Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC[Review copy provided by Headup Games]
From the South Korean studio Devespresso Games, Vambrace: Cold Soul is something of a fusion between JRPG and roguelike. Taking inspiration from sources like Castlevania, The Elder Scrolls and Darkest Dungeon, it’s a game with excellent presentation and an intriguing story. However, in aspiring to provide a fusion of deep narrative and punishing roguelike experience, it does suffer from some muddled and, at times, tedious design.
Starting with the good, then – the presentation is, as suggested, very impressive. The hand drawn art is lovely, and the game is rich with it; everything from playable heroes to enemy spooks and even aspects of the UI are rendered gorgeously. The cold colour palette reinforce the game’s icy aesthetic, making each area explored feel haunting and eerie. Finding a camping site and puncturing the icy hues with a warm orange glow can feel as relieving to the player as it can to your party.
The story, as well, is quite robust and, while inspired by typical fantasy tropes, does have its charms. You play as Evelia Lyric, an adventuress seeking answers regarding her father’s death, and the titular vambrace she inherited from him. Her search leads her to the city of Icenaire, which has been cursed by a terrible cold and cut off from the world outside by an impassable barrier of frost. The victims of the cold roam the streets as vicious wraiths, while the few survivors have headed underground to the secret city known as Dalearch. It’s up to Lyric – whose vambrace can dispel the frosty barriers – to resolve the situation, one way or another.
Although I’ve yet to fully beat the game myself, from a bit of research, the game boasts three endings and questlines with multiple outcomes, where your decisions have tangible effects. If nothing else, some of the unlockable costumes – of which there are more than 20 – are mutually exclusive to various story paths. As well as this, the game auto-saves quite frequently, and there are no manual saves. In other words, replaying the game is encouraged, and there is reason to do so. On top of all this, the game has plenty of lore for those who want to dive deeper into the story – and indeed, some of it does help expand the main plot.
However, whether you’ll be willing to play through the game multiple times and dig into all that extra lore will most likely depend on how well the game’s core gameplay loop gels with you. Many players compare it particularly to Darkest Dungeon, and it’s not an unfair comparison.
Players must form a party of four warriors – Lyric, and a choice of three hired hands – and explore the frozen city of Icenaire. Each recruit has their own class and abilities, and their own effective ranges. Unusually for an RPG, there’s no character progression for anyone but Lyric – characters can only be improved by crafting and equipping better gear. Unfortunately, being disposable does mean their personalities and interactions are quite thin. However, tit does make it easier to experiment with your lineup and replace fallen allies without needing to grind levels or anything.
That said, the combat doesn’t have a lot of depth – once you’ve settled on a solid lineup, you probably won’t change it much. What depth it does have can be hard to follow due to the game’s often confusing battle interface. Characters only have a handful of actions comprised of regular attacks and special ‘flourish’ attacks. Typical of an RPG, several attacks from both allies and enemies may cause buffs and debuffs.
However, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to check what these status effects actually are during combat. The various icons (usually some sort of skull) that pop up sans description are about all the info you get to go on. But even then, in many cases a fight will come down to who simply who gets the most hits in. You can go pretty far by just keeping your health topped up and focusing on the right opponents to kill first. Once you’ve settled into it, fights can start to get a bit tiresome.
Exploring can be a bit tedious, too. The game has a pseudo time limit in place – the further you explore an area, the closer the fearsome mad wraiths will get. Once the “geistometer” is full, you’ll be plagued with more challenging encounters in every room (to the point it gets annoying, really).
On top of this, you must contend with traps and encounters with unpredictable risk/reward outcomes (at least the first time you see them). But perhaps the hardest part is figuring out the map – it takes some getting used to, as you’ll need to figure out how the room is oriented on the map. Unfortunately, these areas can be a bit too long and exploring each ‘dungeon’ can become tedious. If you reach the boss with a weakened party, you’ll likely either have to retreat or accept defeat – in both cases, it’s back to the start for you.
Then, there’s the controls. At least on the PS4, they’re kinda weird and take some time getting used to. Even then, they’re not exactly intuitive. The face buttons and d-pad are mapped to various parts of the interface, which means you’ll be forced to use the left stick to navigate both the world and the game’s many menus. It’s then a game of remembering what exactly each button does in the various menus. Even hours into the game, I was still fumbling around some of the menus.
Having said all that, I did enjoy my time with Vambrace: Cold Soul. It’s by no means a perfect game, and it certainly won’t be for everyone. Those looking for a deep and engaging roguelike experience will probably be better served by other titles. Still, I think this is one of those games – if you’re willing to push through the weaker aspects, then might find something quite charming about the lovingly crafted world that Devespresso have built.
Vambrace: Cold Soul presents a delightfully frozen world to explore, with gorgeous presentation and an engaging story. Unfortunately, those looking for a deep gameplay experience may be disappointed by the relatively shallow and repetitive gameplay loop. Still, those touched by the game’s icy charms may find something special beneath the surface, as developers Devespresso clearly put a lot of love into the crafting of their world.