“Vambrace: Cold Soul is a love letter to the games that left their indelible marks on us. It’s inspired by the gothic fantasy of Castlevania, the deep lore of series like The Elder Scrolls, the replayability of rogue-lites like FTL: Faster Than Light, and the sweeping, character-driven epics of our favorite JRPGs. It represents our effort to seize those varied elements and condense them into an interactive experience, players from all walks (especially masochists) will enjoy!” – T.L. Riven, Lead Game & Narrative Designer
This quote, found on the Steam page for the game Vambrace: Cold Soul, bothered me deeply.
As a reviewer, you are not supposed to hold up another property or piece of art and say, “You know THIS thing? Well, it’s like THAT.” However, the lead designer’s clear omission of the game that Vambrace is mimicking almost to the letter is Red Hook Studio’s Game of the Year winner Darkest Dungeon. It’s the equivalent of creating a game where a yellow orb runs around a dark maze, eating pellets, and running from ghosts and not having some mention of the words “Pac-Man” in your write up somewhere.
As we saw following the creation of Darkest Dungeon with its exceedingly brutal difficulty, its unique art style, the rumbling voice actor they pulled from the depths of hell who taunts your every move, there were a series of games that have been releasing since 2016 that have been apeing its style. Vambrace is the logical progression of Darkest Dungeon, which asks the player, “What if we actually had a decent storyline behind your dungeon crawl?”
So, what is that story? Vambrace follows the adventures of Evelia, a young female adventurer who is bequeathed the titular vambrace (think like a gauntlet) by her recently deceased adventurer/scholar father. The vambrace cannot be removed but gives her the ability to walk through the cursed wall of ice that has formed around the ruins of Icenaire. The surviving inhabitants flee of Icenaire have fled underground to the relative safety to the town of Dalearch.
Upon entering the city, it is apparent that Icenaire is not only besieged from all sides by an undead force as Mad Wraiths, but the inhabitants of the Dalearch are also at civil war as well. It is quickly determined that Evelia is the only person who can break the city free from the curse that was placed upon it by the King of Shades. Instead of murdering Evelia as a suspected agent of the King of Shades, the city puts her to work by sending her and a team of mercenaries into the wastes to start finding answers.
Vambrace is broken into two parts: Evelia wandering around the streets under Icenaire in the city of Dalearch as a top-down old school Japanese role-playing game, followed by the actual combat portion of the game around the curse ruins of Icenaire, the side-scrolling dungeon crawl made famous by Darkest Dungeon. The mechanics are similar in a lot of ways that if you’ve spent any time in one, you’ll be generally familiar with the other.
However, this is where the problems with Vambrace start to crop up.
Leveling. Every time you would finish a run in Darkest Dungeon, you’d pop back into a fixed image of the main town on to upgrade your party. You’d go to the blacksmith to make minor yet stacking damage buffs to your weapons or defensive abilities for your armor. It was simply a few clicks on the mouse, you’d look at numbers going up and down, and you were back into another dungeon run.
In Vambrace, you’re having to run around the town of Icenaire, this is a somewhat protracted experience: run to the inn to take a nap and get your party’s health back, run over to the mercenary board and see if there’s some fresh meat worth bringing along with you for your next run, checking in with all the non-player characters roaming around in case someone has something new to say (generally, it’s the same line of dialogue repeatedly), then head over to the blacksmith. Which presents another issue…
There is no leveling in Vambrace, minus Evelia’s somewhat pathetic starting statistics. While Vambrace attempts to similarly allow you to upgrade your “relics” you have, your characters are only allowed to equip one. I made four hours worth of runs in the first mission area and didn’t upgrade a single item, despite having bags and bags full of materials to do so.
I didn’t feel like I was making even incremental progress, despite me getting more and more loot. I bought a relic for each member of my team, but that was about it. I never felt like my little team of scallawags was growing as a unit. I couldn’t rename any of them to remember them easier or after a viewer of my Twitch channel.
They were simply husks of meat that have one attack, one special attack, and that’s it. On top of that, you can’t keep a selection of mercenaries at your base: if you want to include a new member of the team, you have to drop one party member to make room for another one. Want to see what the Arcaster class does, try one out on your next run? Well, you have to drop someone from your current team to do so. Fortunately, because the other characters feel so plain and don’t cost anything to recruit, you simply take the artifact from off the one hero, dismiss them, and then give it to the new one.
While there are a variety of different named classes, they generally do what you’d expect them to do. Dragoons are giant plated men who tank enemies and should be in your front line. A Hedge Mage is a healer class, while a Fusilier is a dwarf with a long rifle. These make a little more sense then Darkest Dungeon’s bizarre class system of “College Roommate” and “The Unkempt” (kidding, those aren’t things, but the classes are definitely weird over there).
However, there’s not a lot to each character. Darkest Dungeon’s characters had a selection of 3-4 skills, both active and passive, which were chosen from a total of six skills at random upon creation. Here, one Celestine is just like another Celestine: they hit things with a sword and on occasion, can cast a protective barrier around two of your characters. That’s it. Not a lot on the way of variety or giving you the ability to build out some strategy to your party except for the usual “Tank, Healer, DPS, and…Evelia.”
The big piece is the combat, obviously. The first area has you hunting down a rogue mage that has broken out of her cell, and in order to proceed to the next chapter, you must progress through five mini-map areas of between 7-10 procedurally generated segments, without really taking a break. This is a long period of time, with one of my runs going upwards of two hours.
Sure, you can make camp like you do in Darkest Dungeon, but as usual, you’re constantly under the gun as far as depleting resources as you get through each area, and at least in Darkest Dungeon, each character had a series of campsite skills they could use to treat status effects, heal, raise morale, and so forth. Vambrace camps, one team member is in charge of your camp, and they alone have to heal both your health and your sanity…er…I meant “vigor”, along with any other abilities they might have like my Fencer had the ability to use a raven to scout upcoming areas on the map at the expense of time.
Each segment on each part of the map can consist of a battle, a rest area, loot area, or a random event from a table of positive or negative effects. The map itself can be a little confusing given the sidescrolling two-dimensional plane, but after a bit, I got the hang of it. Unfortunately, even the random events started repeating fairly frequently, the traps all were the same three, and the enemy battle formations repeated to the point where the second I saw them, I knew the order of battle before I saw the list of turns. It became pretty rote after a while, as the enemies are equally as limited in their abilities as are the heroes, so you could generally predict the outcome after awhile.
Permadeath. If a member of your party dies while adventuring, you lose that character permanently. However, Vambrace ups the level of difficulty. In Darkest Dungeon, if a character was about ready to die, the game gave them an opportunity to cheat death, simply knocking them down to zero health and giving you the option to heal them back to a survivable level.
Not in Vambrace. “Whoops, your front line tank took a critical hit and he’s dead.” Not only does your character die, but then the rest of your party instantly becomes encumbered. You see, all the loot that you pick up in the dungeon has weight to it, and suddenly everything is split between three adventurers instead of four. And now all of your stats take a hit for being encumbered. Good luck!
Finally, and I don’t mean to keep skewering Vambrace, but again, some very bizarre decisions made on the developer’s part. Lead hero Evelia has 26 costumes she can unlock in the game. Literally, one of the first tips that the developers made sure to include in the reviewer guide was “Rest, store loot, and equip skins at the Inn!” But the skins have no actual effect on gameplay. Other than getting to play dress up with Evelia, there doesn’t appear to be any actual benefits from one outfit to another. I only found one, a basic “casual” outfit with her out of her armor, but, for this page…
…to be one of the first pages in the guide before most of the rest of the guide…
Devespresso Games, the team behind Vambrace, is a four-person dev team. What they have put together is impressive as hell, but maybe that time should have been spent on the building out the combat a bit more?
Look, I could keep nitpicking the differences between the two games to death; bottom line, Vambrace makes a valiant effort at iterating on its predecessors with the concept of having a compelling storyline with characters, but the gameplay loop that has you going up to Icenaire and grinding just isn’t enough to make me want to come back and finish Evelia’s story of rescuing the cursed city from the King of Shades.