It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I haven’t played Darkest Dungeon but what I know of it and what I learned further from numerous sources for the sake of this review, I can say one thing: a roguelite 2D action-RPG Vambrace: Cold Souls from a Korean indie developer Devespresso Games isn’t just a homage to Darkest Dungeon, it’s a rip-off. How sincere is that? Along with all the obvious similarities, both superficial and deeper in the gameplay, come also worst sides of Darkest Dungeon but they are only inflated here.
Where Vambrace: Cold Soul triumphs over its inspiration is its beautiful, hand-drawn 2D art. It enlivens the great city of Icenaire where Evelia Lyric, an ethereally beautiful icy blonde with heterochromatic eyes, stumbles into. Lyric wields a mysterious vambrace that can penetrate magical ice barriers that are put up around the city by Green Flame, a terrorist group hellbent on conquering Icenaire. It comes as no surprise that after initial suspicions aroused by a mysterious stranger, Lyric is enlisted to lead expeditions outside of the city because, quite frankly, she’s only one who can do it.
Icenaire acts as a central hub where Lyric hurdles around in a top-down view between key locations. Whenever she enters them, the action shifts into a bold and vivid, side-scrolling 2D view full of character and incidental animations. Most of the quests are planned out in a war room while the pub houses Lyric’s modest quarters and is also a place to hear local rumors. Fellow party members to join expeditions are recruited from an adventure’s guild and in the forge, you can craft supporting items from material salvaged from expeditions.
Expeditions are played out on randomly generated maps and again, viewed form the side with huge status panels eating up a sizeable chunk of the screen. It all looks delightfully 16-bit! You have to conquer five maps in order to proceed to each expedition’s s final confrontation to complete them. The party consists of Lyric and three companions, with two spots in the front reserved for melee characters and the rest two for rangers. Wielding a crossbow, Lyric herself occupies one ranged spot. The journey takes the party through places like spas, warehouses and pubs, all abandoned save for lost spirits haunting them. Geistometer keeps track of each map’s spirit energy that increases as the time passes. When it’s full, spirits will attack the party in each room of the map, otherwise enemy encounters are random. There are also other events that can take place in locations, such as meeting a ghost merchant with valuables to sell or bumping into playful spirits who want to play games with Lyric and her comrades.
Most of the encounters, though, call for taking up arms in turn-based battles. Characters’ awareness value dictates their strict turn order in the fight that can’t be influenced (apart from characters dying, obviously). Combat options are limited and don’t offer much room for creativity nor are they dependent on player’s skills in any way. You can attack, block or use a special flourish attack when it becomes available from hits delivered and received, and that’s it. No matter how you plan out the combat (not that there’s much to plan out in the first place), it all depends only on luck – virtual dice tosses behind the scenes.
Eventually, all systems mount up and battle against the player. You can’t use healing items in the heat of battle or anywhere else but only in the camp sites that are randomly placed on expedition map. One character (preferably the one with the best overwatch value) keeps watch and entertains others to replenish their vigor, or you can sleep to recover hit points. Nice and dandy, you’d think, but all this is randomized, too, as a chance of successful camping is also based on a dice roll you can’t affect. So, you’re as much likely to fail and the only thing that comes out of it is that the time has passed, increasing spirit activity. Your best chance in the camp is to use items that restore health or vigor. Of course, inventory space is limited and when a party member dies, the inventory capacity drops accordingly and you became over encumbered, putting penalties to each statistic. That means throwing away good loot if you don’t bump into the ghost merchant anytime soon.
Expeditions maps are always randomized as are their assets and encounters, but Vambrace: Cold Soul is a roguelite because if Lyric dies (when either her health or vigor drops to zero), it’s not a game over as she’s whisked off to an Elven field hospital. However, all the progress in an interrupted expedition is lost (save for the loot, thankfully), so Lyric has to gather a new party as the fellow adventures will stay dead. And here we go into other looming omission in the game. As stated earlier, two front spots in the party are for melee characters and two rear spots for rangers. Unfortunately, there are often occasions when there are no rangers available in the adventure’s guild as they, too, are randomized with no artificial intelligence sniffing your class needs. You might need to hit the expedition with only three acting characters as melee is completely useless in the ranged spot.
Too much in the game depends on random checks on everything with not enough variables or interactions on the player’s side, giving you always a bad hand. It feels like you’re preparing for an arm-wrestling contest but someone breaks your wrist before that. With luck - and only with luck, mind you - you can make progress but all the trouble (read: multiple retries) you go through will no doubt make your head hurt. It’s as if there has been no play testing at all to see whether playing Vambrace is any way meaningful. If the developers themselves would realize what’s wrong with the game, it still wouldn’t help. They’re already busy making a sequel to their horror hit The Coma: Recut so it’s unlikely they would come and fix Vambrace: Cold Soul. It’s just a shame. The game sporting this beautiful art and equally beautiful female lead would have deserved so much more.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.