’, goes a long way to making the goal much clearer – as do the brief slices of pre-battle banter between characters that deliberately talk about unique encounters on the map or give general pointers on how to come out victorious. There are a lot of one-off graphics and wonderfully expressive character portraits used in these scenes too; another little bit of polish that goes a very long way to making this rather obtuse strategy series more approachable – so much so that both the later Yanoman-developed PlayStation title Lord Monarch: Shin Gaia Oukokuki and Falcom’s own sequel Monarch Monarch went down a similar visual route.

There is a problem with Lord Monarch’s beautiful sprite work though, and that is there’s just no room for it when you’re trying to win. There are three possible map-viewing sprite sizes in the game, and about a third of the way through the story mode using the L-size sprites for anything more than a quick gawp at some fantastic pixel art is suicide, meaning players are forced to spend most of their time switching between the more practical M and S-sized views (it only takes a quick dab of the B button to bring up the view size menu) to keep control of the battle – a practical if unappealing solution when you consider just how great the game looks when you see it fully zoomed in.

But while the Mega Drive’s screen resolution may not be quite up to the task of bringing a strategy game to 90’s consoles its controller surprisingly is. Thanks to some thoughtful button mapping (the six button pad is supported too) and an extremely easy to read UI that contains everything you need to see at a glance you always feel in control of the action. Even when you need to do something quickly you’re never at a disadvantage as the action always pauses whenever you move the cursor, completely sidestepping those awkward chase-the-unit-around-the-map moments that can occur in games of this type. If you really find yourself unable to get to grips with the standard controller, or would simply like to get some use out of an under-appreciated peripheral, the official Sega mouse is also fully compatible with the game.

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Lord Monarch is one of those games that takes more time and effort to love than most people would – and perhaps should – put into it. But it’s also a game that gives back exactly as much as you’re prepared to put in, and players that get used to its quirky rules and have the patience to flip through the unusually helpful and thorough manual will find that underneath it all lies one of the most intelligent and entertaining strategy titles on the Mega Drive.

If you’d like to play the game for yourself the cheapest and easiest option at the time of writing is to pay 720 points for a digital copy via Japan’s Wii Virtual Console service.

If you’d like to read a rough-n-ready translation of the demo’s ‘how to’ text I made one (quite a while ago now!) and put it up here -