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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.