Vambrace: Cold Soul by Devespresso Games
I was tremendously excited for Vambrace: Cold Soul when it came out on PC earlier this year (followed by the Switch version about a month ago). I love contemporary Japanese-influenced RPGs when they’re done right (like this year’s excellent Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark).
Sweetening the pot both visually and tactically, Vambrace combines anime and JRPG tropes with a visual and tactical approach that looks lifted from Darkest Dungeon, my favorite game of 2016.
Unfortunately, Vambrace seems to have captured the worst of both worlds. I loved Darkest Dungeon’s atmosphere and potential for spontaneously arising narrative enough to forgive it for both its grind and its arbitrarily cruel RNG.
The core exploration and combat of Vambrace: Cold Soul takes that grind and that random number generator and adds needlessly complex RPG and even survival game mechanics, encumbering what was essentially a tough but minimalist exploration with loads of statistical management.
Your characters have two separate health statistics, for example, the standard and obvious “health” number as well as “vigor,” which essentially represents your resistance to the cold – the game takes place in a frozen, ghost-haunted city – but can also be lost in combat.
Losing all of either statistic means death, and there are numerous potions and items to restore either or both. A rudimentary crafting system lets you turn raw materials into said potions, but be careful how much you carry, because your party has a weight limit on top of the standard inventory grid. And that’s not even mentioning the Geistometer; fill that up, and random encounters get a lot more difficult.
So many statistics to manage. Such fun.
Try Not to Freeze
All the statistics really do is slow everything down until what could be lean and mean just feels like a depressing, snowshoe-clad slog.
Conceptually, the combat isn’t bad; like Darkest Dungeon, it’s position-based, with each character class having several attack types, the use of which are determined by both character and enemy placement on a horizontal line.
But the number of modifiers to track – like taunts and status effects and shields and so on – turn that into a slog, as well.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult enough that you can’t race through it – even if you carefully think out each move, combat is quite tough – so after a dozen of more or less similar encounters, it just feels like more JRPG grind.
I’ve Got Soul but I’m Not a Soldier
It’s a shame that the game itself is so interminable because its setting and story are both intriguing. It’s got JRPG tropes galore – fox people and scantily clad sorceresses and a plucky heroine on a quest to uncover the mystery of the artifact her departed father left to her – but there’s enough development and background lore to keep things feeling fresh.
Vambrace: Cold Soul dives into its central conceit – a town frozen within a magical wall of ice, sending its inhabitants underground while increasingly aggressive ghosts build their own society on the surface – with gusto, as well, and snowfall effects mixed with understated ambient music and wind effects will put a chill into you even on a hot day.
The art, which borrows liberally from anime as well as the darker side of Disney – the ghost spirits are like a cross between the original characters from both the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean rides – is perfect for the game’s tone: serious enough to play things straight but not entirely humorless.
It’s a world I’d want to spend more time in, if not for the fact that both the fights and the seemingly endless series of preparations between them are so exhausting.
Vambrace: Cold Soul is available via the Nintendo Game Store and Steam.
Watch the official Vambrace: Cold Soul trailer below: