After reading about the PC version of Vambrace: Cold Soul earlier in 2019, I couldn’t wait for it to come out on Xbox One. Its standout visual look, focus on characters and story, and challenging gameplay really appealed to me. But while it drew inspiration from many other games as well, I couldn’t help but draw constant correlations with one in particular after playing it: Darkest Dungeon. Hence, I will compare the two throughout this review.
Vambrace starts out with a short tutorial following a small group of scavengers. It tries to explain its many mechanics in one go, but instead, overwhelms you with information early on. I remembered almost nothing after this initial segment and had to read the “Help” section afterwards. Anyway, this group eventually stumbles upon Evelia Lyric, whom they discover frozen on the surface and on the brink of death.
They bring her back to the underground refuge of Daelarch, located deep below the surface of the Icenaire city. Surviving citizens of the city have retreated underground in order to protect themselves from the King of Shades. On the surface, he has turned everyone into mad wraiths and amassed a deadly army. It’s the Game of Thrones in a video game form, but the story is engaging nonetheless.
Though local authorities are distrustful of Evelia at first, eventually she’s released from her prison cell and assigned with a task. From there, the story follows Evelia. Her father passed away and entrusted Evelia with a mysterious vambrace and the city of Icenaire as the only clue. With this vambrace, Evelia has the power to dispel Frostfences created by the King of Shades and mitigate his influence.
As for the task itself, it involves going back to the surface and locating a witch by the name of Isabel. Fearless warriors of Daelarch, known as the Guardians, frequently venture outside to scavenge for resources. But with Evelia at their side, for the first time, they bear the power to disrupt the King’s dominant position.
Before embarking on her mission, Evelia must recruit a team of up to three comrades to assist her. This is done through the recruiting board in town which initially offers several characters for you to choose from. Aside from that, you can visit the market to purchase some necessities and equipment or talk to NPCs to possibly reveal side-quests.
I particularly like the implementation of side-quests in Vambrace. They might present you with an important decision to make, in addition to completing the quest. For instance, two characters might ask you to obtain the same item for a reward. After obtaining that item, it’s then up to you to decide who’s worthy of it. And your decision will impact the received reward for that quest as well as the relationship with the ignored character.
Daelarch houses multiple settlements, each with a unique race inhabiting it: including Dwarves, Humans and Sylvani (elves). They don’t particularly like each other, but unite against a common threat. Choices on the recruiting board consist of these races and more; some offer exceptional offensive capabilities, others provide healing skills etc.
Each character class boasts specific advantages, both in and outside of combat. Dragoons are these hefty warriors wearing skull-like helmets, always at the forefront, dealing damage. Fencers, similarly, stick to the frontlines, but also possess useful abilities outside of combat, like increased Sleight. And Fusiliers, represented as Dwarves, are irreplaceable at detecting and avoiding deadly traps. To use certain skills, they all must be placed in specific spots on the battlefield, so having three Dragoons isn’t a good idea.
As for Evelia, unfortunately, she doesn’t possess any distinct abilities. But she can be placed anywhere on the battlefield and still perform effectively. Also, as you progress, she collects perk points which can be used to increase her stats, such as Combat and Sleight.
In addition to everything mentioned previously, each character has a set of stats which affect exploration and various actions. Sleight affects the ability to pick locks and even obtain better loot as a result. Merchantry affects the prices at vendors and the quality of goods they might have on sale. Awareness affects a character’s ability to detect and avoid traps. And characters with a high Overwatch stat should be considered as watchmen during camping at bonfires.
I found it especially important to have characters with high Sleight and Awareness in the party at all times. Having someone to detect every trap is crucial for survival. And being able to open every treasure chest and obtaining better loot is almost equally important.
Once you’ve taken in the sights and smells, it’s time to access the elevator and ascend to the surface. Above, everything is different: rooms are covered in frost and frozen corpses line the rooms at almost every step. Moreover, you’ll occasionally encounter ghostly figures gliding across the screen. They don’t attack, but contribute to building the game’s atmosphere really well. Vambrace boasts a number of mild horror elements, no doubt inspired by the studio’s previous horror game: The Coma. And as a welcome reference, some characters from it even appear in Vambrace as NPCs.
To put progression simply, you must guide your party from the starting point to the exit and access the next area. Each area consists of a small map housing a number of rooms and associated events. Generally, rooms feature combat encounters, loot, special risk and reward events, as well as camps to rest at. To reach the boss area and complete the chapter, you must traverse five such areas. And you may also often choose which path to take, which leads to different encounters, events and loot.
Special events are random and can even repeat throughout your travels. They play out as short cutscenes, often with multiple choices. Will you enter that spooky cellar in hope of finding loot? What’s better, candy or chocolate? More often than not, however, you’ll come out of these events unscathed and with some valuables to boot.
During exploration, your characters lose Vigor, generally at one point per entering a new room. Combat encounters and environmental traps also affect Health. And if at any point a character’s Health or Vigor drops to zero, that character dies for good. An exception applies to Evelia; if for whatever reason she falls, the party automatically returns to the town. In addition to that, there’s an even greater consideration to make.
As you move from one room to another, a Terror bar gradually increases, as indicated by the Geistometer in the bottom left. Once it reaches a certain threshold, any encountered enemies become much stronger, receiving this greenish glow. Hence, it’s not about exploring each and every room and hoarding loot. It’s about finding the shortest path to exit and reaching it in one piece. Transitioning into the next area resets the Geistometer.
However, while Health and Vigor can be manipulated with potions during camping, Terror is much less forgiving. As far as I know, there’s no way to decrease it manually.
Speaking of which. Camps allow you to use items, converse with comrades, entertain them with a song or simply rest. Classes, such as Fencers and Shadowmancers, can also send ravens to survey the rooms ahead at the cost of Terror. Entertainment and resting restores Vigor and Health determined by an overseeing character’s Overwatch stat. But again, at the cost of increasing the Terror bar.
In-between areas, you’ll also discover shelters, which allow you to craft new items and equipment. Because you can’t use items outside of camps, it’s a good idea to utilize all of the collected resources here. Use potions and brews, cure various status ailments with different concoctions. and craft new equipment. Crafting is simple, just choose a recipe from the list and if you possess the required materials – poof – new item! Taking advantage of these respite points is crucial because combat can be unforgiving.
Combat encounters unfold within the same room; they don’t transport you to some other mysterious realm. Each character, including enemies, takes a turn in an order determined by the Awareness stat. Everyone has available actions between regular attacks, special attacks and defensive options. Regular attacks are always available and deal damage based on a character’s Combat stat. Special attacks, on the other hand, consume Flourish points which gradually restore upon performing regular actions. Many of these attacks are effective against particular enemy types, as showcased in each skill’s description.
Successful or failed actions are conveniently displayed as scripts. For instance, a green script means success, while a blue one indicates at a critical hit.
Despite its obvious difficulty, there are much fewer options during combat in Vambrace than in Darkest Dungeon. Even different characters of the same class rarely differ in terms of abilities and stats. At best, they differ slightly in appearance, while available skills remain mostly the same.
Because I neglected the Terror bar, my party didn’t succeed on their first expedition to the surface. My Fencer fell in battle and Evelia fell soon after. And if Evelia dies, it doesn’t matter if other characters are still alive. It also feels like success or failure often depends on what you’ll encounter in the rooms, and whether or not you’ll find a camp to rest at.
Only a couple of my comrades survived, so I had to recruit new faces. One of them was a stalwart Dragoon by the name of Humphrey. I decided to call him Humphrey Bogart. And the other was a fierce Dwarf whom I employed for detecting traps.
Without spending much time on preparation otherwise, I embarked to the surface once again. Thanks to previous experience, I managed to get much further. However, during this second attempt, my shit-talking Dwarf fell due to loss of Vigor. His hunched, frozen corpse remained behind as survivors marched onwards.
While at a camp soon after, I reflected upon my fallen comrade; it was an odd sense of loss. Though not quite in the same capacity as in Darkest Dungeon. It doesn’t feel like you lost a dear friend or an integral part of a greater whole. It’s more of a temporary inconvenience, easily rectified by recruiting new members in town.
Upon dying, you still retain all of your equipped items. Aside from relics equipped on your frail comrades. Which brings me to the next point – item weight. Almost every item in Vambrace has its own weight, ranging from item to item. Total weight is determined by each individual party member as well as the total size of the party. Whenever it’s over the max threshold, your party suffers a number of severe stat bonuses. And I can’t stress enough how negatively these affect exploration and combat.
Each party member can be equipped with a relic which boosts stats. But since these items are lost upon a character’s death, I was reluctant to give them any. In Darkest Dungeon, if a character dies, you always have the option to retrieve their equipment. If anyone dies, the max weight decreases, while the current weight does not. This means that you may have to discard certain items to avoid the stat penalty. And that gives all the more reason to head straight to the exit as it’s often impossible to collect every item, anyway.
My Arc Caster from the first team of recruitees fell soon after. It was only Evelia and Bogart, both on the verge of exhaustion. Despite the odds, I was full of determination and confidence that I could persevere and reach the boss area. And I did! It was a glorious battle between my two survivors and a quartet of ghosts from which my team emerged victorious. Now, only a small number of rooms separated me and the boss, and I could almost sense triumph.
Evelia fell due to loss of Vigor and woke up in a hospital. Both, the dwarf and the cat-lady were gone, but Humphrey Bogart was waiting for me at the pub.
Same shit, different day. I realized that I had to change my approach and measures had to be taken, so with a heavy heart – I let Bogart go. Interestingly, dismissed party members don’t remain within the environment as an NPC: they simply vanish. With that out of the way, I had to recruit a new team of cutthroats; a bunch so despicable that every ghost would tremble in fear.
This time, I spent way more time on assembling my party and preparing resources for crafting to keep them alive. So yeah, my second expedition wasn’t successful as well. Nor was my third or fourth escapade to the surface. It took me five attempts just to complete the game’s first chapter. And in that time, it felt like I had already played the whole game.
Vambrace often looks and plays like Red Hook’s Darkest Dungeon, though it does have its own unique visual appearance. Its story is also more prevalent and engaging. But in terms of combat depth and options, it feels extremely lacking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very difficult, but offers way fewer options to fine-tune your party and equipment. It requires less preparation to succeed and success often relies on luck, as well.
While I have very much enjoyed my time with the game, I can’t recommend it to anyone who prefers a galore of gameplay considerations. On the other hand, if you wish to enjoy the gameplay of Darkest Dungeon without tearing your hair out, then Vambrace is very much for you. It couples a Game of Thrones narrative with engaging side-quests and a more than amply challenging progression.