Delving Deep Into the Gameplay Design of Vambrace: Cold Soul

Published: May 24, 2019 2:00 PM /



From literal paper to code in the computer, Vambrace: Cold Soul has come a long way since its idea was conceived. The long expedition Devespresso Games embarked on is coming to a close with the release of Vambrace this month.

Vambrace is a turn-based roguelite dungeon crawler. Players take the role of heroine Evelia Lyric. Together with a band of survivors, you must venture to the cold surface of Icenaire and defeat the Shade King and lift his curse over the land.

I talked with Tristan Lee Riven, writer and designer for South Korean-based studio Devespresso games. We discussed what it took to create the engaging, life-or-death gameplay of Vambrace: Cold Soul. In case you missed it, yesterday we talked to Lead Artist Minho Kim about crafting Vambrace's world and art.

Vambrace Prototypes and Inspirations

Early on during the pre-production of Vambrace, the team ended up in a phase of development Hell. To clear their heads, Riven and the rest of Devespresso made a remaster of a previous game—that remaster ended up being The Coma: Recut.

With newfound vigor, Devespresso wanted to dive back into the world of Vambrace. One of their first prototypes wasn't through code, but actually a mock-up tabletop game. Riven and his colleague Minho Kim were big fans of tabletops, so it was a fitting choice.

A spooky picture from The Coma: Recut, Devespresso's previous game.

"The basic philosophy was," said Riven, "if we can't play this as a tabletop and enjoy it, then why would we start writing code for it?"

He explained that the trial and error process of prototyping code would be more difficult than testing the mechanics in tabletop form. After playing many rounds of pen-and-paper Vambrace in a South Korean café, they were confident enough to transition over to code.

Riven describes Vambrace's development in two phases. One very early build during the first six months, the team had put a lot of work into the game, having built levels in Unity and using character sprite sheets.

"The very early version of the game we didn't have the encounters very well-planned out," said Riven, "and the fact that we were using sprite sheets made it a lot more difficult to incorporate the scope of the characters that we wanted in the game."

vambrace icenaire map
It's not hard to imagine this as some sort of tabletop map.

So, Devespresso ended up scrapping sprite sheets and transitioning the game over to spine animation, along with other large changes. This allowed for faster and more efficient animation.

Vambrace is a very inspired game, as well. The hit indie title FTL: Faster than Light was a game Riven enjoyed, and he wanted to incorporate gameplay elements of it into Vambrace.

I looked at games like FTL: Faster Than Light for a lot of inspiration. I sank way more hours than I had any business into playing that game - I really loved it. And, what came to mind for me was "How do I take this experience and turn this into a dungeon crawler with like four characters in my party?" And I really liked the aspect of FTL where you're visiting nodes and you're having these, kind of little adventures or encounters, and stuff like that.
Gameplay also stemmed from a tabletop game called Betrayal at House on the Hill. The premise of this is leading a group of adventurers from one point to the next, having unique encounters along the way. One difference is that Vambrace is less stat-driven and more heavy on strategic gameplay decisions and the type of equipment you outfit your party with.

vambrace icenaire
You'll be navigating through the frosty streets of Icenaire.

Other inspirations are clear more through the aesthetics. The Gothic horror vibe is influenced by Casltevania. Meanwhile, The Elder Scrolls' strong lore and immersion is evident in Vambrace as well. Players might also notice at a first glance that Vambrace looks a bit like Darkest Dungeon. Tristan says that this is an understandable reaction, but assures players that Vambrace is its own game.

"...aside from the aesthetics of, let's say a side-scrolling game," said Riven, "four characters, navigating through a dungeon, that's kind of where the similarities of those games end."

Vambrace's Life and Death Stakes

Make no mistake, Vambrace is a difficult game. It features roguelike elements such as permadeath, which proved to be a challenge to develop for Devespresso. The question was, how could they create an epic storyline with roguelike mechanics? Riven says that one of the tenants of roguelikes are that once you die, that's the end.

What Devespresso came up with was a game that spans across seven different chapters. Within each chapter is a self-contained expedition in the city of Icenaire.

"Once you have set up your party and outfitted them with the proper equipment," said Riven, "you set out on the expedition, and the expedition is where the roguelike and punishing gameplay kind of comes into the fold."

vambrace gameplay
You'll gather a group of adventurers and navigate fight dark foes.

To progress and ultimately finish an expedition, players must defeat a boss at the end. But it's not so simple. Along the way, you'll encounter dangerous enemies and events. Expeditions are also long and difficult, so there is no assurance that your party will survive.

The gist of it is, Icenaire comprises districts, which are divided into sectors. Sectors contain streets, and each street has a variety of encounters. You can't dally around either, because you are constantly being chased by Shades. If Shades reach you, all encounters then become hostile.

"So, when I assemble my party I set out on an expedition," said Riven,  "either one, I will complete my mission and defeat the boss and then return home victorious. Or two, my entire party is going to get decimated. In which case, I lose all of my items and then I have to start the expedition all the way back over from the beginning - which is no good."

One third possibility is retreat. Retreating from an expedition is a viable strategy and will, in the end, save your loot and the life of your comrades. One caveat to this is that you lose all progress on the expedition, meaning you will have to start from the beginning.

vambrace jobboard
You can pick and choose from a pool of adventurers.

Underneath Icenaire is a safe haven where you can interact with characters in a visual novel fashion. You can also craft items, compose parties, and develop your protagonist. Devepresso wanted players to become immersed in the story. While Icenaire is for combat, the underground city is for the plot to move forward.

"We wanted a world where you could just focus on that story and take a break from the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game," said Riven.

As mentioned before, this safe haven is a place to prepare for expeditions. Lyric is the protagonist and the only character you can level up yourself and increase stats. The rest of your party will contain a group of refugees, comprising 10 different races with two classes each.

"Since you start out with Lyric by default, what you want to do then is there's a recruiting wall. You visit the recruiting wall and you can see a list of adventurers that you can choose from to join your party. At the beginning of the game, the pool that you can choose from will be very small, and then as you complete chapters the pool will increases, so that you will have a more diverse range of characters that you can outfit your team with."
Each character has their own niche, so it's up to you to mix and match your party. Different sections of the city tend to lean towards certain races and class combinations, so gameplay encourages experimentation. It's also just as important to outfit your party with proper gear using the crafting material you collect from slain foes on expeditions.

vambrace screen21
Don't forget to stock up for the journey ahead!

"The kinds of equipment that you can build are not typically things that you can just buy from the merchants," said Riven. "And since characters don't level up - they don't collect experience points, they don't upgrade naturally through combat progression or anything like that - the way that you improve your characters is by outfitting them with better equipment."

Journey's End

Not everything made the final cut, but it was for a good reason. The possibility of romance was discussed among the developers at one point. In a narrative-driven game with a long, fleshed-out story, branching dialogue options and multiple endings, a sacrifice had to be made.

"We thought if we we're going to do [romance] justice," said Riven, "we need to do it right, and that means really devoting some time to making the dialogue and the way that these relationships unfold legit and interesting, not just a tacked on feature, so that ended up falling by the wayside."

It was also a great challenge to make Vambrace will just a crew of four. Minho Kim, the lead artist for Vambrace did all of the art, animations, illustrations, and more. Riven compares creating games to synchronized swimming: everyone has their own role, and in the end it has to come together and create an enjoyable experience. That's what Devepresso hopes for when Vambrace releases this month.

Vambrace: Cold Soul releases on Steam and GOG on May 28, 2019. It will release on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in Q3 2019. 

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| Staff Writer

Austin cut his teeth writing various  fan-fiction stories on the RuneScape forums when he was in elementary school. Later on, he developed a deep love for… More about Austin