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!
Late to the Game Reviews, Video Game Reviews

Late to the Game: Children of Morta – A Family Driven Rogue-Lite

Children of Morta is an action-adventure dungeon crawler with some roguelike elements that was developed by Dead Mage and published by 11 Bit Studios. It was released at the tail end of 2019, making me only a little late to the game, but late nonetheless. 

It follows the trials and tribulations of the Bergson family as they try to contain the corruption that has spewed forth from Mount Morta. Unfortunately for them, the corruption is killing or converting everything around them, making their home more dangerous with each passing day. In order to stem the tide and cleanse the land, they will need to work together and free three spirits.

This was a game that I looked at for a long time, but never actually bought until recently. I kept making excuses as to why I was putting it off, even though I really wanted to give it a try. It’s what I like to refer to as…

There were two factors that eventually pushed me to purchase this title. The first was that it has couch co-op, which is always a plus in my book. The second was that it was story driven and rogue-lite, not unlike Hades, which I enjoyed a great deal.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into this game and see if it is worth your time, even if it did come out, like, three years ago.

The Family that Slays together

The main focus of the game is the Bergson family. They are led by Margaret, the family’s matriarch. She is the first to know of the corruption, and also the only one who seems to know what must be done about it. 

The other family members include:

  • John: A loving and level-headed father. He wields a sword and shield to protect his family
  • Linda: John’s eldest daughter and a violinist. She wields a bow and arrow with ease
  • Kevin: The youngest son of the Bergson family. He is swift and cunning with his two daggers
  • Mark: John’s eldest son. He studied the martial ways with an order of monks, making his hands lethal weapons
  • Lucy: The youngest of the Bergsons. Her carefree attitude belies the ferocity of her fire magics
  • Joey: The estranged son of John’s brother Ben. He carries a mighty hammer into the frey
So, basically, you have a whole family that’s a pre-made D&D party.

Unfortunately, when you start the game, you can only use two characters: John and Linda. They are the first chosen to seek out the gods and bring harmony back to the land. However, it soon becomes apparent that in order to defeat the corruption, the whole family will have to work together. 

For example: Kevin starts off pumped to fight the corruption, especially after his uncle forges a pair of daggers for him. Unfortunately, John and his wife Mary ultimately decide that he is too young to help. It’s only after Kevin ventures out into the corrupted lands on his own and returns unscathed that they agree to let him help. This eventually leads to Lucy—who’s like seven years old—being allowed to help as well. 

I know most families probably don’t let their children fight to the death with unholy abominations, but most of these decisions are predicated on the fact that the world is ending anyway, so it’s all hands on deck.

Gather Round and Hear the Tale

The story of Children of Morta walks a very fine line.

You see, the events of the game are actually being told by a narrator. So, instead of a character saying or thinking “that’s a bad Idea” the narrator, in his classically British voice, says “John thought it was a bad idea, but he was going to do it anyway.”

This can be an effective storytelling device, but it can backfire hard (looking at you Biomutant). Fortunately, the tale of the Bergsons is well told. In fact, the narrator brings a sense of calm and reflection to the story that lends it an air of dignity and heart, which it might have otherwise lacked.

This method of storytelling can also put a damper on climactic moments. Not too much of a damper, but it can certainly slow things down when they should be ramping up. It also makes certain parts of the story a little impersonal. 

My main example of this is anything the narrator has to say in a dungeon. Basically, once your character sets foot outside of the house, the narrator starts to forget the names of characters he’s talking about. 

So, it doesn’t matter if you were playing Lucy when you felled the giant monster boss, you don’t get to hear some commentary on how this pint sized sorceress incinerated her foe. What you get is “And so, the Bergson slew their foe, ensuring yada yada yada.” 

So, it’s always either “The Bergson” or “The Hero,” and it’s always as non-descript as possible. This takes a lot away from the actual dungeon crawling bits of the game. Thankfully, the actual story beats are much more personal and well crafted. 

A Level Playing Field

Where most Rogue-like and Rogue-lite games tend to have obtuse systems for increasing your characters stats, Children of Morta eschews this in favor of an actual leveling system… and an obtuse system for increasing their stats.

Each character that you can play as has abilities that they can learn at different levels, giving you a small skill tree to work with. These abilities can range from minor attacks to major passive bonuses. If these weren’t enough, you can also get some global passives that impact every family member, no matter who you’re playing as. This gives you incentive to play as every character, because if you do, you can stack those passives on top of each other, making even the smallest Bergson into a monstrous fighter.

A visual approximation

What’s interesting about the levels that you earn is that they do not impact overall damage or health. They are simply there to convey abilities. You improve your character’s stats by spending money in Uncle Ben’s shop. With the money you bring him, he can upgrade the family’s gear, and thus increase their overall effectiveness.

This multi-tiered approach is helpful when you get a new character halfway through the game. Sure, they don’t yet have any abilities to speak of, but they do reap the benefits of the upgraded gear.

Deja Vu All Over Again

My absolute least favorite part of Children of Morta is the level design.

Its sameness is pretty oppressive. 

The first level is broken up into three sections. Each section is between two to three areas long, and all of them are basically the exact same cave. There is very little variation, and going to a new area is never interesting in any way, shape, or form. 

When I finished the cave area and it opened up a whole new set of three levels, I was pretty excited to look at something that wasn’t a bluish-gray cave. What I got instead was a lifeless beige desert. 

The design was different… but it felt like more of the same

I know this is exactly what this type of game is like. You endlessly go down similar corridors until you find the entrance to the next area, and so on and so forth. But, for some reason, this felt extra daunting in Children of Morta. 

To add insult to boring dungeon design was the fact that I had to grind levels in a rogue-lite game. Usually, in rogue-lite games, playing the game is the grind. So, just by playing, you either get incrementally stronger, or you get incrementally better. This is where Morta gets it wrong on multiple levels. 

Upon reaching the beige desert, I was met with enemies that were much stronger than the ones I left behind. I probably didn’t have to go back and get money fighting through places I’d already been, but when the first group of enemies in the desert almost killed me instantly, I felt the need to beef up a bit. 

To sum up, I’ve seen a lot more of the starting area then I ever would have wanted. 

Family Meeting

Overall, Children of Morta was an alright game. It was fun to play—even more so with co-op—it had an engaging storyline, and the characters were relatable on a couple of different levels. There were some moments where some pretty dark, depressing things happened, but those moments were handled well, and never kept the tone of the game on a downswing. Sure, the level design could use some work, but game’s amazing and dynamic sprites picked up some of that slack.

I’m giving Children of Morta a relative 7/10. It was not an amazing game, but it had its moments. I loved the Bergson family and I hope to see more of them, or something of equal quality from Dead Mage. 

Of course, I’ll probably buy that one several years after the fact as well.