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SummarySurviving the horror of random battles
The GoodKoudelka is a bold mixture of RPG and survival horror, spiced by an impressive narrative and an original setting.
At first sight, the game seems to succeed in capturing essential elements of both genres. On one hand, you have a dark enclosed area with all sorts of weird and mildly horrifying creatures popping out at every opportunity; on the other, there are some interesting touches in the role-playing system that go beyond the automatized mechanics of most Japanese games.
Weapons are not "glued" to your characters, and you can freely exchange and experiment with different kinds of weapons, switch them between the characters and see how they affect your attributes. There are also many different weapon types in the game - various types of guns, swords, knuckles, and others. There is also weapon development and endurance system: the more you use a certain weapon in combat, the higher your proficiency level becomes and the more damage you inflict next time you use a weapon of the same type - but after a while, that weapon will break and you'll need to find another one.
You can also manually allocate experience points to raise your characters' main attributes. These grant you all sorts of advantages in combat, which is done in an interestingly tactical style (including turn-based movement on the field). You have action points, which are the core of the system. The more dexterity you raise, the more action points you get per turn. Actions include not only attacking or using items, but also reloading long-ranged weapons, and moving closer to the enemy.
The game has very good writing; that came to me as a total surprise after I had already made peace with the "soap opera" style of Japanese RPG. The characters discuss their lives and philosophical topics - sometimes ironically, sometimes passionately - and their conversations, delivered with convincing voice acting, are always well integrated into the narrative and the setting.
The game's setting is unusual for RPGs: it is an accurate historical environment, the "stylish" nineteenth century, and the characters are adequately presented types, not some multinational and chronologically messed-up hybrids like most Japanese RPG heroes. The story is suspenseful, generally well-paced, and contains some nice twists, including a surprising optional ending.
The BadUnfortunately, Koudelka throws all its cool ideas out of the window once the player is confronted by a contradictory combination of genres that essentially neutralize each other.
The essence of role-playing games is world exploration and character-building. But Koudelka won't give you that because - per survival horror standards - it locks you inside a single mansion with almost zero variety in location design. You'll be crawling through the same decadent golden-brownish rooms throughout the entire game. Exploration is severely limited even compared to real survival horror games such as Alone in the Dark. There is nobody to talk to and very little to find.
Vagrant Story got away with location monotony and overall "loneliness" thanks to its vastly superior level design, challenge, and depth of gameplay. On the other hand, the appealing features of Koudelka's role-playing go down the drain because of the insanely fast leveling, which eventually leads to an embarrassingly low difficulty level. Manual attribute-increasing becomes much less relevant when experience points come in such abundance that your choices don't really matter any more.
Making battles slow and tactical was perhaps the worst possible choice for a game that is supposed to rely on atmospheric immersion. Every battle begins with the (usually disappointingly unimpressive) enemies slowly marching towards you from the dark corners of a drab 3D map. No matter how overpowered you are, you'll need time and way too much patience to maneuver your heroes towards those pesky foes and hit them hard with assorted magic or your well-developed knuckles.
If you hate random battles, you'll hate them twice as much in Koudelka. They disrupt the already minimized exploration and utterly destroy our immersion in the otherwise fairly atmospheric world. Monster encounters are scary when they are scripted, i.e. when every monster is carefully placed in a specific place at a specific moment. They can also be scary when they come in masses, leaving you vulnerable and dependent on quick reaction and thinking. But you can't be scared by apathetic animated tables and sadly twisted body parts who slowly cast fire magic at you while you stand safely in your squares.