No Rest for the Weary
Vambrace: Cold Soul is an excellent example of what happens when you attempt to bring two different video game elements together, thinking that the end result will turn out great simply due to the fact that each element is great on its own. Here we have something that wants to be both a brutal roguelike dungeon-crawler, while also wanting to be a more traditional RPG led by strong characters and a complex plot. Had it decided to be just one or the other, I think that this game would have turned out fine. However, as it has chosen to simultaneously walk two paths which are essentially directly opposed to one another, it landed somewhere in the middle — a not-so-great place to be for a game like this one.
The game builds itself up to be some kind of great journey, and I absolutely think that, had the development process gone differently, it could have been one. But, alas, it didn’t. Sure, I can give it some credit for trying to mix things up. Creativity’s never a bad thing. But there should have been a point where the developers realized that their two core components weren’t meshing together well. At least, not in the current setup. And, unless the game undergoes some serious tweaking via updates down the road, I don’t think that it will ever live up to its full potential in the end.
Danger that Fits Like an Old Glove
Vambrace: Cold Soul follows the perilous journey of Evelia Lyric who, after receiving a mysterious gauntlet (or perhaps a… vambrace?) alongside the tragic news of her father’s demise, sets out to discover the many secrets that he left behind for her to uncover. Drawn to Dokkheim, a Dwarven realm containing the mythical city of Icenaire, Lyric finds herself, upon arrival, unwillingly thrust into the midst of a life-and-death struggle between the survivors living beneath the city, and the terrible King of Shades who now rules over it. And, seeing as how she is the only one who can save them, Lyric has no choice but to take up the fight as her own.
As much as I’m not normally one for high fantasy, I couldn’t help but find myself drawn into the world of Vambrace. After thinking about it, I think it’s the fact that most of its characters are in such close proximity to each other that does the trick. Because they have been forced to live in Dalearch, the city below Icenaire, Vambrace‘s various races, who would normally be quite far from one another, are instead forced to re-create their own familiar environments without encroaching on those of anyone else. This, in turn, creates an atmosphere full of constant tension not only due to the threat of death literally looming over everyone’s heads, but with the stress of having their livelihoods destroyed as well. It certainly isn’t a happy situation to be in, but it does wonders for the game’s story.
Technically speaking, Vambrace: Cold Soul is a side-scrolling, rogue-lite dungeon-crawler. Why the “technically”? Well, that’s because it, unfortunately, follows that formula rather loosely. At lest the “rogue-lite” part, anyway. Due to its dual-nature as both a rogue-lite and a “traditional” RPG, its main feature, the procedurally generated dungeon-crawling, is one of the most bare-bones examples of such that I’ve seen in a while. The bulk of Vambrace will have the player exploring, in order, each of the four primary sectors of the vast, frozen city of Icenaire above them in an attempt to make it to said sector’s end. Of course, as with most every procedurally generated game, this is much easier said than done. The city, now a foreign and hostile place, is constantly changing its shape, meaning that no two expeditions to the surface will ever be the same. What’s interesting about Vambrace, however, is the fact that it isn’t a changing layout that you really need to worry much about. Rather, it’s the change in events that keep you on your toes.
Each explorable section of Vambrace is made up of a series of interconnected rooms, and within each room a random event occurs. Now, with this game, “event” doesn’t necessarily mean something wild or game-changing. Sure, there are times when you come across strange happenings that you can choose to investigate, and these are usually pretty interesting. Most of the time, though, these “events” are fairly mundane, consisting of things like battles, campsites, stores, and treasure rooms. And the only reason that any of these come as a surprise is because your map, while presenting the layout of the area you’re in, doesn’t tell you what will happen in any of the rooms.
In addition to the randomized events that its constantly doling out, Vambrace also keeps players on their toes by making survival as tricky as possible. Along with the traditional dangers that come with battles, players will also have to deal with handling the vigor and terror mechanics. Working as a kind of exploration-based HP, vigor is used up automatically as the player’s party explores. Should a character’s vigor run out, they die. On top of that, there’s also the Geistometer to worry about. Working inversely to vigor, the Geistometer will slowly fill up with terror as you explore and make certain choices. While filling up past a the line doesn’t kill you straight away, it does change every room event into a difficult battle against powered-up Spooks. And if you actually do manage to fill it up all the way… well, you’re basically as good as dead. And in Vambrace, death is permanent for anyone who isn’t Lyric.
It should be obvious by now that, if you get into Vambrace, then you’re signing yourself up for a hard time. Difficulty isn’t bad. But the fact that a lot of Vambrace‘s difficulty comes its frustrating and unbalanced RNG. I’m not knocking a game that heavily relies upon RNG. I mean, The Binding of Isaac is one of my all-time favorite titles. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about utilizing it. And this game isn’t exactly going about it the right way.
Where Vambrace stumbles is with the fact that it creates so many random, unavoidable problems for players. Not only does the game expect you to contend with three different survival mechanics at once (HP, vigor, and terror), but it also throws out a steady supply of invisible traps — many of which can inflict status conditions that don’t go away on their own. To be fair, there are ways around this — such as bringing along characters who specialize in avoiding traps, or hauling along a ton of healing items — but the amount of preparedness that goes into what ultimately ends up as a fairly short journey is somewhat tiring. I don’t want to have to spend time preparing for every adventure, and if I do have to do that then I’d at least like my adventures to be exciting, lengthy and memorable. As it stands, Vambrace‘s combination of roguelike and traditional RPG elements only waters down the potential experiences which either could bring about on their own.
Equally as perilous as the (sometimes literal) exploration-based pitfalls to Lyric and company throughout their expeditions are their many fights. Typically taking place in bouts of 4-on-4, Vambrace‘s turn-based combat is incredibly straightforward. Each character has the ability to attack and defend, as well as pull off special “Flourish” moves when their gauge is charged all the way. Things get more complicated when it comes to party members.. Players have the ability to recruit up to three other characters to their party (and trust me, you’re going to want all three of them), with each class not only boasting unique battle skills, but stats that help them both on and off the battlefield.
Battles come across as being very balanced. Both the player’s party and the enemies are typically never too far from one another in terms of strength, even at later points in the game, making each fight that you enter a genuine struggle to survive. Normally I would praise something like this; rougelikes aren’t meant to be steamrolled through, and games like Vambrace are more fun when there’s a little bit of struggling involved. Unfortunately, you aren’t just battling. Thanks to the numerous, and often times unavoidable, traps and events that the game throws your way, it’s easy to find yourself in dire straits as soon as the battle begins.
Vambrace also has a character progression problem. As in, there’s almost none at all. Aside from a few story-related points throughout the game which allow players to increase one of Lyric’s stats, there is no possible way to permanently upgrade your party. The game only allows each character to equip a single piece of equipment, known as “relics”, most of which bestow very little in the way of additional stats, and are lost forever should a character using die. Outside of that, there’s no way to buff your party members. This might not be so bad if there were a way to up the quality of recruitable party members, but that doesn’t happen either. Despite being randomly generated, the only thing that changes between different members of the same class is their name and physical appearance. So, unless you’re picky about the way your party looks (which, admittedly, I am), every character is entirely, and easily, replaceable.
On Thin Ice
As it stands, Vambrace: Cold Soul feels too muddled for me to enjoy it as much as I would like to. It isn’t hopeless; I like what it’s trying to do, and its art is undeniably beautiful. But good ideas and good looks alone aren’t enough for a video game to woo me. And, unless Vambrace stops pulling itself in opposite directions and realizes that it can’t do everything that it wants to (which, as I’ve said, would mean some pretty hardcore updates), at least not in this specific way, it’s destined to simply be “just okay”.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Switch (Reviewed), PC ; Publisher: Headup, WhisperGames ; Developer: Devespresso Games ; Players: 1 ; Released: May 28, 2019; ESRB: N/A ; MSRP: $24.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Vambrace: Cold Soul given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.