Even though horror-themed games had existed since the Atari 2600 era, the Playstation was the first console to bring them to the forefront. I distinctly remember displays at Electronics Boutique (now GameStop) around the system's launch. They weren't showing off WarHawk, Twisted Metal, or NFL GameDay; they were showing the original Resident Evil. That and Silent Hill were mega-successes, leading to a deluge of horror games that took on numerous forms. Of course, there was an opening for a horror RPG in the PS1's catalog, and Sacnoth, founded by former Square employees, tried to fill it with Koudelka.
Koudelka has a story that is all over the place involving three characters meeting up to investigate strange things occurring at an old monastery. Even though the story doesn't make much sense, I could forgive that since this game is all about its gothic atmosphere. The design of the haunted monastery that serves as the setting wouldn't be out of place in a Hammer horror movie. Though there are some moments where things are too dark to see, the visuals in the game proper and the cutscenes are excellent. The sound effects, music, and ambiance are also just right for creating the perfect feel for the experience. Unfortunately the dialog and especially the voice acting are absolutely terrible, seriously crippling the atmosphere. I wished that I could just turn on subtitles and turn off the voices, but those options don't exist here.
The gameplay is hit and miss. The random combat which would be familiar to anyone who played Final Fantasy is here with a more strategic edge as proper positioning is required for the various attacks. I liked the fights, but there were issues. First, there were very few differences between the characters which made some of the development choices feel unimportant. Second, some of the weapons just suck, having hardly any use in combat. Finally, the fights were too easy overall.
Meanwhile the exploration has problems, too. There are plenty of points where I had no idea where to go or what to do. I found myself having to check a walkthrough more often than I would have liked. Since the visuals are rather dark, I almost missed several important items; why couldn't they flash like in Final Fantasy 7 or Resident Evil? Finally, the save system needed improving. There are very few permanent save points, and I didn't know about the temporary save points at all the named areas until I saw mention of them in the manual.
Koudelka had all the parts needed for a great horror RPG, but they just didn't come together the right way. The atmosphere and combat kept me going, but the dialog and exploration nearly stopped me dead. It may be worth checking out if you like ghost stories or are a fan of the Shadow Hearts games (Koudelka is the predecessor to that trilogy). Otherwise, you're better off just playing Final Fantasy while listening to Michael Jackson's "Thriller".