Over the last few years, there has been a surge in the popularity of difficult games. These games are designed to be brutal and push the player to the limits of human patience and perseverance. The roguelike genre is the embodiment of this trend. Roguelikes pride themselves on having tough challenges and force the player to overcome them multiple times. The developers, Devespresso Games have endeavored to create such an experience through their newest game, Vambrace: Cold Soul.
Vambrace: Cold Soul is a roguelike with a stronger emphasis on narrative than other games in the genre. It's a mixture of survival, exploration and turn-based combat. While it's great to have so many gameplay mechanics, none of them feel particularly fleshed out. On top of that, you're dealing with extraordinary levels of RNG dependence. We'll come back to this point a little later. First, let's analyze some of the game's merits and shortcomings.
You play as a young adventuress named Evelia Lyric who finds her way into the sealed city of Icenaire. Through the power of the vambrace, an ancient artifact, she is able to enter the cursed city and begin her adventure. Here she befriends a diverse cast of characters. There are elves, drow, dwarves and even other humans. One of the strongest parts of Vambrace: Cold Soul is its tone and personality. The developers have created an excellent dark fantasy world with a thick atmosphere. This type of setting isn't very common, so I'm happy to see it done well.
The bulk of your time will actually be spent underneath Icenaire in an underground base. The surface is been overrun by Wraiths and has become uninhabitable. The survivors managed to rebuild a small community below the surface. An entire economy is built around scavengers who venture outside to collect resources. As the newcomer to this society, Evelia must find a way to earn everyone's trust.
To that end, player choice plays an important role throughout the story. Several quests will force you to make a decision that alters the final outcome. Some quests have three or four possible results, which depend on what choices you make. In Vambrace: Cold Soul, your decisions are actually worth something. It makes talking to the NPCs more enjoyable. You get to hear different sides of the conflict and make your decision based on that. Or you could choose to ignore them completely and remain neutral. How you choose to approach the quests is up to you.
The main quests have you go to the surface and complete a given task. There are several sectors in Icenaire, and each mission has you explore one of them. Areas all have a distinct, unique feature and personality. In the Entertainment District, you can expect to traverse through bars and concert halls. The Industrial District has a huge workshop where blacksmiths once operated. These little details help to tell the story of Icenaire. Before the invasion of wraiths, it was a massive city where people worked hard and had fun. It's tragic that a thriving city is now a nest of danger and harsh environments.
Vambrace: Cold Soul appears to encourage thorough exploration of each sector. There is plenty of loot to find as well as rare items that cannot be bought from merchants. You can find tons of materials that are used to forge powerful gear that will increase your character's stats. You can also sell those materials to earn money which can be used to purchase healing items. Unfortunately, this conflicts with the survival aspects of the game, making exploration an almost futile task.
Your characters have a stat called Vigor, which essentially measures their ability to survive. Every time you move to another room in the sector, characters lose one point of Vigor. If you spend too much time exploring, your characters will lose all their Vigor, which leads to death. Another issue is the terror meter. This increases every time you move to the next area. Once it reaches a certain point, you will encounter Mad Wraiths, which are powerful versions of regular enemies. They are a pain to fight and can easily kill your characters.
The Vigor stat and terror meter completely destroy any incentive you might have to explore. A piece of rare loot is not worth having to deal with Mad Wraiths or risk running out of Vigor. So, you will always want to take the shortest route to the exit. The survival elements of Vambrace: Cold Soul take precedence over exploration. But, once you get over the fact that exploration is punishable by death, it's not so bad. The survival aspects are competent and challenging. You will have to carefully manage your resources to increase the odds of survival. There's a decent amount of micromanagement to keep you occupied during your travels. On top of the Vigor stat, there are several status conditions which characters are afflicted by. For example, fractured bones will reduce combat efficiency and has to be fixed using bandages.
Combat is a simple affair. It's a turn-based system, and each character has two attacks. Attacks include a regular one and a special "flourish" that can be used after building up a meter. After a couple of hours, the combat starts to feel stale. It's far too simplistic and doesn't change much over the course of the game. Even the boss fights don't really add anything unique to spice up the combat. Part of the reason for this is because of how frequently combat encounters occur. Constant fighting is taxing on your resources as you have to heal your wounds.
All of the mechanics above are woven together by the magic of RNG. What you encounter in every area is random and that will decide how difficult your experience is. The most useful encounter are the camp sites. They allow you to use items (since you can't use them anywhere else) and heal through resting. This is the only way to recover HP and Vigor, and you cannot progress without them.
The randomness of camp sites and enemy encounters can make progression slow and inconsistent. Nothing is guaranteed. It's possible to not encounter a single camping spot and be forced to fight through waves of enemies. At other times, you might get several camping spots despite not needing them. When the stars finally align and things work out, gameplay is enjoyable. Although, to enjoy Vambrace: Cold Soul, it requires a lot of patience (and luck!) to get there.
The RNG also affects who you can take with you to the surface. One of those spots is taken up by Evelia Lyric. The other three are randomly generated characters you have to recruit. Each race has two classes of characters that are available. Building a team with good synergy is key to success. Unfortunately, you have no control over which classes are available for recruitment. There will be times where you have to purposefully let characters die so more useful ones show up. It's not a pretty solution, but there's nothing else you can do.
There are some aspects where Vambrace: Cold Soul excels. It's a wonderful fantasy world that has endearing characters. Icenaire's ruined state is tragic, but there's still a sense of hope among the survivors. The fact that player choice actually matters is a bonus and helps to immerse you in the story. The narrative is solid and watching the story unfold is genuinely enjoyable, especially during the later chapters where the plot really starts to pick up.
Sadly, the gameplay proves to be a barrier to that enjoyment. The RNG makes it extremely frustrating and difficult to make progress. It always feels unfair whenever your progress is taken away because of a bad roll of the dice. Even if you have the best resource management skills and strategy, you might fail purely due to luck. There is a good game underneath all of these complaints; after all, the world itself is fantastic and the characters are well written. The story does a good job at making you feel invested and immersed into the lore. It just takes a while for the fruits of labor to ripen. Once they do, you'll have a great dark fantasy with plenty of twists and turns.
Arshad reviewed Vambrace: Cold Soul on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.