“In the old days, books had awful covers and marvelous content; nowadays, the opposite happens.”
“The following is a contributor post by the Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage.“
You ever really want to like something?
Perhaps when you were in school all your mates were super into this one album or something – on paper it sounded like it ought to be your sort of jam too, but then when you get around to listening to it you realise… you’re just not really that into it. Or maybe the latest sportball trend seems like something you’d like to be involved with, but you spend most of the game on the bench and when you’re finally subbed in you immediately realise that you don’t know how to use your hands or feet with any kind of dexterity. And then the ref does an offside. I don’t know how sports work.
Here’s something else that won’t feel relevant right now, but will hopefully make sense in a few moments: the Japanese language has a word for a person who’s very good-looking… from far away or from behind, but turns out not to live up to expectations up close. (It’s ‘bakkushan’, if you were wondering.)
Anyway, Vambrace: Cold Soul is kind of like the gaming equivalent of bakkushan, or of the movie that looked really cool but turned out just not to be quite your thing. It is, I’ll say now, absolutely beautiful in many ways, and may well be worth playing just for that (or watching a Let’s Play or something, at least), but is let down by the fundamentals. We’ll come to each of those elements in a bit, breaking them down to see where Vambrace works and where it falls flat – but first, the big picture.
Set in (and around) the frozen city of Icenaire, Vambrace: Cold Soul follows heterochromatic protagonist Evelia Lyric as she tries to uncover the mystery of her father’s disappearance, discover the strange powers of the vambrace she inherited from him, and solve the slight problem of the impending frozen apocalypse. I mean, ‘impending’ might actually be something of an understatement given that it’s pretty much already happened: the King of Shades (who definitely isn’t the Night King from Game of Thrones, y’all) has raised an enchanted wall of ice called the Frostfell around Icenaire and pretty much destroyed the place, forcing the surviving humans to retreat to an underground city of sorts named Dalearch. Lyric arrives in Dalearch from outside, the first person to do so, and she’s pretty nonplussed to find that nobody seems to trust the stranger who’s just wandered through the impenetrable wall of ice and whatnot. Turns out the Aetherbrace she wears is more important than she knew, allowing her to cross the Frostfell unharmed, and that she has a role to play not just in the tale of her own family but in a battle on which the lives of thousands will depend.
From there, Vambrace chronicles the adventures of Lyric as she journeys through the streets of Icenaire, filled as they are with dangers and frozen shades. Recruiting a series of companions (most of whom will die unceremoniously), Lyric makes expeditions throughout the dangerous deadlands to gather resources, answers, and strength to finally challenge the King of Shades and end his thrall over the city.
It’s not a bad setup by any stretch of the imagination; nor is it a particularly original one at first glance, although there are enough quirks to the tale to make Vambrace’s world more interesting than ‘generic dark high fantasy thingy’. The game’s opening borrows from Game of Thrones, following a minor character and her band of disposable goons (who are named Biggs and Wedge, because why not) as they venture on a scouting mission into Icenaire, coming up against deadly wights and finally encountering Lyric, freshly through the Frostfell and unconscious in the snow of Icenaire with no idea of the significance of her presence. Lyric’s taken to prison in Dalearch before being freed for… some reason, whereupon she’s introduced to a few of the key players in dialogues that aren’t bad but often overstay their welcome; the player is correspondingly imprisoned by a series of tutorial screens which look deceptively simple but somewhat fail to explain the needless complexity of the UI that you’ll be spending the rest of the game wrapping your head around.
From there, Lyric meets a few unique NPCs and a bunch of very generic ones on her exploration through Dalearch until picking up a solid mission: chase after the very evil witch who was imprisoned next to her and who’s just disappeared inexplicably and buggered off up into Icenaire. Doesn’t she know it’s dangerous up there?! Ugh. Lyric recruits a party of disposable meatsacks and ventures up into the frozen city, battling wights and shades on the way, and we’re a-go!
Vambrace is split up into story chapters (which I rather like; it reminds me of books and I quite like books, if you can believe it), each of which sees Lyric and co. journey into a different district of the dead uplands. This is where roguelike sensibilities kick in, as each expedition involves crossing a number of locations, each with several rooms filled with treasures, traps, or trickery, before reaching the boss at the end. It’s a long journey, requiring careful management of your inventory and party, and there’ll more than likely be a fair few attempts doomed to failure before you finally make it all the way.
During each chapter, there are also sidequests to be completed in Dalearch: wandering around the survivors’ terminal and visiting the different areas (there’s an inn, a library, a barracks – all the classics, plus a few more interesting locales such as a dwarven manor and drow camp), you’ll come across characters who have favours to ask. Often you’ll have some discretion as to whether to do as they ask, or perhaps even opt to take advantage of their request to gain favour with some other faction, but each sidequest is only available for one chapter. I quite like the way time passes in Dalearch, in fact, with movements occurring between chapters to keep a plot unfolding whether you’re progressing in the adventure on the surface or not – although it does occasionally feel a bit odd, given that each failed mission apparently puts Lyric out of action for days to weeks at a time, that everyone suddenly gets stuff done right when she happens to finally succeed.
That’s the big picture, but you know you want the nitty-gritty. Let’s get 8-bit on this mother.
In promotional materials, the developers of Vambrace: Cold Soul describe the game as ‘a narrative-driven love letter to Faster than Light and Darkest Dungeon‘. I can kind of see what they were going for with the FTL comparison; I’ve not played Darkest Dungeon, but from a look at a couple of other Vambrace reviews it seems that it’s possibly less of a love letter and more… well, it sort of sounds as if it’s taken the foundations of Darkest Dungeon wholesale but then forgotten to include a bunch of the stuff that made that game interesting or good. It might be fortunate that I’ve no idea what Darkest Dungeon plays like, in fact, since it means I can judge Vambrace without being tempted to compare it or call it derivative or whatever.
To quickly sum up the basics of the gameplay: there are roguelike principles at play in that you’ll pick a team of peeps (you’ve got a few classes to choose from, each with specialties and drawbacks) and then wander off on your expeditions, getting a little further or exploring in a different direction each time before returning defeated or victorious to Dalearch to plan your next adventure. It’s been designed to be deliberately difficult, I think, with the intention being that the player lose a lot of battles in order to hone their skills for the next one, coming up against a series of tricky obstacles before finally breaking through with great satisfaction.
This is… sometimes how things go, but frequently not quite. It took me maybe four or five cracks at the first chapter to clear the expedition successfully, and it felt as if I managed it mostly by luck and having a few decent items on hand. I suppose that’s sort of the nature of the beast, though, so perhaps I can’t complain.
The meat of Vambrace‘s gameplay plays out in side-scrolling fashion: when in Dalearch, you’ll control Lyric solo as she makes her way through each of its territories. For some reason she can run in Dalearch but not in Icenaire; perhaps she’s worried about slipping on the ice. If the developers are reading this: please patch in the ability to run and fall over on the ice. It’d be hilarious. Getting between each of the buildings in Dalearch happens by way of a very sweet top-down map across which a little chibi Lyric merrily wanders. You’ve got access to an area map while inside, by the way, but not on what I’ll tentatively call the overworld (doesn’t seem appropriate given that it’s all underground and that, but it’ll do), which means you’ll just have to remember where each of the important locations is.
Speaking of maps, working out where the heck to go during your expeditions is sometimes more of a challenge than it feels it ought to be. Everything within each ‘dungeon’ takes place on a left-to-right side-scrolling plane, but your map of the area is unhelpfully, insistently birds-eye. More than once I just found myself trying a few exits, seeing if I’d moved in the right direction, and then wandering back if not; it was just too much hassle to try to work out (although, much as it sounds like faint praise, I don’t think the maps were ever wrong, just a little frustrating). When on expeditions Lyric will be joined by her trusty companions, who have just enough personality that you sort of want to get to know them and just enough of a chance that they’ll unceremoniously die at any moment that you’ll probably try not to get too attached; you can change the order around and use different members for different tasks while wandering through Icenaire to try to maximise treasures and minimise premature demises.
Death comes via one of two methods: each party member can run out of health, which is depleted when they get hit in combat or set off traps, or vigor, a resource which runs down gradually as you move through each area. The most common source of failure for me was, in fact, Lyric hitting zero vigor, which was annoying but not the worst thing: every party member except Lyric, once dead, is gone for good, but if she dies then your whole band will make it safely back to Dalearch and be ready to hit the streets again as soon as your teeth have recovered from being gritted in frustration.
In combat, you’ve got a reasonably simple turn-based system, with each party member having their own specific abilities and advantages, combined with a really not-at-all simple slew of mechanics to do with distances and stuff. It’s presented side-on again, so you’re looking at your four boon companions in a left-to-right line as they square off against up to four enemies on the right side of the screen: of course, your leftmost person (in the ‘back row’, as I tend to think of them) can’t land a punch on the foe at the very right of the enemy line, and Vambrace deals with this by classifying each of your party and each of the enemy’s ranks as being either short, mid, or long-range, and allowing only certain types of attack to be delivered to each distance. It sounds simple, but I quickly gave up on understanding it and just sort of went with whatever the game let me do.
I did find that recruiting the right party was crucial: Lyric herself isn’t badly suited to combat at all ranges, so keeping her somewhere in the middle with a big ol’ tank knight at the front, a ranger with some healing or buffing capabilities at the back, and a mid-range high-damage unit occupying the other central slot seemed to work reasonably well most of the time. Once I hit a decent arrangement, things went much more smoothly (albeit that I wasn’t quite sure why that particular lineup should work any better than the previous one).
There’s nothing hugely novel about Vambrace‘s narrative, I don’t think; it’s a pulling-together of various character, setting, and plot tropes that can be found in other dark fantasy works, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t work. I actually found that I was often more invested in the underground movements, the wanderings of the people in Dalearch, than the overarching ‘we gots to get dat Shade King’ thing: by talking to people throughout the survivors’ camps, you’ll fairly quickly pick up a few details of the backstory that might pique your interest.
From what I can gather, Dalearch – and possibly Icenaire above it, even – started out as a dwarven settlement (it’s underground, so of course it’s a dwarf thing!) to which members of different races were drawn from outside by the promise of work, shelter, and wealth. The dwarves were making it a prosperous place, and so it became a hub for humans (Lyric is often referred to as an Edeni, which I think is a race of human rather than a separate species), foxiers (kitsune people), drow (y’know, the night elf lads), and a few other elfish types to boot. Unfortunately, as tends to happen when things are going well in dark fantasy settings, things fairly quickly ceased to go well, culminating in the King of Shades setting up the big ol’ ice wall thing and driving everyone underground into Dalearch, which really wasn’t intended to hold all those people, plus there’s the whole ‘everything up there’s gone to heck’ problem making people pretty antsy and not exactly fun to be around.
It’s sort of like going camping in the rain… indefinitely. Maybe some of the people would initially have been like ‘it’s fine, we’ll have fun and make the best of a bad situation’, but before too long you know even the most reasonable people would be scratching each other’s eyes out for a warm can of baked beans.
Anyhow, while there is obviously some impetus to the narrative in that Lyric needs to do what she can to solve the whole apocalypse situation on the surface (and, on a personal stake level, find her dad), what kept me more interested was roaming Dalearch at the start of each new chapter to see what had gone on while I’d been topside. The various factions within the terminal become more distinct and defined as the story goes on, and start making moves against one another that I wasn’t initially expecting – I thought Dalearch would just be a sort of static hub to which I could return between missions, but it turned out to be more than that.
Completing sidequests within Dalearch is a decent way to get a better feel for its inhabitants, revolving as they often do around the interactions of one individual with some part of another culture’s backstory or current situation. It’s worth doing for sure; although they might be a little bit fetch-quest-esque, they’re not too long and not too dull, so it feels like meaningful interaction rather than arbitrary collecting.
Vambrace‘s greatest strength is surely its visual design. Lead designer Minho Kim also seems to have been responsible for much of the concept and the narrative; it’s obvious that the game was built with a lot of love around some stylish ideas and directions.
Each environment feels right, I think: up in Icenaire, you can really get a sense of the deadly cold, while each area of Dalearch is distinct, with a design that fits its function. You’ll move through many of the same areas during Vambrace, since a lot of the room design gets recycled during expeditions (lest that sound like a complaint, I absolutely don’t expect hundreds of unique areas to be fully realised); you won’t get tired of seeing them, though, with tons of beautiful details to spot. Everything feels consistent and coherent.
Characters, too, are well-realised. Each character (several unique ones, a larger group of party members for whom each race/class design is identical but of which combinations there are many, and then a whole lot of less heterogenous NPCs) has both a sprite for their place on the game screen while exploring and one or more images used in dialogue, and all of them just look like they ought to. They’ve all got character, and they all fit in the world.
One thing that is worth noting is that Kim seems to have a bit of a preference, or at least something of a signature style, when it comes to designing female characters. Let’s see: you’ve got sexy busty humans, sexy busty dwarfmaidens, sexy busty night elves, sexy busty fox people… oh, there’s a sexy busty witch. There’s one female boss who wasn’t really humanoid to begin with and has been turned into a giant bulging octopus thing, but that’s about the only exception I can think of.
It’s not that those designs don’t work, as such, but it just starts to feel a bit samey, and perhaps a little bit lazy. I get that the artist might have a preference for that visual character type, and I’m sure there are plenty of players who’ll also be pretty happy about the situation, but I’d have liked to have seen just a couple of female characters who didn’t seem to have been designed to be the sort of people who’d be endlessly having to say ‘my eyes are up here’. Even the ones in otherwise baggy robes – heck, even the undead ones and the ones in full armour have heaving cleavages, with Lyric herself being one of the worst culprits (depending on which outfit you put her in, because of course there are unlockable outfits, but I haven’t yet come across one that doesn’t make her look like a model with terrible back pain).
Still, there’s no denying that Vambrace is exceptionally stylish and well-presented on the visual front.
While Vambrace: Cold Soul‘s audioscape may not be as distinctive as its visuals, it’s still more than decent. There aren’t too many actual tunes, but the incidental sounds that play while you’re in either the warmth and hubbub of Dalearch or the frost and peril of Icenaire really fit the scene, enhancing the power of the visual image to help the player feel exactly what they’re supposed to in the situation.
There are some more memorable pieces, and again they’re always blended into the overall experience so as to feel appropriate. This is a point I make pretty regularly when reviewing: about the best thing I can say about a game’s soundtrack is that it does what it’s supposed to, which is to say enhances the experience of playing as appropriate for each moment. It’s all well and good having the catchiest tunes, but if they’re not used in a way that fits the mood and the overall presentation, then that’s actively damaging what you’re trying to do. Fortunately, Vambrace gets it right with the music.
There is also a limited degree of voice acting: most characters have your standard ‘hmm’ and ‘hahh’ grunts when spoken to, or occasionally even short sentences. Lyric, as one might expect, has the greatest degree of voiceiness, with several context-appropriate noises when interacting with things and even one or two fully-voiced scenes. It’s mostly inoffensive, although it is unfortunate that I… just don’t really like the voice work for Lyric in longer scenes. Nobody’s fault, but I don’t feel it fits her too well; it’s perhaps a good thing that most of Vambrace‘s dialogue is presented in text box form.
I think I just about understand how to play Vambrace, maybe. I’m not 100%. I know enough to have got through its expeditions, albeit with a lot of dying, but I’m still not sure I really know how, or what’s going on under the hood.
There’s always a difficulty with deliberate opacity, which Dark Souls made really fashionable but which many games have copied without quite realising what it was about it that made it work. You’ve got to give the player enough in the way of less explicit clues to enable them to figure things out, if you’re not going to spell out how the game works for them. Vambrace is going for a roguelike vibe, and it actually does try to tell you pretty much how everything is supposed to work, but it does so with simple pop-up written tutorials that tell you a couple of things about the many, many interface elements that there are and then just sort of bugger off, leaving you feeling as if you should feel informed but are in fact just scratching your head in the aftermath. It’s at once both overwhelming and not enough.
It’s clearly not impossible to simply figure out as much as you need to know in order to have a good time with Vambrace, because I’m honestly pretty thick when it comes to working out how to git gud or whatever and I was still able to git sufficiently gud to overcome the challenges the game threw at me. I mentioned that it often felt more like luck than any real improvement of skill on my part, but over time I did at least come to feel that I was better at the game than I was when I started out, so that’s something.
You’d expect this to be the part where I say ‘Vambrace: Cold Soul is deliberately hard but it’s too hard’, or something like that. That’s not actually the case; yeah, it wants to be hard, if its marketing is anything to go by, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of hard it thinks it is. (I sound like I’m squaring up for a fight with an EastEnders character: ‘you ain’t ‘ard like you fink you aaare!’)
It’s not easy, and often for the right reasons given its Faster Than Light aspirations. Managing your party’s health and vigor (oh, and the Terror system, which causes super-buff spooks to show up if you spend too long in one place) during expeditions is legitimately tense in a way that adds to the experience, and keeping track of the items and abilities you’ve got to hand in order to make it through a tough situation can be rewarding even in failure, if you learn something. That’s a mark of a good roguelike experience, I reckon.
The actual combat, on the other hand, doesn’t really give you enough options to be challenging in the right way. There’s a degree of strategy in using abilities at the right time and targeting the right foes, but I tended to find that the player’s choices during each battle had less impact than simply how much health the party had at the start. Maybe twice or three times I felt that I’d won a tough battle by playing smart, but mostly I just sort of hammered stuff until it died, or I did.
There’s also the fact that I’ve lost more than one party member when I’ve literally just wandered into a room, set off a trap, and they’ve evaporated, so that doesn’t feel like a fair challenge. You’re supposed to be able to avoid traps if you have a party member with a decent value in a particular stat, but the game’ll never really tell you when it’s checking, so as far as you can tell everything’s fine until someone’s fleshy soup on the ground.
Basically, half the time it feels difficult for the right reasons, half the time difficult for the wrong reasons, and the magical third half actually pretty easy, but with no consistent rhyme or reason as to which of those it’s going to be.
I don’t think Vambrace is anything new, especially – particularly given the comments I’ve seen which suggest it’s less inspired by Darkest Dungeon and more just Darkest Dungeon with fewer combat options and more boobs – but its sense of style alone does set it apart from its peers for me. It takes roguelike sensibilities, mixes in some Western dark fantasy worldbuilding and some JRPG-ish narrative/character devices, and then puts a really nice lick of paint on it; not the most novel mix, but one that still feels worth doing.
Put it this way: I haven’t seen this combination of things in a game before, but I wasn’t ever really surprised by anything Vambrace had to offer. Arguably that makes it a cohesive experience, which is always a plus, but it’s certainly not one that experiments too far beyond the bounds it establishes right from the get-go.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Y’know, I was unnecessarily harsh to Vambrace up top. It’s not that it’s got nothing going for it at all under the pretty colours and whatnot, just that judging this book by its cover might give you slightly higher expectations of its contents than it’s able to deliver in the end.
Don’t go thinking I didn’t enjoy it, because I actually did! It’s hard sometimes to separate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ from ‘I enjoyed this’ and ‘I didn’t like this’, but while I occasionally had frustrations with some of the things Vambrace does, for the most part I felt it was well put together and even found myself losing track of time once or twice while exploring or wandering around Dalearch. I never felt so invested in the plot that I was compelled to advance it – not the gaming equivalent of a page-turner, then – but I certainly managed to get absorbed in the experience from time to time.
Before I wrap up, I really want to say a massive thank you to developers Devspresso and publishers WhisperGames and Headup for this one: not only did they provide a review key to The Well-Red Mage in exchange for a fair review, so we’re indebted to them for that, but they also gave me the most thorough press kit I’ve seen in a while. All the images you see here are from that kit, including the concept art, and it even included a 40-page PDF ‘Reviewer’s Guide’ document which not only gave me a few helpful hints about where to look in order to experience all that Vambrace had to offer but was presented just as beautifully as everything about the rest of the game. Honestly, it looks like a really well-done tabletop game book or something, and I almost feel sad that most players won’t get to see it. As a result, the process of reviewing Vambrace has been one of the most enjoyable I’ve done, so thanks again and… developers looking to put review keys out there, take notes!
By way of a conclusion I really do think that Vambrace: Cold Soul is worth experiencing, if you’ve got a little time to spare for something like it: let’s never forget that a score of 6 puts Vambrace above the average, denoting that there’s something about it to set it apart from all the rest of the stuff that’s out there. For my money, Vambrace‘s presentation and the unexpectedly interesting things that unfold in the hub of Dalearch are the things that make it feel interesting and worthwhile, less generic and more of a well-realised work.
Also, if you’re into boobs, you’ll probably like it too.
Aggregated Score: 5.9
Though he’s been known by many names across the vast and peculiar landscape of the Internet, every iteration of The Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage has shared an urge to look far too closely at tiny details and extrapolate huge, important-seeming conclusions. These days, in addition to Mage duties, he can be found discussing gaming and other pop culture (and occasionally sharing some of his own musical and fictional creations) at the Overthinker Y blog and on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review