After patch 1.08, Vambrace: Cold Soul evens out some of the gameplay mechanics many customers were complaining about.
Genre: Adventure, Indie, RPG
Developer: Devespresso Games
Publisher: Headup, WhisperGames
Release Date: May 28, 2019
When I was looking at this game I was enticed by the note from the devs on the Steam page:
“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 roguelites 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!”
However, what it looks like most from the bit of gameplay and the graphics you see in the trailer is more or less a Darkest Dungeon style game down to the movement, animations, turn-based gameplay, and overall tone. From what I have I played, it feels thinned down with more limited attack strategies and it is substantially more story-focused like the majority of RPG or JRPG games I’ve played. There is nothing wrong with that, but I can totally see the immediate comparisons to Darkest Dungeon due to the fact that it’s pretty much been brined in the same pickle jar. Though, much as a carrot in a pickle jar does not make it a pickle, you have to understand that it is not the same thing and never will be. Whether it merits the time and attention of gamers is what I’ll remark on below.
The comparison to Darkest Dungeon will just never go away. Vambrace: Cold Soul simply looks too similar and I think that intention is perhaps overly brash because trying to live up to what is now considered a masterpiece of the genre, and in fact genre-defining at this point, can easily be chalked up as hubris by the gaming community. And, truthfully, it did on release. This is evident by the fairly regular amount of reactionary patches and ongoing updates for the game. Yet, this is not a bad thing. In fact, I had to rewrite some whole sections of this review after the most recent patch, ver 1.08. I have to give the devs a hand of applause, they listened and fixed some core issues with the game. Not all, I have to add, but some core issues that turn a game I was going to give a poor rating into a much better rating than originally intended.
The game centers around Lyric, a young woman in search of answers about her father’s death in a remote town called Icenaire. This town is populated by several races, much like the Elder Scrolls, such as Elves, Dwarves, Fox People, Humans, Blood Mages, Spectors, etc. It is a melting pot of societies, and they’ve been brought together by calamity. A curse has enveloped the town, freezing to death all who dare enter or leave. It was brought upon by a warring enemy called the Green Flame who can possess folks and make them incredibly powerful and dangerous. You, as the adventurer, aim to sort through this mystery while the city begins to implode from the stress of being trapped together in a seemingly hopeless situation.
I’m not quite done with the game just yet, but I felt the characters are very well fleshed out with a well-written back story and game world history that comes off like it was written with some passion. The only caveat is that I never really feel like I get to know the inner thoughts of my character or those around her. Impressions are gained only at a glance from the actions and comments rather than any deeper conversations or soliloquies. This gives players a less than ideal amount of insight into who she is and hurts the forward momentum of someone who wants to get into the story in full.
It is all very lore heavy and dramatic event led rather than situational dialogue. Take that as you may, don’t expect to delve into the psyche of any characters involved.
Here is the meat of the game. Firstly, expect to grind. Yet, not for the reasons you may think. Only the main protagonist can level up slightly with character perks. Your regularly rotating and frankly expendable party members cannot. You’ll be unlocking a few new members along the way, some of which can be game changer upgrades over previous members, but the only real way to truly upgrade them is by grinding away for money and loot to be crafted/sold and made into equipment that can be used to buff stats. There are also relics to be discovered and these can either be worn by yourself or your party if allowed. Now, this is a rogue-lite, so the catch is that if a member dies their equipment or relics die with them. You, however, keep all your loot and money when you perish, even your party members stick around if they survived the last battle.
You’ll need to hope for the best during combat so that no one dies with equipped items. In some nail biters, I’d sooner take the gear from a dying member than let it all go to waste, but you can’t do that until after the battle is over. Harsh, but sensible since some items cannot be replaced or take a long time to craft.
A new feature added with the patch 1.08 is a difficulty option that has Standard difficulty or Cold Soul difficulty, which was the original difficulty. Truthfully, before then the game was absolutely brutal, making even some Darkest Dungeon vets throw up their hands in frustration. A lot of this centers around the way health/stress is handled and an initial lack of skills. Even now, it is still quite a handful to micromanage. The only saving graces are the newly added skills and re-upped relic buff upgrades. For a rogue-lite, it’s understandable to make the game overly difficult to fail regularly in order to force players to play repeatedly and explore new areas of the game to unlock extra events or story scenes. However, Vambrace: Cold Soul does not make it an easy sojourn, so impatient gamers beware.
The most frustrating aspect is that you have three critical attributes to manage: Health, Vigor ( stress), and Geist ( ghost OP meter ). Health cannot be used during combat OR while traveling, it can only be used at campsites. These campsites, located in specific areas in each level of the map and in between sublevels, can take some time to get to, making it difficult to manage at times. Upon getting to a campsite, you can use your health reserves to heal up or, if you are low on inventory, you can simply rest to partially heal up. HOWEVER, resting is at the expense of increasing the Geist. There is also Vigor, which will be fatal if it hits zero. To boost this up, you must use Vigor potions you can purchase/craft or risk singing a song at a campsite at the expense of, you guessed it, Geist going up. Also, you need someone with a stat called Overwatch ( not the game ) that is roughly 3+ to ensure the resting party actually receives any benefit or you risk increasing the Geist meter and no recovery. When Geist goes over the limit, every pathway becomes a battle and deadly Shades arrive, monsters with no weaknesses. As you travel from room to room, Geist increases. Even when sitting at a campsite, Geist increases. Simply recovering with a rest increases Geist. While hardcore and awfully callus in game design, I found it wasn’t overly deadly. If I triggered it, I could still manage a few battles before getting blown to hell. If you finish the sub-level the Geist will go back to zero for the most part, though in some locations it may only go down by half at an in-between campsite. It seriously makes exploring and getting to a boss a stressful endeavor. I feel there needs to be a Geist potion of some kind in the market, it’s just too much to have an unrelenting doom coming with each step. Maybe there is one and I can’t get to it until I am near the end of the game, I’m unsure. One note, a final sub-level with a boss in it will not have Vigor or Geist affects, just Health loss. That is a wonderful thing, trust me.
There are still issues with recovery. In order to get through a whole level and reach a boss with any chance of defeating it, you need to grind to collect a buttload of Health and Vigor and bring it with you. You could skid by, simply looting and selling your wares along the way to pay for more Health and Vigor potions, but you’ll likely run out before you get to the boss. As you progress early in the game, you’ll eventually unlock a member that can heal called a Hedge Mage, and that is really the best way to go in my opinion, but that healer is expendable and not indestructible. It is likely that person will die and then you have to wait until another Hedge Mage shows up in town to join the party.
There are way station campsites between each sub-level where you can use your inventory of supplies or craft. It’s actually the ONLY place you can craft unless you happen to come across a random crafting station in the middle of sublevel, and those are few. So, if you store your supplies in the base city you’ll need to bring them along later and try crafting them when you’ve arrived at these crafting campsites again. That’s annoying.
On top of all this, bringing too much inventory will slow your party down and make it harder to attack well, even Health or Vigor packs. So, either you bring a bunch with you to craft, or spend several turns with the sole intention of crafting and just die as soon as possible to start over. While I can understand it prevents folks from stockpiling giant amounts of consumables, it’s terrible for crafting. A normal max inventory bag would have sufficed.
In addition to battles, there are encounters with the denizens of the spectral world. These are RNG events that change from time to time. While some are interesting, I always found that I would regret checking them out more often than not, ending with my character injured or debuffed. There is nothing wrong with these, and it is common in RPG’s. Just be aware it’s a total gamble whether you come back unscathed or not. On the plus side, when you do get a good one, the result is often + Vigor or +Heath. I generally used these only when someone was badly injured because I didn’t have anything to lose.
Next up are the party members themselves. It’s a decent variety to choose from as listed previously. For me, I liked the Shadowmancer with stackable poison attacks, Hedge Mage healer, and the Dwarf Fusilier for their +6 true damage flourish and ability to get past most traps. You hire them from a bulletin board, as they appear at random for hire, and you can pick your own loadout from here before heading out. These have Flourish ( special attacks ). With patch 1.08, there are now limited Flourish points you can spend to upgrade these party members, and you get to pick what skills these will be. Essentially, this allows for some nice variety in the strategic planning for your team, so it is a very welcome addition to the game.
You now have two attack skills per party member plus a random Flourish attack. All this goes on with a forward moving attack turn bar showing who fights next and so on. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Previously, it was limited to two attacks and that was simply a bore. With three, I am much happier, though it would be nice to have some extra charge up spells or use inventory attacks. None of that is an option. The combat still feels very repetitive until you get to a boss fight. Is that terrible? Nah, but it is a grind and I still get a bit bored trying to get from one place to the next.
Pick your loadout based on your preferred method of attack. It’s vital to pay attention to the member stats. This goes beyond just making sure someone can pick locks or has good Overwatch, but there is also Awareness. This stat affects who goes first. So, change your lineup to reflect that. Myself, I’d put the Shadowmancer in the front followed by my Fusilier so that I’d get a 1-2 punch of poison and Flourish +6 damage at some point to knock out the enemy healer or tank first.
There is also a lack of intertwining skills, like a “Pep Power” from Dragon Quest. These could be game changers and can help the gameplay from getting too monotonous.
With patch 1.08 the Monsters have a variety of seven types as described by the new patch notes:
“Flesh: Weak against some melee skills.
Wraith: Weak against some Magick skills.
Blood: Weak against some Hedge skills.
Hedge: Weak against some Blood skills.
Tek: Weak against Grenades and bullets.
Archonic: Weak against Lyric.
Shade: No weaknesses.”
Different characters will have attributes that lean more heavily to cause damage to some than others and so forth. In other words, you’ll need to change up the roster now and then depending on what you typically encounter in a level. Well, maybe. There is a good chance you’ll still be fine with your favorite group no matter what, to be honest. I still felt that the monsters are a little bland and there needs to be more variety with a few extra mid-boss types thrown in for good measure. The only interesting battles are the bosses as the rest gets repetitively boring quickly. With the new update, there are icons that display what monsters are weak to now. Though, I sort of need a guide to show me what they mean still lol.
The art style reminds me more of Child of Light than Darkest Dungeon to be totally honest. It is less stylized than Darkest Dungeon and significantly less creepy. The hand-drawn character art would at times be wonderfully well rendered with attention to color shading and detail like games with a much larger budget, and other times I’d get party members that had facial expressions that didn’t quite look as well done or slightly offset. It is good art design nonetheless and I feel a remarkable amount of work went into the presentation of the art to urge more folks to play it.
For the soundtrack, it’s definitely tense, yet not overbearing. I would not say young kids would not be especially frightened by the sound effects or horrifying music in the least. My youngest barely even noticed it, whereas other games often make her trot out of the room quite fast before she hears something that could end up in a nightmare. The effects did a fine job on notifying me of an attack, the result, or any pitfalls that chanced upon my way.
It’s a bit hard to sum up the game because while it is a challenge and can be fun it is not as interesting to traverse as other rogue-lites and the story doesn’t hold the game as well as it could. The Health/Vigor/Geist juggling is incredibly tedious, making the game substantially more of a chore than it needs to be. Battling lacks the type of excitement I’d prefer due to the barebones set of skilled attacks, and that’s a shame not only because it could have more depth but also because I keep comparing it to Darkest Dungeon and that’s not a good thing to constantly compare it to a masterwork of a game.
Ultimately, I still liked the challenge, though it would beat me over the head. I enjoyed the story, though it’s not a major selling point. The exploration is nice, and there are some interesting sidequests along the way. The biggest drawback was the repetitive nature of the battles and the lack of interesting monsters to beat other than bosses. Even though the enemies have different attacks, they all feel very much the same with little change in the way of animations.
Is it worth a buy right now? I’d say wait until a sale of at least 20%. Don’t go in expecting Darkest Dungeon and I’d wait for the coming patches to iron out some more kinks. The devs are listening to the discussions and reviews, which is a great thing. I can sense they want this game to be loved rather than shunned, so I expect good things to come of it based on the hard work I’ve already seen since release. It could have been much better with some time in Early Access, and more is to come, but wishlist this for now and wait for the game to mature later in the year.