Vambrace: Cold Soul (Switch) Review
Vambrace: Cold Soul
Release Date: August 28/29 (dependent on platform)
Publisher/Developer: Headup Games/Devespresso Games
Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
The underground city of Dalearch has been cut off from the world by an eternal winter created by the King of Shades. The frozen wastelands surrounding the town literally freeze and kill anyone who touches it instantly. The townsfolk are rightfully wary when one day Evelia Lyric walks her way into town, seemingly able to pass straight through the barrier with no worry. She has a quest of her own involving her father, a mysterious codex, and a vambrace that allows her to survive the mysterious freeze. (While the title sounds like a cool, made-up name, it actually has it’s historical context, being metallic armor for the forearm). The leaders of the town warily accept Lyric, as she is the first and only one to brave the frost and live. They know that if she can adventure out and search for solutions it could lead to the safety of the entire town.
Vambrace: Cold Soul drew me in primarily by how much it feels like a classic round of Dungeons and Dragons. Lyric is a great all-around character with ranged and close combat attacks, but you can recruit up to three teammates to take on expeditions. None of your party members really have any bearing on the story, and can be eliminated quickly if you don’t pay attention. Party members are affected by permadeath, so if they’re gone you’re off to recruit more. Just like in Dungeons and Dragons, finding the perfect combination of supports for a particular area is critical for progression.
Each area you visit is basically a maze. You have a base map that represents the community you are in, and you have to relate the map to your current positioning to determine how to exit an area and get closer to the next zone. Sometimes you have to pay attention to how you enter the room to know how to orient the map in your brain, a feature I haven’t used since the advent of cell phones and GPS! Rooms may be full of loot, chance encounters with other adventurers, or enemies. Battles are held in turn based, 4-on-4 style. Weapons and abilities have ranges, meaning you have to watch how you arrange your party. That melee berzerker isn’t going to do much damage from the back row, and your gunner will be torn up on the front line. Again, this felt a little D&D, as turns were based on character stats and had a “die roll” randomness as well. Attack and defense aren’t the only things you have to monitor: characters will suffer losses in vigor from damage or even disheartening situations like finding corpses of a family that didn’t make it out of the frost in time. You have to monitor all your stats constantly. You also have to monitor the “Geistometer,” a special tool that shows how many enemies are in the area. Once it fills up a certain amount, all areas become deadly battles. It’s a race against the clock to find the next exit and all the treasure within or face the wrath of the local spectres. At any time you can instantly retreat to the town, losing your progress but keeping your loot. It’s a constant balance as you craft new weaponry and armor to delve further onto the frozen surface.
I love the artwork of Vambrace. Ever since the animated cutscenes of Twisted Metal 2 on the PlayStation, I’ve enjoyed that look of 2D “papercut” characters. Your party looks like it leapt off the page of a comic. Meanwhile, the 2 dimensional environments are brimming with life thanks to some smart use of perspective and distance. The shadows of people or pillars in the foreground across our heroine’s path add a lot of depth to the world. The developers also had some fun with side quests that unlock new outfits for Lyric, with great shades of everything from Sailor Moon to Zero Suit Samus available.
The only things holding me back from giving Vambrace a perfect score lie in some pretty difficult and unchangeable aspects of the core experience, though. I can tell that Vambrace was built with a PC in mind. Nearly every single button on the Switch controller has a function or menu to get into. Even the digital pad isn’t usable as character movement because it’s full of options. There are a lot of tutorials thrown at you right off the bat that make for a confusing startup. I would appreciate a bit smoother learning curve. On the story front, while Lyric’s tale is interesting, there is a bit of overkill in the world building. I do understand that the richer a world is the more realistic it seems, but when there’s six or seven people to talk to and none of them give direction to the plot, or you pop in a room and find and pick up four or five pages to your father’s codex in a row, it just feels like it could have been condensed down a bit more. Meanwhile in the dungeon I found myself running into the same mysterious ghost two rooms in a row, or across a conveniently crumbling doorway I could risk going through a few times as well. Lastly, the Switch edition I reviewed felt like it had some load times that I wish could be trimmed down: the first time I played I thought my machine had crashed. I got used to it eventually, but I hope they can optimize it in future updates.
Vambrace: Cold Soul is a love letter to classic game tropes. We see a few obvious Final Fantasy nods, and smart use of Dungeons and Dragons style gameplay that translates well to screen, feeling more like the real-world core game design than any game intentionally made for D&D I’ve seen. I wish your party members could be as endearing as a group of adventurers around the dinner table, but they tend to come across as basic cannon fodder. Still, Vambrace offers a unique experience across a frozen wasteland, with plenty of storytelling and strategizing to satisfy any diehard RPG (tabletop, JRPG, or tactical) that may try it.
-Beautifully designed world feels like a living comic book
-Stats beyond “attack” and “defense” that actually mean something
-Old school dungeon crawling, map reading, and looting
-Too many features for too few buttons on a traditional controller
-Too many things thrown at you at once: tons of tutorials that make sense later, and enough lore to drown in before you even know to care about the inhabitants of the world
-Other parts are repetitive; similar encounters with ghosts or repeating enemy troops
-Lyric is the only fleshed-out player character in the team
Special thanks to Headup Games/Devespresso Games for providing a code for review!