Devespresso’s Vambrace: Cold Soul impressively combines JRPG story elements, roguelike gameplay and almost Nordic landscapes into a single cohesive aesthetic that is difficult not to enjoy.
That said, the difficulty is in fact its largest problem. The combat, immediately reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon down to the character sprites and non-linear maps, is designed to frustrate the player and force them to learn how to best prepare for each expedition into the cold, cruel world. This, in and of itself, is far from problematic on its own — many games make their mechanics a rewarding learning experience without doing much hand-holding.
However, in Vambrace: Cold Soul, there is not all that much to learn, as the mechanics are quite repetitive. In the beginning of the game, it feels as though it makes little difference whether you understand the game’s stats and systems, as though your success or failure on the battlefield is dependent primarily on luck. Though the first couple of times that I embarked on the first quest, I took some satisfaction in learning how the maps and stats worked, it eventually felt like I was entirely at the mercy of random variables. However, this may not be as tiresome for everyone as it was for me — fans of punishing gameplay will likely feel at home in Vambrace: Cold Soul.
This is not to say that it’s a game not worth exploring. The first and most striking thing I noticed in Vambrace: Cold Soul was the art style, also reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon, but at the same time entirely its own. Both the opening cutscenes and the combat expeditions have a distinct, icy aesthetic with wonderful shading and coloring. Polished and clean, nearly every location and cutscene are a joy to look at. Somehow, the art style manages to convey the oppressive cold of the environment while still communicating the magic of its inhabitants.
The one snag in this aesthetic is the hypersexualization. While the female characters’ outfits are not always as revealing as in many other RPGs, their chests and proportions are consistently exaggerated in an overtly sexual way. This makes some of the characters look ridiculous at best and exploited at worst. If you look past genre-typical objectification of women, there is beautiful artwork to be found in the cutscenes and environments.
The world-building in Vambrace: Cold Soul is impressive, though those opposed to heavy exposition will find their introduction to the world a bit boring. I, for one, enjoyed the introductory dialogue that establishes the nearly post-apocalyptic setting. Once you’re given free reign to explore your home base a little, you’ll find that NPCs are more than willing to share introductory information almost entirely unprompted. This walks the line between being helpful and irritating, sometimes falling more clearly on one side or the other. Such dialogue doesn’t exactly lend itself to immersion, but it does prevent you from digging through a codex for lore as many other games do. However, almost all of the characters, protagonists or otherwise, feel quite hollow, seeming to serve as vehicles for the plot more than primary actors driving it.
Most compelling in terms of both world-building and gameplay are the random encounters on your expeditions that do not necessitate combat at all. As you wander through abandoned towns and markets, you stumble upon mysterious frozen caves, ghost children and chatty undead. In these encounters, you are generally able to choose to engage or to move on. If you choose the former, the outcome is almost always interesting, though the cost to your characters’ health may often be high. Unfortunately, due to the punishing nature of Vambrace: Cold Soul, the wisest decision in most of these situations is to disengage as much as possible. Still, I find myself wanted to dive back into the game to try to solve a spirit’s riddle or explore a haunted cave.
Despite some significant drawbacks, I truly enjoyed my time in Vambrace: Cold Soul. If you enjoy games like Darkest Dungeon and want to appreciate some polished artwork, you may find Vambrace: Cold Soul appealing. However, if you dislike needlessly frustrating games and have little patience for insubstantial and distasteful character design, you may want to look elsewhere.
You can also find Vambrace: Cold Soul on Steam.