My first impressions of Vambrace: Cold Soul began with the title art, which showed how high-quality and well-crafted the art style is. The protagonist stands out from other characters to an almost anime-protagonist degree, but I think that was intentional. Although most other characters blend in with the background, I cannot praise that background enough. The ruined city streets evoke a feeling of isolation and desolation, strong thematic elements to the game. The art is hindered somewhat by clunky animations, but the art really stood out to me as the game’s brightest feature.
The game itself is inspired by RPG forerunners (Final Fantasy VI fans will recognize three rather unique names in the opening sequence alone), and the Darkest Dungeon comparison is inevitable for those who’ve played it. Nevertheless, the game does try to dodge fantasy story tropes as the story unfolds. I’m not entirely sure it succeeds – in an attempt to paint a picture of the complex relationships and grey morality among the game’s factions, the writing became predictable in where it might derail from a vanilla fantasy world. Vambrace: Cold Soul is story driven, true, but the story feels more like well-written fan-fiction than professionally developed story. I found some quests to be fun, and dialogue in spots was clever, but by and large I struggled to care about what was happening.
Items and equipment are the primary form of progression in the game. The protagonist does get occasional (and arbitrarily given) perk points, but none of your party members do, and so they must rely on their one equipment slot to boost firepower. As each item typically benefits one or two stats, I felt very little sense of character progression as the chapters came and went. The items can be found, bought, or crafted. The crafting seems well thought out, but I had neither need nor desire to make any of the items, as I usually found better while in the dungeon or for sale.
Vambrace’s classes are uninspired and quickly lost flavor for me beyond how much damage they could do in a round. Monsters, although well designed graphically, were similarly uninspiring. I suspect this is more a limitation of the game’s systems than designer intent, but the fights played more like high-stakes slap-fights than epic battles.
That said, I really had to focus on strategy in combat as the margins were generally very slim. Every hit does count, and as healing is rare, thinking about each move in and out of combat can be crucial for survival. Out of combat decisions are usually limited to where to go or whether or not to engage with something in a given room, but they, too, can make or break a dungeon run.
The game does push some of my buttons. Some things that immediately turn me off in a game are 1) gender locked protagonist roles (I prefer the choice), 2) combat stilettos and bikini/lingerie armor, and 3) artificial constraints in game systems to increase difficulty, and Vambrace: Cold Soul has all three. Other design decisions made no sense – for example, the escape button, in general, brings up the game’s menu, whereas in battle, ‘escape’ skips your turn. Also, you can retain all items collected in a run if you abort early, but heaven forbid you try to use a healing potion outside of the rare ‘encampment’ rooms.
Vambrace: Cold Soul is certainly worth a spin if you feel yourself craving a side-scrolling dungeon adventure. It may especially appeal to those looking for a game featuring a strong female lead whose role is central to the game. At the very least, the game will be most memorable to me for its beautiful depiction of a haunted, desolate fantasy setting.
Vambrace: Cold Soul offers another perspective on the rogue-like genre, and does so in a beautifully crafted, frozen landscape. The systems, however, seem unnecessarily punitive and some design choices are head-scratchers. Nevertheless, a fair amount of strategy is possible within the constraints of the game. Although the game’s story isn’t compelling enough to brighten the slog through the game’s many frustrating challenges, the visuals really shine.
- Beautiful art style
- Well-developed fantasy world
- Strong female lead
- Unnecessarily punitive mechanics
- Little progression
- Flat, uninspiring classes and monsters
A copy of the game was provided by PR for the purpose of review.