In recent years, we’ve seen PLENTY of rogue-likes grace the gaming industry. It is, by extension, a homage to huddling around a table with your friends in long cool summers, rolling dice whilst playing D&D and revelling in the glorious randomness of it all. And, of course, crying horribly when your developed characters shuffle off this mortal coil.
Vambrace: Cold Soul is one such game. Originally seeing a PC release in May of this year, developer Devespresso Games has now brought it over to the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
You play as Evilia Lyric, a Heterochromia Iridium-laden maiden who travels to the cold and dangerous city of Icenaire; inaccessible through conventional means and inescapable to its current residents due largely in part to a mighty frost wall erected in circumference that kills any mortal who touches it, but Evilia is equipped with a vambrace (given to her by her late father) that grants her free movement into the icy prison. That vambrace didn’t come out of thin air though, but was instead brought as part of the onset of the King of Shades whose one purpose is to cause death and general unhappiness. Cue foreboding music.
The story shares a similar trope with many that have come before it. Nasty, evil villain curses city and no one can see a way out. Enter intrepid wanderer-adventurer type that saves the day and has a personal journey of discovery along the way. Vambrace: Cold Soul nails it quite effectively with the pacing of the story, the richness of the lore and subtle tinges of gothic high fantasy that are straight out of the Dark Souls school of thought. Be ready for the likes of Elves, Dwarves, Dark Elves and so on during your deadly escapade. One thing I’d definitely recommend is checking out the codex pages that you’ll find littered about the place on your adventure – not only do they offer more depth to the tale and the things that you encounter throughout it, but they add to the immersion and help better the player’s understanding of the world as a whole.
The art of the world is beautifully crafted, if very similar to the gothic horror of titles like Darkest Dungeon (the similarities don’t end there – more on that in a bit). This doesn’t take away from it though, and Vambrace: Cold Soul has its own cartoon-like skew on visuals which helps set it apart enough for it to be its own. It sat with the lore well and it was hard not to enjoy the lovingly drawn characters and environments. Despite this, I found that the conversations held by the characters could be a little distracting at times; they aren’t bad per se, but they detract from the immersion in some ways with how they were written and how the characters speak in a manner ill-fitting of said design.
Very much like Darkest Dungeon, combat is replete with a team of four characters on each side – Evilia always has to be part of this party, but she has been built to fit into any team make up. Each character has a class and a set of abilities that go along nicely with whatever build you utilise for Evilia, though you will have to bear in mind where you position them in-battle based upon the direction that you decide to take them. A typical setup sees you placing your ranged characters in the back and your heavy hitters and bruisers at the front, though there is flexibility there to play around if you choose. The combat is made up of individual character turns where the intent is to burn, bludgeon or otherwise remove from the face of the earth, the ‘spooks’, monsters and wraiths that you encounter.
In terms of the dungeons, you’ll find yourself with multiple paths to take on one large level made up of ‘neighbourhoods’, which in themselves are a set of procedurally generated rooms. You have a trusty map to help you out so that you can plan each run from start to finish, and your goal of intent is seeing yourself through to the end of each area which normally culminates in a boss fight.
I enjoyed the combat having fortuitously played many turn-based rogue-likes, though losing characters to the onset of a bad decision never gets easy. You’ll be managing your health and vigor, and if either drops to zero, it’s bye-bye. Fortunately, you can manage this effectively with items (if you had the good sense to bring some) and frequent stops at campfires throughout each neighbourhood to rest and have a sing-song. Keep in mind that this will raise your terror meter though and once that happens, you can expect an ominous ghostly fog and nasty constant battles in each room. Ouch.
Whilst I enjoyed it, Vambrace: Cold Soul’s combat does lack the depth of the titles that inspired it. Darkest Dungeon’s combat and entire system was fraught with mechanics and nuances which made every situation positively terrifying. Unfortunately, Vambrace: Cold Soul falls a little short of this mark as the abilities are few and far between without any real strategic value. The easiest way I can explain it is that punchers go at front, shooters go at back and you’re pretty much set. It’s not that it isn’t enjoyable, far from it in fact, but I never feel threatened in-game. And if I did lose a team member, I didn’t wail or feel the loss like I had in similar titles in the genre. I’d argue this is likely down to the fact that there is no levelling system for your heroes, and I find that this takes away the satisfying sense of character-building that other rogue-likes have offered.
It’s not all depressing though; you will have the opportunity to upgrade Evilia’s capabilities, who will periodically get skills points as you progress that you can invest into a foray of abilities like increasing health, combat, overwatch (for camping) and alertness to avoid traps. I was exceptionally invested in Evilia, and it was a joy to grow her into a powerful leader of heroes who made enemies shudder at her sight. However, there was no real cause for concern for her well-being as the death of your team meant Evilia would pass out and be brought back safe and sound to the infirmary, where she could suit up again and rehash through the dungeon that you just died in. It was great to have a bit of a safety net, but it came with the caveat that I was never truly dismayed if I wiped a team.
All in all, what Vambrace: Cold Soul tries to do, it does well. It’s a beautifully crafted game, both visually and through its lore-rich story. What it lacks is the challenge and depth that is so clearly prevalent in the other dungeon-crawling rogue-likes that it has heavily drawn its influences from.
It’s a good game, but the fact that it is so heavily inspired by Darkest Dungeon but doesn’t fully embraces the mechanics or quality that made that game so great, is what stops Vambrace: Cold Soul from being a real heavy hitter of the rogue-like genre.
Developer: Devespresso Games
Publisher: Headup Games
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC