Review: Vambrace: Cold Soul
Review copy provided by publisher
I have been accused, on rare occasions, of not giving games a proper chance. I would dispute that because I think some games make it immediately apparent that you will not enjoy them, but it is true that I have given some offerings less than an hour before writing them off. I have put four and a half hours into Vambrace: Cold Soul, which I’m confident is as much of a chance as anyone should give a game. Those four hours are mostly attempts at the first real mission of the game, too, both before and after Vambrace was patched to address the issues I’m about to outline. Obviously it wasn’t enough, both to address them and to keep me interested.
Evelia Lyric’s father has passed away and left her only mysteries to remember him by. His final gifts are a plea to travel to the cursed city of Icenaire, and a magical vambrace that allows her to pass the deadly frost barriers surrounding the place. Immediately she is plunged into the turmoil gripping the city, a struggle of dominance between the dutiful Guardians and the wild Green Flame, a clash of cultures between the many races trapped in Icenaire, and a war for survival between the living and the dead. Evelia has a connection to this place that remains hidden, and forging alliances with its inhabitants and exploring the darkest corners of the city will be the only way to uncover her place in this chaos.
After a brief introduction to Evelia and the game’s controls, you’ll get a shotgun blast of plot, characters, and organizations before you’re allowed back to adventuring. Evelia’s arrival in Dalearch, the Guardian’s base of operations and survivor camp, is like a beacon for every important figure in the world to introduce themselves, comment on her existence, and give her something to do. You’ll have gruff commanders, charming fox men, boisterous innkeepers, and busty sorceresses who obviously forgot what the weather was like when they got dressed to absorb plot from, so much so that you’re bound to forget some of the threads by the time you’re allowed back into the exciting parts of Icenaire.
I respect the developers for putting so much effort into their setting, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t show. Thirsty art style aside, all of the characters and factions you meet have plenty of personality and an obvious place in the overarching drama. It’s just dumped on you in a rather inelegant way, at a time when the game really should be doing more to set your expectations about quests and provisioning. I went into my first mission knowing more about blood rituals of the elves than what threats I would face on the surface, and that definitely became a problem. The rich setting and promised mysteries kept me coming back as the gameplay started to beat me up, but I can only take so much of a beating.
From what I gather, Vambrace seems to be a collection of six or seven expeditions into the cursed ruins of Icenaire. For each of your outings, you recruit up to three mercenaries to accompany Evelia and stock them with whatever healing items and gear (everyone gets one equipment slot) you think you might need. Then you take the lift up to a district of the city, which is a claustrophobic map of five neighborhoods you have to fight your way through. Those neighborhoods are networks of a dozen or so rooms to take your team through, which could contain enemy encounters, merchants, loot, campsites, or events. Tarry too long and the ghosts of Icenaire will catch up with you and ruin your day, but advancing also costs you bits of your Spirit, which in addition to your Health will kill you dead if you run out.
A lot of folks have compared Vambrace to Darkest Dungeon, but those comparisons are only skin deep. Instead of managing two distinct resources for your characters, you basically have two health bars ticking away. Healing in battle and even out of battle is almost non-existent, limited to very small boosts from camping and costly consumables that can ONLY be used while camping. Campsites are also random, so there’s no guarantee you’re going to get one before one of your party members gets whittled down to nothing by a few bad rounds. And the bosses of each chapter (or at least the first real one in the entertainment district) are tough enough that losing a single character pretty much scraps that attempt.
If a run goes awry, you keep whatever items you found. That’s it. Evelia and her allies don’t level up from combat, there’s no gear except that one slot for minor stat boosts, and at least in the early game your consumables are limited to weak healing. At different points since release, I have attempted the chapter 2 mission three times and failed every time from one of my party members getting picked off between campsites. Losing an hour or more of effort every time to factors that seem increasingly out of my control burned up pretty much all the good will the art and writing had built with me. It’s not even a complex combat system either, as every character has only three abilities and one of them is a basic attack.
I can tell a lot of love went into the presentation of Vambrace, but not enough went into its gameplay designs. There’s simply too much tedium and needless punishment baked into the mission structure, flaws that apparently nine patches have still not addressed. Folks that have gotten further into it seem to like it, and more power to them if they feel their time has not been wasted. I almost wish I could tell what it was I’ve been doing wrong, if it really isn’t just down to random chance, but the fact that these questions linger after so many hours is just another indictment of the design. I guess I’ll never know what’s so special about that vambrace, but it’s not like I didn’t try.