Difficulty is a double-edged sword for video game developers. On one hand, you can stray towards FromSoftware, and relish in the difficulty of something like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. As excellent as it was, a common complaint was that Sekiro was too difficult, prompting guides to pop up to help even the most experienced players. Conversely, trading difficulty for accessibility and appeal can also backfire, as it did with Yoshi's Crafted World. South Korean studio Devespresso Games, in positioning their latest game, Vambrace: Cold Soul as an RPG "for masochists," must be keenly aware of the current conversations in gaming.
Inspired by difficult roguelikes Darkest Dungeon and FTL: Faster Than Light, Vambrace: Cold Soul hopes to leave its mark on the genre, while still offering a unique, fully realized world. Set within the Dwarven city of Icenaire, adventurer Evelia Lyric finds herself drawn to the city by her late father leaving behind his Codex and magical vambrace. Unbeknownst to her, the King of Shades and his legions of spectral warriors now rule Icenaire. Never one to back down from a challenge, Lyric finds herself at the forefront of the resistance. She hopes to uncover the secrets behind her father, his vambrace, and Icenaire itself.
Exploring Vambrace: Cold Soul's Icy World
If Vambrace: Cold Soul is to leave a lasting impression, then it will certainly be on the strengths of its fantasy universe. In talking to Lead Artist Minho Kim about creating a rich fantasy world, Kim stated that the concept for Vambrace was "fifteen years in the making," and it shows. Icenaire is a battleground between the Shades and the Guardians, with the latter relegated to the underground district of Dalearch. Here, we find five different races, each with their own factions and ambitions, crammed into a glorified cave. There's an entirely new written language created for the world of Vambrace. Bits of visual storytelling and overheard dialogue all make the world feel lived in. It's impressive and entirely engrossing.
While adventuring through Dalearch and Icenaire, Lyric will stumble across scattered pages of her father's Codex. These pages unlock information on the strange world Lyric finds herself in. You can find much-needed primers on the dozen or so factions, as well as information about the myths, gods, and history of the realm. Without spoiling anything, intrepid readers may get more out of the lengthy time spent underground interacting with trapped citizens. If the dedication and depth of the writing is anything to go by, we might well see another title from Devespresso Games set within the same universe. That's something that I would fully welcome.
Outside of the Codex, there's plenty of well-written dialogue to be found too. The nature of the enclosed spaces of Dalearch means Lyric quickly meets the hideout's major players, all of whom are jockeying for power. Her unique position as an outsider as well as a natural leader means that despite her young age, she is headstrong and subject to many competing desires from the various factions. Lyric is a likable and strong lead character, and her conversations with major players as well as regular citizens reinforce this.
Visually, Vambrace is nothing short of stunning, either. The central cast of characters all have distinctive visual flair to match their personalities. The fiery commander of the Guardians sports bright red hair. The rebel slumlord has raggedy clothes and a defiant personality to match. Lyric too can change her appearance via one of a number of costumes, unlocked via completing sidequests. The four districts of Icenaire also have their own style and are full of flair, even as a wintry apocalypse rages around them. Compare that to Dalearch, which features brooding ambient music and dim lighting.
Vambrace: Cold Soul does atmosphere well enough to rival its priors like Darkest Dungeon. Vambrace might not have as striking of a color palette, but there's a stark contrast between the frozen wastelands and stiff corpses of the surface and the bustling pub down below. Incidentally, the pub also happens to have one of the most memorable bar themes I've listened to. No, not just because I heard it so often. The soft glow of the scattered campfires of adventurers or stacked layers of squalid slums adds to the freezing tension, and make your quest that much more urgent.
Surviving the Streets of Icenaire in Vambrace: Cold Soul
What good is a fantasy world without anything to do in it though? The real meat of Vambrace: Cold Soul comes not from the city you're trying to free from Shade control, but the combat and scavenging you'll do along the way. The adventuring layers system after system on top of one another. It is here that the influences of FTL are most prominent. A lesser RPG might collapse under its own weight and complexity, but Vambrace uses just enough random chance. It doesn't rely on info-dumping in order to keep your head above water.
Lyric is not alone in her quest to free the city from the grip of the Shades; up to three fellow adventurers can join her. These adventurers range in skills and race, each suited for different tasks. Will you sacrifice more damage for consistent healing? Will you risk the lives of your companions for a team of powerful warriors? There's no cost to swap out and add new party members, so experimenting is key. Considering that death is permanent, there's no shame in trying out new companions, sometimes out of necessity.
Lyric and her team each have five stats: Combat, which directly correlates to damage; Awareness, which determines turn order as well as trap detection; Sleight, which awards better items upon opening chests; Merchantry, which means traders have more goods for sale at better prices; and Overwatch, which determines your recovery while camping. Once on the surface, Lyric must navigate a veritable maze of streets in order to defeat powerful Shades controlling the different districts. Your primary resources are health and vigor. Health is self-explanatory, but vigor is a representation of the state of your mind and body. While exploring, your vigor will gradually tick down due to cold and traps, requiring you to camp to rest. The best teams have a good balance between all stats.
Of course, don't expect to camp without any consequence, however. On the surface, Spooks, or very powerful Shades, constantly chase you. Linger too long in one area, and they'll invade, prompting a mad dash to the exit. The longer you take in combat, the more your Spook meter ticks upward too. Even with the threat of impending doom from the cold and Shades, the temptation is high to linger regardless. Crafting is essential, as Lyric can create better equipment, healing items, and status cures. All the literal trash you'll pick up doesn't sell for much and is better off reinforcing a vest that boosts health and vigor considerably.
Once inside a street, Lyric and her team must navigate through a series of rooms in quick fashion. Each room can have combat, treasure, a trader, campsite, or random encounter. There are almost always many paths through the streets, and you'll rarely know what a room contains before you step foot in it. Fortune favors the bold, and in true roguelike fashion, you're constantly pressing your luck to the point of thrilling danger. Cautiously creeping through abandoned hallways is no fun, after all.
Vambrace: Cold Soul Fights the Good Fight
Ultimately, the difficulty in Vambrace: Cold Soul comes both from the sheer length of your expeditions, and the brutal nature of its combat. In navigating the labyrinthine streets, you'll inevitably come across Shades. Encounters are short, lasting only a few rounds at most. Still, the damage can rack up quickly if you're not careful. To make things easier, each party member can use a Flourish, or special power move. This might be boosting health and strength while poisoning yourself, or shooting all enemies for minimal damage. If your resources start to run low, then you can always retreat at no cost. Considering bosses hide behind numerous streets, it's sometimes best to return home and try again, hoping for better luck.
Controversially, Vambrace: Cold Soul features no experience gain or leveling, outside of certain story beats for Lyric. Thus, repeated runs through the districts in search of treasure and hunting down Shades are as much about strategy as they are about the role-playing aspects. Managing health, vigor, and Flourish powers require careful planning and the hope that your attacks don't get blocked. Damage is always constant, leaving more room for your strategy to develop. Relics and crafting are not just important, they're essential, as later tiers offer substantial bonuses with no downsides. It may not always feel like you're making progress, but the loot is well worth it.
With such an emphasis on the roguelike aspects of Vambrace: Cold Soul, it'd be nice to have more stylish combat encounters. Considering fights are frequent, some variety would be nice. This may be due to the limitations of the combat system itself; limiting characters, both allied and enemy to just one regular attack and a special move definitely hampers the creativity of the AI in hindsight.
Expeditions through the streets of Icenaire also mean you'll inevitably get a feel for optimal routes through streets and districts. Unfortunately, much of what you actually encounter is largely up to chance. While there's something to be said for poking around in streets off the beaten path, having some way to scout out streets ahead of entering them would be welcome. There's even a giant map in the Guardian headquarters that could be used to "mark" streets for your allies. Some way to denote pathways would be nice. For example, scoping out which streets have better loot and tougher fights, or which streets harbor traps and winding paths. Granted, this would detract from the inherent roguelike nature, but considering the overarching conflict, seeing no progression in the Guardians against the Shades seems odd.
But many of these complaints are more nitpicky than underlying structural issues. At its heart, Vambrace: Cold Soul pulls no punches and asks that you steel yourself for failure in heartbreaking ways. There's nothing more satisfying than stringing together a run of lucky encounters in Icenaire's streets, risking everything against a powerful Shade. Making it to the end of one of the chapters feels like a true accomplishment, not simply because the weather is out to kill you at every opportunity. Lyric is treated as a hero, and from what she had to go through just to return back home to the safety of a warm bath and soft bed, she deserves it.
Vambrace: Cold Soul Review | Final Thoughts
Roguelike developers want their games to be challenging, fun, and most of all, rewarding. It's safe to say that Devespresso Games captured all three of these tenets in Vambrace: Cold Soul. Not just a great game because of the fascinating worldbuilding or fantastic atmosphere, Vambrace understands what it means to be a roguelike in soul and spirit. Although it's easy to figure out the combat, there's plenty of depth and challenge here. It all comes together to make Vambrace: Cold Soul an excellent addition to the genre.
TechRaptor reviewed Vambrace: Cold Soul on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer. It will come to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch later this year, in Q3 2019.
Packing some serious challenge, Vambrace: Cold Soul grips you with atmosphere and gorgeous visuals, even as the combat isn't as deep as it could be.
- Dazzling Visuals
- Deftly Layered Systems
- Engrossing Atmosphere
- Satisfying Challenge
- Largely Shallow Combat