Video Game Reviews

Vambrace: Cold Soul Review – Good Different

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Vambrace: Cold Soul is a rogue-lite dungeon crawler with light RPG elements developed by Devespresso Games (recently changed to Dvora Studio) and Headup Games, and published by Headup Games, Chorus Worldwide, and Whispergames.

The game follows Evelia Lyric — known to everyone as Lyric — in the wake of her father’s death. Among the things he bequeathed to her were a magical vambrace and a magically encrypted journal. Her study of the journal leads to the city of Icenaire which has been cut off from the rest of the world by a magical —and lethal— wall of ice. And, the only way through this wall is with the Vambrace.

Upon entering the frozen city, Lyric passes out and is found by a scouting party from Dalearch, an underground colony that has been hiding from the King of Shades, the tyrant responsible for cutting the city off from the rest of the world. 

She is quickly pulled into the shifting power dynamic of this subterranean colony and —upon learning of the vambrace’s power— tasked with making expeditions to the surface in order to aid Dalearch in its fight against the ever-encroaching forces of the King of Shades.

Upon first inspection, one would assume that this game is basically a Darkest Dungeon clone. It has a similar aesthetic, it has the rogue elements, and its combat is tough and fairly unforgiving.

You would, however, be wrong about what this game actually is. While clearly an homage to Darkest Dungeon, it manages to set itself apart in a number of interesting ways. The first of which is…

A Narrative Experience

The story in Darkest Dungeon was told mostly incidentally through journals, descriptions, and, occasionally, through the —super badass— narrator. 

Vambrace completely eschewed this style of storytelling with the introduction of Lyric — an actual protagonist. This made every expedition through the streets of Icenaire an integral part of the story.

You aren’t just wandering to get experience so you can send a party into the darkest of dungeons. You are going into each area with a specific goal in mind, and it’s always story-related. 

Now, I don’t want to get into too much detail, because spoilers, but there is a place, about halfway through the game, where the story becomes more important than the gameplay.

This narrative focus makes Vambrace a refreshing departure from the source of its inspiration. What’s more, this sudden shift carries through to the rest of the game, and the whole experience is better for it.

Now, Vambrace’s story isn’t the greatest I’ve ever seen, but it was good enough to hold the game together until the ending — of which there are three.

I won’t give anything away, but I got the neutral ending (or unaligned) and it was arguably one of the better endings to a game I’d seen in a while.

The worst thing that Lyric did to the overall structure of the game was be an RPG protagonist. This is because, if she dies, or faints, the mission is over, and you have to start it all over again from the beginning. 

Though, her presence does elevate the game over its initial premise of “Darkest Dungeon, but with Ice.”

Zero Experience Required

One of the boldest, most interesting choices that Devespresso made was to remove experience and leveling from the game.

Just let that sink in for a moment. No experience is awarded for defeating enemies, and you never level any of your characters. 

Instead of making your characters incrementally stronger with a leveling system, Devespresso went with something a little more… restrictive, but somehow elegant in its simplicity.

Every character in your crew has exactly one slot for an equipable item. This item is the essence of that character’s efficacy in the field.

Basically, each type of character class starts off with the same stats as any other version of that character class. So, a berserker is a berserker is a berserker. It’s only when they’ve equipped an item that their stats change.

For example, if you equip a gauntlet on a berserker, it will increase their combat effectiveness, while lowering one of their other stats, thus making them better than a newly minted hero.

This means that increasing the strength of your party boils down to having, and making, better equipable items.

This is especially true with class-specific items. These items increase a class’s inherently higher attribute while giving them more health and augmenting their “Flourish” or special move to be stronger or more cost-effective (or both).

There were two large impacts that this item-based system had on the overall gameplay. The first was that losing a character in Vambrace was almost worse than losing a high-level character in a different game, because when they died, the item is lost with them, and most of the items you get are either random or incredibly hard to make.

The second impact was that it was sometimes very easy to switch characters. Sometimes, you might find yourself with an empty party slot, and you can fill it with almost anyone because you happen to have a couple of good equipable items.

While this did eliminate grinding for experience, it was just switched with grinding for items…

…but somehow that seemed like a better alternative.

Quality of Life

As much as I liked the story and setting of this game, there was an abysmal lack of attention paid to smaller aspects of the game; aspects that would have been easy to fix, and make things flow better overall.

The most egregious of these oversights happened during combat. You see, when an enemy hits you, you do not see the damage numbers over your character… they only appear at the top of your screen on the character portrait and health bar.

This means that if you’re watching your person, you’re missing how much damage was done. And if you’re watching the portrait, you miss the attack animation (not that the attack animations in this were appealing in any way).

This led to a lot of me going…

There were other annoying things including, but not limited to:

  • No way to scroll through menu lists without pressing the control stick down each individual line item.
  • The directional pad opens the corresponding menu, even if you’re in the middle of something else (such as buying and selling or trying to manage your inventory)
  • Once you’ve hired a party member, there was no way to tell which class they were
  • Item weight is a thing, and only some items have the weight listed, while others you just have to do the math on.
  • The map orientation, while out in the field, is terrible. It’s hard to tell whether you’re coming or going.
  • Putting Lyric in the front of the combat formation after every cutscene
  • Cosmetics as quest rewards

There were others, but these were the worst.

Cold Soul, Warm Heart

Overall, Vambrace: Cold Soul was an enjoyable experience. The gameplay was a little lackluster but holds up well despite not being as intricate as some of its contemporaries. The story and setting were interesting enough to keep me engaged, and there were some narrative moments that had enough impact to leave me with some lasting impressions (especially with the ending that I got.)

I’m giving Vambrace: Cold Soul a chilling 7/10. Despite its many quality of life issues, and insistence on giving me useless cosmetics as quest rewards, it was a fairly solid game that I hope gets a sequel, because I’m interested to see where the story is going. 

I’m serious about those cosmetics, though. They made over four pages of different outfits for the main character, but didn’t bother to put in anything useful like floating combat numbers, or making it so I don’t have to flick the control stick down thirty times to find the item I’m looking for. It’s disgraceful…

But the sailor moon outfit was pretty great. 

 In the name of Dalearch, I’ll punish you!
Video Game Reviews

Hades – Death Is Only The Beginning

Hades is a procedurally-generated rogue-light hack-and-slash developed and published by Supergiant Games—the studio that previously brought us such games as Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre. 

The game follows Zagreus, prince of the underworld and generally chill dude, who is on a mission to escape the underworld and find his birth mother. Unfortunately, Hades—Zagreus’s Father—has forbidden him from leaving and ordered all the souls within the underworld to stop the prince’s escape. So, Zagreus takes up his sword and begins slashing his way to the surface. 

I’ve been playing a lot of procedurally-generated roguelike games recently, like Returnal and Enter the Gungeon, and was worried that I would be too inundated with the genre to really give Hades a fair shake.

[I cant take much more of this wonka gif]

 It turns out that, to me, Hades—like Hollow Knightis a nearly perfect iteration of its genre.

This game is amazing.

I know I’m showing my hand right at the beginning of this review, but I think it’s worth mentioning early on. It’s been a while since I was suitably impressed with a game straight out of the gate, but Hades really does deserve the praise that has been heaped atop it. 

With that out of the way, I’ll get down to the details of what makes this game so freaking good. That way, people who are on the fence (if there are any left) or who are interested but need more information can make an informed decision. 

Death Becomes Him

One of the strongest aspects of Hades is the way death is handled in game.

When Zagreus dies while trying to escape the underworld, the game does not restart like it does in Enter the Gungeon, or take you back to the beginning of a time-loop like Returnal. Instead, the story —and time—moves forward. The denizens of Hades’s palace know that you failed to escape and will talk to you about it.

Some conversations are more constructive than others

Now, death is not the ideal outcome. You need to escape to further the main story. But dying will give you opportunities to do other things, such as:

  • Further the individual storylines of the characters in the underworld
  • Buy new skills and abilities
  • Change out your weapon
  • Redecorate the palace interior
  • Learn to play the lute (later in the game)
  • Deepen your relationship with certain characters
  • Buy upgrades for the various regions of Hades to aid in your escape attempts

So, the more you die, the more you can do. This doesn’t mean you should aim for a death, but some of the best dialog is hidden behind many, many deaths. 

‘Tis a Boon

Now, I mentioned that dying allows you to buy new skills and abilities to further aid you in your escape attempts. There is, however,  another game mechanic that allows you to power up each run, but is lost upon death (or success):

Boons. 

You see, the gods of Olympus have heard of Zagreus’s plight, and have been moved to action. So, as you make your way through the underworld, the gods will occasionally lend you a modicum of their power to help you fight your way to the surface. 

What makes the boons so powerful is the way they stack and synergize. For example, Zeus’s boons focus on lightning damage. So, you might find a boon that allows your attack to hit nearby enemies with a bolt of lightning. If you find a secondary boon from Zeus, it might allow your lightning to strike twice, or to cause a secondary status effect called “Jolted.”

Effective against both babies AND demons.

By the time you’ve gotten through a couple of bosses, you might have over a dozen boons making you stronger and augmenting the way you play.

This makes each run almost entirely unique. This is especially true when you add in the different weapon types, which can further differentiate a playthrough since some boons are much more effective on certain types of weapons.

Unfortunately, this random boon generation can lead to some lackluster runs, but—if you die—you can start over and see what the fates have in store for you.   

Life After Death

Most of the characters in Hades are either gods, monsters, or shades (the spirits of those who have died). This means that they are all essentially immortal, and have been trapped in the underworld for aeons. 

This also means that Zagreus’s repeated escape attempts are upsetting the status quo, and each character has a different opinion about what is transpiring. 

Some characters are rooting—albeit mostly in secret—for Zagreus to succeed. Some want him to stop, and others are either indifferent or don’t really understand what’s going on.

It’s these characters, and your interactions with them, that are the backbone of the entire game. Sure, the gameplay is satisfying, and the mechanics are nearly  flawless, but coming back to Hades’s palace and getting to talk to everyone was the highlight of the game.

You see, the more you play through the game, the more you learn about everyone. And as we all know, the more you learn…

…and the more you know, the better the story becomes.

When you first meet some of the characters, they might feel flat. However, if you make sure to talk to everyone, you’ll start to see that each and every one of them…most of them… have a much more involved story than you would have originally thought.

I will admit that most of these interactions are short but sweet, but if you’ve played through several dozen times, it adds up to a serious amount of dialog and story. 

Death By Degrees

As a game where death is a part of the story, both figuratively and literally, it has a lot of replayability right out of the gate. You could probably play the game from now until the end of time and be hard pressed to see two identical runs. However, the developers at Supergiant Games took things a step further. 

When you finally do manage to succeed in escaping from the underworld, you can start over again with something called the “The Pact of Punishment.” This essentially allows you to make the game more difficult on subsequent playthroughs. What makes the pact mechanic so interesting is that you can choose how much harder you would like the game to be. 

Sure. Why not?

Think that the prices in the store are too low? You can up them by 40% to start with. Getting bored with the boss fights? You can give them an extra move set. Are the enemies feeling too easy? Well you can give them extra armor, or have them deal more damage, or even give the tougher enemies unique abilities.

These adjustments, along with different weapon aspects and keepsakes (little trinkets that give you special passive abilities) ensure that Hades has a hard time overstaying its welcome. 

Once More 

Overall, Hades is an amazing game. The gameplay and mechanics are some of the best I’ve ever seen. The level design, while repetitive, never feels stale. The characters stand out in all the right ways and are easy to sympathize with. And the story, while given in small bites, is extremely well done.

My only gripe with the game is it’s menus. I’m not a huge fan of how they were laid out, and navigating them can be kind of a pain. Though you honestly don’t spend a lot of time in them, so it’s not a big deal. 

I’m giving Hades a divine 9.5/10. It hits all the right notes, at exactly the right time, and manages to exceed any and all of my expectations (menus notwithstanding).

With all that said, I’m looking forward to whatever Supergiant Games does next, and I’ll try very hard not to condemn it for not being Hades.