Nyogtha Volume II, Issue XXXIV

#8. Koudelka
Developer: Sacnoth (Now called Nautilus)
Publisher: SNK/Atari (then under the Infogrames name)
Release Date: 11/30/1999
Systems Released on: Sony Playstation

As I said last week, the next game on the countdown would be the only one that made it on both the RPG and the Spooky Game countdowns. On the RPG countdown from 2004, Koudelka was the 9th best RPG ever made. At least in my opinion. Here, it’s the 8th best terror/horror game.

Koudelka is the first game in the Shadow Hearts series. Some of you may be wondering why this is on here, but not a single one of the games with Shadow Hearts actually in the title didn’t make the list. Simple. They’re all excellent games, receiving 7-7.5’s from me when I have reviewed them, but they’re not scary or spooky at all. Too much comedy ruined their chances of making this countdown. Don’t get me wrong, as I LOVE all three SH games, but I just wouldn’t call them horror or terror games. They’re simply great RPG’s.

Reason 1 why I love this game? Sacnoth is made up of ex-Squaresoft employees who wanted more of a focus on plot and gameplay. Just like me, they got ticked with Square focusing on style over substance. And with both Koudelka and Shadow Hearts, they have achieved this. Not only is the game probably the best looking out of all the PS1 games out there, but the plot is terrific.

Within Koudelka we have several threads that automatically appeal to the folklorist and Lovecraft/LeFanu style terror fan in me. The first is that the entire game takes place entirely within a haunted monastery. There are three main playable characters, two of which are average mundane Joe schmoes lacking any particular knowledge or experience in regards to monster fighting. One is a young man seeking fortune and treasure in the abandoned monastery. He does not expect to be assaulted by a werewolf or to encounter any of the other strange horrors lurking within. But hey, that’s life in a video game for you! The other is a priest, drawn here by forbidden love and a need to right a personal wrong. The final character in this triad is a young woman named Koudelka, or as one Edmund the Blackadder put it under the book he wrote as Gertrude Perkins, a ‘Sizzling Gypsy.’ Koudelka is the only character amongst the three with any true supernatural powers, knowing magic as well as being an empath to the dead and living alike. The priest has the potential to learn magic, but thanks to the way you can customize your characters, he has the ability to be either a truly strong fighter or a magic user. Together the three form an unconventional, and at times unwilling, triad that allows them to put aside their personal differences and prevent a great evil from being unleashed upon the world.

That last statement is another reason I love Koudelka. The big bad in the game is not a word destroying evil. It’s not an evil that shall consume all or a nigh godlike meglomaniac. It’s just a thing that should not be. A mid level evil if you will. It’s a grounded story, like all true classic horror stories. Evil needs to be vanquished by NORMAL people, or with the slightest of quirks in order for the story to truly have meaning. It’s called relating to the story. Why do you think the greatest horror stories feature only normal people? Super OTT characters are harder to identify with and makes the average person (who has next to little self esteem) feel like only a rare few can be inspired to greatness. Not true says I. So yay for Koudelka for remembering what damn near every other RPG made in the past ten years forgot.

Next up? The fact that the characters are realistic both in attitudes and opinions for the time period. Racism and prejudice are openly discussed and accepted by the characters, as is religion. Things that actually happened around that time period are mentioned and commented on. The game tries very, VERY hard to stay in theme with the time period of Victorian England. And it does an excellent job, except for Koudelka who is dressed like a slutty goth chick, but since when is that ever something you can hold against someone? Most video games, and sadly especially RPG’s, don’t pay attention to these details. It’s why the characters are often so shallow and two dimensional. And horror and terror games are even worse when it comes to actually creating full personalities for the characters you are supposed to care about. This again is WHY Koudelka is such a great game. It plays like Lovecraft, Bierce, Chambers, or Bloch wrote the damn thing. It’s also why most gaming critics didn’t get or like the game: because it required a higher level of thinking than 95% of the games out there. God forbid you have to know Victorian politics and history and be familiar with social norms of the time instead of everything acting as if 1890 was 2006 but with different clothing and accents. It’s like all those people that claim to “loooove” Lovecraft’s writing, but then want to play games where you blow stuff up left and right. You want a Lovecraft game with Lovecraftian monsters that actually plays like something HPL would approve of instead of shaking his fist from inside his Providence grave? Koudelka. Only Koudelka.

The music is incredible. Are you a fan of Secret of Mana? Well guess what? One of those disgruntled ex-Square employees is Hiroki Kikuta, the man who did the Secret and Legend of Mana’s scores. It’s got the music and graphics the lowest common denominator craves, but a plot far above the intelligence and maturity level of anything their original company has ever put out.

I just realized I forgot to mention something about the graphics, and as I’m very much a stream of consciousness writer, I’ll mention it here. The game may have incredible Square style graphics, but the colouring is akin to an olden style photograph. The colours are dimmed and faded, and very fitting of the Victorian era. If you’re looking for something bright and cheerful, go someplace else. The game looks as dark as it plays.

You may have noticed me earlier mentioning that this game has actual Lovecraft characters in the game. Yes indeed, there are Mythos characters up the wazoo in this game. You like Dark Young? Right here baby! Wanna see an incredible rendition of a Gug? Again, only in Koudelka. What can I say, I’m a sucker for Mythos characters in a video game, and aside from Persona 2, no other game comes even close to capturing the mood or themes of Mythos writing like Koudelka. In fact, Koudelka is the highest rated game with Cthulhu Mythos characters on the list, thus making it by proxy the best Lovecraft game available to the general public. There is another game later on that features Lovecraft style characters though. It just doesn’t have the actual Mythos names attached.

The gameplay of Koudelka is rather interesting as well, and although I enjoy it, I can see why it is hard for so many people to wrap their heads around. Think of Koudelka as combination of checkers, Chess, and tactical style gameplay. Your characters can move forward but not past the farthest out enemy character. The best strategy is to send your big burly Edward out as he can deal a lot of physical damage and also takes little damage from magic and physical attacks (if you made him right) and Koudelka and James then sling magical death from safety. Of course, this strategy also works if the opponent uses it, so one has to take that into consideration.

Another unique aspect of the game involves how you earn experience points. Everything you do in the game gets you specific XP. You use a gun, you get gun XP. You use a sword, sword XP. You use a heal spell, you get heal XP. And on and on and on. Thus your character can be great at one thing, bad at another. Maybe decent at everything. It’s all your call. Same with general level XP. You get points to spend on specifically raising your characters however you want. You can make everyone a fighter! Everyone a mage! It doesn’t matter. The characters are totally mutable in your hands, clay begging to be molded. What other game gives you that option? For me, this was a dream come true. The personalities and incredible cinematic tale were left to the writers and voice actors, but every aspect of gameplay was mine (and hopefully yours) to command. You can’t ask for anything more in an RPG. You really can’t.

Oh. And items break. You use it too much, it shatters. That bloody simple. Again, this is ingenious and serves to piss off a lot of whiny power gamer munchkins, but it makes me happy. A shrewd gamer conserves his best items for boss fights. After all, you have only yourself to blame if you stupidly use Lifedrinker (second best weapon in the game) on a living chair and it just happens to break at that moment. Even the best weapons can break in reality. Nice for Koudelka to remind us of that little factoid.

And yes, there really is living furniture in this game. Just don’t sit on anything.

I should issue a warning though. Koudelka is 4 discs long, at least half of which is cinematic dialogue and cut scenes. Think the Xeno games but with half the pomposity and with a plot that actually allows for full characterization. You’re pretty much watching a CGI Lovecraft film

I’ll end this by saying Koudelka is a decidedly niche game. Most gamers lack the patience or cerebral cognizance for the story, and will fail to understand why James and Edward have poetry debates in the middle of a haunted monastery. Most gamers want boobs and shallow characters, not arguments on immigration or a long dissertation on what makes a monster a monster. Most gamers don’t want a game where things break and thus you can’t have your ultimate weapon for the final battle because you messed up. It’s a hard sell of a horror game, an RPG, a historical drama, a tribute to Lovecraft and Byron and other writers than Goths generally have on their bookcase. But thankfully for Sacnoth, this game happened to touch on everything I love in video games, or that I have passion for in general. For most people, this game wouldn’t be on their top 30 list at all. For me? It’s a top ten game of all time easily because it gives me everything I want in a game with only a few minor niggling details.

If you have a PSX, you can get this game for cheap. I beseech you to go out and buy this. Play the first disc and if you don’t like it, you’ve lost maybe 10 bucks at the most. See how cheap it is on ebay! I know I am an in an insanely tiny minority amongst gaming reviewers with how much I love this game, but if you like things spooky and to have total and utter control over your characters in a game, you can’t beat Koudelka. Plus, well, most gaming reviewers are owned by companies and corporations to begin with so you can’t really trust them. But you can trust me. Especially with the deed to your house. Send me the deed to your house!

#7 The Suffering
Developer: Surreal Software
Publisher: Midway
Genre: Survival Horror
Systems Released on: Sony Playstation 2, Microsoft Xbox
Release Date: 03/09/2004

In 2004, The Suffering was the runner up for my Game of the Year. Yes, and it’s only #7 on this list. That should be a hint as to the level of quality yet to come.

It takes a lot to creep me out. I’ve had the opportunity to spend the night in some of the most haunted places in the world. 95% of the time, I went through with it and thought nothing of it. Horror movies do nothing to me, save for VERY rare exceptions. Video games are even rarer. I can count on one hand the number of games to have ever made me jump. Whenever I hear Scissorsman’s music start up, my adrenaline and heart beat increase. But I’m not scared. I’m just loving the game and being chased by one of the best bad guys in the history of gaming. The Fatal Frame series? Not scary. Freaky games that I love to play, but not scary. Silent Hill? Snore. But The Suffering? It gave me nightmares. The game itself didn’t scare me, but the imagery and incredible story lodged in my subconscious after each session of playing it. It gave me some funky ass dreams. That alone deserves major props for its surrealism. If there is one thing I know I can take without the slightest flinch, it is horror. This is the only Horror game ever to make me go “Wow. That’s some f*cked up shit right there.” Of course this does point out the last six games on the list are Terror games, but hey, for my money The Suffering is the King of Survival Horror.

When we first did the Game Cube feature, I wanted this on the list, but then we decided to only feature exclusives to the system, and then the Cube version of the game was cancelled anyway. Dammit all. I was literally salivating over the game. Even though no one else had heard aboutThe Suffering, Chuck was tempted enough to eagerly await this game’s release just because I had this instinct it was going to be something special. NO game had triggered that in me for a couple of years. Just like with Disgaea, with Dark Alliance 2, and Pokemon Channel, I said, “OMGWTF!!!!11!! This game is incredible!” and members of the Kliq hesitantly trusted me, and found themselves loving the games big time. Just ask Bebito after finally getting to own Lunar Legends what game was his crack pipe of 2004. So trust me when I say: this game is just amazing. You won’t regret it for a second.

So what’s the plot of this game? Well, it’s modern day. You play as Torque, a man sentenced to death by lethal injection after eviscerating his wife and two children. Yes ladies and gentlemen: this is your protagonist! Torque is brought to Abbot State Penitentiary on Carnate Island in Maryland; an island with a terrible history that curses the very soil and all those dwelling within it to this day.

Almost immediately after Torque is locked up, strange things begin to occur on the island. The power goes out, Torque watches as a strange host of creatures begin to slaughter the other prisoners and guards one by one. For some reason, Torque is left untouched. But why? Why is he spared? Both Torque and yourself will come to learn the truths of not only Abbot, but Torque himself as you play through the game.
The plot is hands down one of the best I have ever seen in a video game. Although Torque does not talk, he doesn’t need to. His actions dictate his personality. And Torque can be as good or sadistic as you want him to be. You can save the few survivors that remain alive on the island with you, or you can butcher them like hogs. Do you want to portray Torque as a wrongly accused man who not only had his family murdered but now pays for the deeds instead of the one who committed them? Or is Torque a powder keg of hate and wrath, truly deserving of a sentence of death? It’s your call. But just remember, the path you force Torque to take says something about your own hidden psyche.
With three endings, each distinct and unnerving, one can play the game multiple times and view the happenings on Abbott in completely different ways. When you beat the game and then start a “New Game,” you are treated to a brand new opening, one that reveals a whole new twist to the plot of the game. How many other games give you this?

The characters are memorable; even though the best ones never reveal their name. The ghostly doctor, of whom you’re never quite sure as to if he is friend or foe, is straight out of the remake of House on Haunted Hill, and is simply brilliant. The people who Torque can befriend and help on his journey are fleshed out, even with tiny bits of game time. Even the wife and children of Torque are portrayed very well. And they’re dead. You can’t beat that. If you play your games for plot, The Suffering is a game that’s going to immediately come to mind years later when people are discussing the best stories ever in the history of video gaming.

The graphics of The Suffering aren’t the most incredible ever, but they are still impressive in their own right. Although I don’t find the monsters frightening, the design and originality behind each one deserves a lot of respect. Each creature is based on a specific form of torture and/or death and you can see the original muse that fueled the designers from Hellraiser to Lovecraft’s writings.

One thing I feel should be brought up is that the graphics add a blur or slowdown effect at certain times in the game. And it’s completely intentional. I am very impressed by how it is done and how it never occurs at any other point in the game.

The backgrounds of the game are stunning. The prison holds so many interesting hidden things to see and interact with. Flushing the toilet, reading insane gibberish on walls, seeing old celluloid style footage interact with the rest of the game; these are all possible. A lot of the game takes place in areas that are just as beautiful to look at. The Victorian insane asylum is fantastic and quite accurate in regards to how they were actually laid out. In fact, everything but the actual characters themselves are wonderfully detailed in every way. But the monsters and humans? They’re good, but not great. We’ve seen better, but the plot and everything else about the game is so wonderful, it’s hard to quibble on this tiniest of details.

The sound of The Suffering makes this game. No matter what I type onto my screen, the words just can’t convey how incredible the game is in regards to this aspect.

Let’s start with voice acting. This game has by far some of the best I have heard in gaming hands down. Clem’s voice is perfect. The Doctor. The Green Gas Ghost. Torque’s wife and kids. EVERYONE is perfect and I can’t imagine a better voice actor for any character. These characters are living the hell that takes place in The Suffering, and it shows with each syllable they utter.

Music and sound effects? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s the best in regards to a Survival Horror game EVER. The music is primal and simple, yet god awful in its ability to creep you out. It’s always fitting. It never takes away from the game. It consistently adds to the suspense, adrenaline rush and fear factor. If I could, I would outright buy the soundtrack because it’s that sublime in the eeriness.

The things the developers have managed to convey with simple instruments and the minutest of sounds. A few piano keys, a jug of water, a steady rhythmic drum beat. It shows the people at Surreal have either imaginations far and above those of the average person, or they’re just completely mad.

The sound effects are crisp and precise. You can hear Torque pop the lid of his Xombium containers and pour them out before eating them. Each weapon has its own individual sound. The screeches, the footsteps, the breathing and screams of unholy agony. It’s frightening how good this game is in terms of what you hear. Even if you were blind and stuck in a room where someone was playing this game, it would un-nerve you. It’s that good.

Finally, letâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s touch on the control scheme. Guess what? Another BEST EVER for this genre. The controls in the Suffering on the Xbox are flawless. I never once had a camera angle problem. That’s right! A 3-D game where there’s no bitching and moaning about controlling the view or how hard it is to align the sight angles. The Suffering is quick and painless in letting you see whatever you need to.

Little things: You can play in first or third person mode, although I advise not switching between the two frequently. I do prefer third person mode if only because I like the wider vision that comes with it. And I can watch Torque’s back.

The designers of the game paid specific attention to the physics of blood splattering. How ingenious is that? Depending on where Torque is while he fires away on monsters, he could become coated in gore and ichor, or stay relatively clean. I was amazed while they talked about this in the “Making Of” extra that came with this game.

I’m mainly a Fighter/2-D shooter/RPG gamer that is still anachronistic in his dislike of 99% of 3-D games. But The Suffering? Wow, I still can’t believe how wonderful the controls are. They don’t make me want to have seizures from the god awful controls Capcom came up with for Resident Evil that have sadly been copied by games like Curse. Whether you’re solving a puzzle like the fires in the break room, or having to gun down half a dozen monsters coming at you from all sides, the controls and thus Torque are seamless in their brilliance. Every other game in the genre just needs to outright copy this engine, because this is going to be the standard bearer from now on.

Finally, I have to admit the folklorist and cultural anthropologist in me was easily suckered in to loving the haunted prison documentary on this disc. It is by far the best extra feature I have ever seen on a video game, if only because if gives you a great bit of non fiction. It’s not the most professional documentary ever made, but to have them include this on a video game? INCREDIBLE! They didn’t need to film a single second of this footage. It has nothing to do with the game, and they could have easily included some other extra crap in its place. But instead, they made a documentary that I would certainly recommend watching before playing the game at all.

The two journals, the two documentaries, the constant nods to classic horror and terror icons from yesteryear, and all the other extras thrown in have easily cemented The Suffering as a game I have to consider the best overall Survival Horror game ever made. It manages to have a plot as original as Eternal Darkness, to have all the little things done right as Koudelka did, to have the fear factor inherent in Fatal Frame, and the IT factor that can not be described, only felt, that Hell Night possessed. There are no real flaws in this game, except that it just might be too sophisticated for its target audience of blood N’ gore freaks, or perhaps overlooked for a plethora of reasons all involving an end result of the average gamer needing a clawhammer to the temple again and again and again while they scream out begging for sweet release, but you aren’t answering their prayers, but instead those of a dark and squammous thing inside you demanding you give into your most loathsome and foul desires.

I mean, it has a lowest common denominator outside, but it on the inside, The Suffering will appeal to even terror and more sophisticated gamers. It’s as much a mind f*ck as it in a gore fest.

Closing

We’re getting close to the end here. Next week we break into the top five with a look at two objects you wouldn’t necessarily think could induce a great deal of terror. The first is a camera. The second? A gigantic pair of scissors…