Rogue-lite (or rogue-like-like, as some call it) is a curious name that covers all sorts of games. From platformers to first-person shooters, from survival horror to strategy/simulation like Dwarf Fortress. Not to mention all kinds of hybrids. That’s what happens when you take just one game (Rogue, 1980), create a bunch of “spiritual successors” that have similar gameplay, but with own twists. And then make another iteration from those rouge-likes.
The Darkest Dungeon was already far from the roots. With side-scrolling perspective, “stress” mechanic and meta-game where you manage parties of adventurers. And yet, developers from Devespresso Games took another step further by crossing it with Visual Novel.
The Coldest Dungeon
Though, there is not much left in Vambrace: Cold Soul from its source of inspiration. Yes, you walk down the abandoned streets of Icenaire in the same side-view perspective. Occasionally enter side alleys, and even go on the “global” map. But that map and streets’ layout itself is completely fixed. Only the contents of the rooms change. Where once you’ve met a merchant, next time can be an enemy encounter, or a bunch of boxes with loot, maybe even some “special event” that can provide a boon or trouble for companion of your choosing.
Enemy encounters are also made similar to Darkest Dungeon. But a lot was streamlined and simplified. Each party member has one normal attack and one “flourish” – special action that is “charged” at each passing turn. Plus standard actions – block (spends “vigor”), pass turn and exchange place in the party (first two “slots” are considered first raw and are most exposed to damage).
Unlike “stress” mechanic, vigor level in Vambrace doesn’t affect characters in any way. It’s essentially “additional” health – if it goes down to zero, a character dies. There is no experience points or other progressions for your companions. There is only one(!) slot for “relic”, that designed to raise character’s stats or change “flourish” action.
You can dismiss anyone from your party, find the character of the same class on “recruiting board” and you won’t feel the difference. Except, Lyric – the protagonist of the story, has always to be a member of your party going to the surface.
The Lightest Novel
The story is, well, about young woman Evelia Lyric coming to the city of Icenaire seeking secrets of her recently deceased father. Lyric also possesses Aetherbrace – a mystical vambrace that allows her to pass some ice barriers that were made by Green Flame cult and its leader – The King of Shades.
Icenaire itself was built by Dwarves, to become new trade and culture center of their kingdom. Though things didn’t go very smoothly because of Drifters – migrants from all kingdoms, who came to the city for a better life. As tensions rose, they finally broke out into civil war. And among the chaos Green Flame, as you could expect from an evil cult that had a hand in manipulating both sides, unleashed a curse that cut Incenare from the world and killed most of the citizens, turning their souls into ravenous mad wraiths.
Don’t worry about politics. Besides a few jokes game doesn’t go very deep. In fact, the story itself quickly turns into helping the survivors, who were able to hide in Dalearch – the shelter deep below the city. Eventually Lyric and her party will be stopping King of Shades from acquiring ancient power, saving the world, revealing the true meaning of the prophecies… You know, the usual stuff. Though there are a few additions to the plot to make it less generic.
There are also side-quests, that include bringing a cat to the owner, finding family heirloom left on the surface, a simple investigation. There are even some special battles, but mostly they are about running around and talking to various NPCs. All dialogues, as well as narration, are solid, but not going beyond something you see in typical shounen anime. Only horrific sights of frozen corpses make the plot a bit serious.
The Biggest Bo… I mean, The Prettiest Eyes
Actually, visuals and environment are one of Vambrace attractive parts. And I’m not just talking about lots of buxom ladies as your party members, main and background characters. Somber atmosphere of frozen city, created through both horrific sights and ambient music, makes Icenaire a believable place.
Dialogues and “Codex”, provide additional information about the world. Various references to cultures of Dwarves, Elves, Edeni (humans) and Foxie (people with fox tails and ears) create an extensive context for game’s characters and interactions with them. The whole ability to trade with ghosts (ones that are not under Shade King control, anyway) is thoroughly explained by Foxie traditions of offerings to their ancestors.
This world feels holistic, consistent and vibrant, pretty much like one in Dark Souls – with its own myths, history, and social customs. Too bad most of the information doesn’t translate into the game itself. And left only as notes in Lyric’s Codex Illuminus.
Another problem is the game’s interface. It’s nice and totally helps with aesthetics, but has some functionality quirks. For example, the amount of health and vigor on the main screen is shown only as bars, not numbers. Several times during battles I miscalculated, how many HP enemies have, which lead to most unpleasant consequences. Even with your own troops, you have to make few extra clicks to see how much health or vigor is lost and apply healing items most efficiently.
A Tiniest Bit Above Average
Overall, you can memorize enemies’ characteristics, get used to interface and control quirks, and (with quite a bit of a grind) craft advanced relics to counter unfair random. So you would be able to progress through the moderately interesting story and see more of Vambrace: Cold Soul *ahem* visuals and backgrounds.
Is it worth it? For me – just barely. Without many nuances, battles become repetitive rather quickly. And other special events in the “dungeon” rooms also become familiar fast enough. The slog of the main gameplay really reminds of first Final Fantasy games, yet even there with exp gain you still felt progression that allowed kill enemies faster and with less harm for the party. Here unfinished run is just another waste of time.
To developers’ credit, they already improved much in the game, during its time from release. Shelters that allow to heal, if you were unlucky to find any campsites. New Game+ to explore other endings without much grind.
Maybe they will fix even more. But even with those improvements (that I especially criticize, as the game doesn’t have “Early Access” sign), Vambrace would hardly be interesting for anyone, except those who seek its unique somber world and has a soft spot for nice anime style of characters.