Review: Vambrace: Cold Soul (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • XBox One
  • Nintendo Switch
  • PC/Mac

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • HDTV

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required
  • Move None
Title: Vambrace: Cold Soul
Format: PSN (5.47 GB)
Release Date: August 29, 2019
Publisher: Headup Games
Developer: Headup Games
Original MSRP: $24.99 (US)
ESRB Rating: T
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Vambrace: Cold Soul will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever seen a glimpse of Darkest Dungeons. Developer Devespresso Games is not shy about where they got their inspiration.

Vambrace is a story-driven fantasy roguelike. The lore around the frozen landscape instantly reeled me in. Not many games grab me from the beginning like this. While much is still unknown, you can tell there is an interesting world to explore and secrets to discover. As someone who has never played a game of Dungeons & Dragons, I suddenly had a strong urge to start.

The tutorial is a little overwhelming at the beginning. Too much information is dished out before letting me get hands-on with what is being discussed. Breaking the tutorial into a couple of smaller sections would have been greatly appreciated, as well as a good chance to help the player by providing more context. In the middle of one of the big barrages of information, I was told I can change the order of my party, without ever being told why my party order mattered. The tutorial would have flowed better if that tidbit was saved for the first combat situation, where the importance of the party order is explained.

Later, much of the smaller details are better spaced out, because the game waits for the player to encounter something or open their inventory for the first time.

Vambrace is the story of Evelia Lyric, who is sent off on an adventure by a letter from her late father, along with a pair of mysterious vambraces. She is accompanied by a revolving group of adventurers, who are subject to permadeath. It is not enough to just survive. Fear is a powerful emotion, and members will also perish if their vigor reaches zero.

The story quickly advances after you arrive at the base camp. Not much time is spared before Evelia needs to be on her way for the first mission. But not long after, she is approached by two separate people asking her to look out for an item they are interested in. Both mention there is much to be gained by being in their favor. Player choice is nothing new, but adds another level to the world lore.

There is a fine line between allowing players to figure things out for themselves and simply being too opaque. Unfortunately, Devespresso Games dashes across that line without ever looking back. This may make the game more challenging at times, but really it just makes a challenging and punishing game unfair.

Vambrace should require a lot of strategy; you are constantly looking at how well the party is holding up, what’s ahead, and weighing all risks. However, the game simply does not provide the information necessary to do so.

From the beginning, it is shown that stats are important. The ability to avoid a trap or get a good night’s rest at a campfire all depends on the party’s stats. Yet many times, I would come across an object or person and be asked to choose a party member. Each member’s picture would appear with a pair of dice beneath them. There is no luck stat and no information is given. It always seemed to work out in that nothing bad happened to my party. Did I win the dice roll?

The missions are comprised of several levels and a boss fight. Each level has branching paths, but all lead to the same end. Each member of the party loses vigor every time the party moves from one part of a level to the next. So you don’t want to go through every part of a level but the game provides no motivation not to take the quickest path each time. A quick comment from a character about how a town was not evacuated in time and most of the valuables still remain would have completely changed my approach. Even then, there are often two different paths that take the same amount of time to reach the end. Why should I go left and not right? There are many risk/reward scenarios, but no idea what either is.

Camps are critical to survival. Sometimes, I was stumbling onto them, and other times I went a few levels without finding one, which ultimately led to the deaths of my party members. Not being able to find a campfire is not the result of bad player choice, nor simple lack of understanding the mechanics. The player has a map, there should be something on it besides the different paths. A game can’t be challenging if blind luck and constant random guessing have that much impact.

On my first mission, my party was in dire shape until I stumbled across a campfire. The party leader was standing in front of the fire with an icon. The game doesn’t explain how to rest, so I hit the cross button and the party left the campfire. They had not covered it at all and I was not able to go back to the campfire. There was no tutorial on how the campfire worked or a prompt asking me if I was sure I wanted to leave the campfire. Shortly after, my party was wiped out.

On more than one occasion I have had a party member flee in the middle of combat because I accidentally hit the wrong button. My fault, but still very annoying in a punishing game.

Even the turn based combat, a core mechanic of Vambrace, failed to grab my attention. The player’s and enemy’s parties line up opposite of each other in positions one through four. Each character has a standard short, medium, or long attack, along with a few special abilities.

The idea behind the party members’ positions and the different standard attacks is that a short attack can only be done from position one and two and only reach enemy position one and two. So this should create a lot of strategy. Not only do you need to consider the position of your own party, but the enemies as well.

However, as soon as you kill the enemy in position one, the short attack can now reach enemies in positions two and three. Unless there is an enemy dealing major damage or a witch in position four healing everyone, there is really no reason not to take them one through four. There may be a deeper reason to fight enemies in a certain order, but none of the symbols or status effects on the player’s party or enemies is explained.

Evelia is the only character not subject to permadeath. So the player constantly has a new group of adventurers with new attacks. I could never remember what my party’s actions were. The attacks and abilities are on the face buttons, however there is no description of what each attack or ability does. So I had to use the D-pad to enter the character menu, decide what action I wanted to take, back out of the menu, and then press the appropriate face button. The combat almost instantly became a boring and tedious slog I was forced to endure to complete the mission and earn more story.

Visuals:
Vambrace’s art style is one of its shining moments. The gorgeous hand drawn art and animations are the cherry on top of the amazing world design by Devespresso Games.

Audio:
Underneath the constant howl of the wind and the sound of crunching snow beneath boots is a beautiful and haunting original soundtrack. Once again the setting of the world is nailed. The orchestra raises tempo and crashes it back down, reminding the player of the hopeless situation and desolate surroundings.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is single player only with no online component.

Conclusion:
Vambrace: Cold Soul is a game I desperately want to love. The art style, music, lore, and world building are beautifully done and cry out to me. It feels weird saying this but I just can’t stand the gameplay. This is not even an “it’s ok but could have been better” situation. There are some good ideas and I can see glimpses of solid gameplay. However as it is, I didn’t enjoy any of it.

Score:
5.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Matt Engelbart

Matt Engelbart

I love all things video games. When I am not gaming I am watching the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, BBQing, and reading.

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