I’ve tried several times now to think of an opener to this review, but all I ever come back to is this: Vambrace: Cold Soul is quite brilliant. There’s so much detail on show here – both visually and mechanically – that it’s easy to feel rather overwhelmed, especially early on. But stick with it, and you’ll find a game that rewards as often as it punishes, and it’s all the sweeter for it.
Starting out, the most striking thing to me was the large, well designed character art. Our hero Evelia Lyric is almost your typical Anime styled hero, all emphasised proportions squeezed into improbable outfits. I imagine even without a quick Google, you already have a good idea of what I mean. While the other female characters tend to follow this trend, they are at least all all uniquely designed, with various otherworldly races mixing up the buxom vixen look. The male cast are somewhat more subtly beefy, covered as they are in thick armour and huge beards, or deceptively scraggly, hidden behind loose fitting garments.
While some may be a little more dismissive of these tropes, I found all the designs to work well within the confines of the world, plus later customisation allows you to mix things up a bit. The actual art itself is also brilliant drawn, with rich colours and lots of detail. And while there’s not much in the way of animation, there’s a lot of expressiveness to them all the same. This extends to the environments too, each section you visit bursting with detail, and colour schemes that perfectly capture the mood of each area and camp.
And what mood there is. There’s a deep narrative to follow here, with twists and turns galore, rival factions using you for subterfuge and an over arching tale of oppression. The Shade King has cast a great spell over the city of Icenaire that has entombed it in a wall of impenetrable ice, known as the Frostfell. He is also resurrecting the dead to join his army as wraiths. Chaos has fallen over the land, with those trapped in the underground area of Dalearch succumbing to in-fighting in a bid to survive. When Lyric manages to get into the city through the Frostfell – via the use of the Vambrace left to her by her late father, alongside a mysterious tomb – she immediately becomes a beacon to anyone who wants change – for better or worse.
The writing is at once engaging enough to keep you interested, adequetly getting across characterisation and tone, while not going so far as to make it a chore to read. Thankfully so, as with no voice over in the cut-scenes, you’re left to do a fair amount of reading. Occasionally responses can break the illusion – almost falling out of character – before carrying on as if nothing happened. But those are few and far between.
The mains crux of the experience here though is exploring, fighting and returning key figures’ wraiths back to friendly ghosts to help aid your journey. We have a small over world hub to explore, with several districts to visit in order to gather clues, quests and items. One of my main frustrations with Vambrace is exploring this area. Viewed from a top down perspective, Lyric is reduced to a chibi form. She moves about the place quick enough, but everything is labelled with symbols that will have no meaning to the player for quite a while. It was a fair few hours before I started to get to grips with where I’d likely find someone, and even then it was a bit of guess work (This is a problem elsewhere too, but I’ll get to that).
Before heading out on your main quest, you must stock up on supplies, prepare your inventory and recruit allies to join you. Visiting the board at camp will give you a list of characters to choose from. Mixing up abilities and specialisations is key, since once you’re out exploring, you will need to rely on each members strengths to get back home in one piece. Again, here I feel there is a slight lack of information on what they can and can’t do – relying on symbols that sort of align with their effect. There is a tutorial you can access at anytime to see what these mean, but I found myself in there far more than I should have when weighing up new members or upgrades.
Once ready, it’s time to take the lift to the surface. Here, you will face some serious punishments should you failed to prepare adequately. Gameplay takes the form of a side on adventure, with those large characters filling most of the screen. There’s yet more symbols to be wary of (and to check the tutorials repeatedly for). Sometimes, Vambrace can feel a little bogged down by simply presenting you with so much information at once. And that’s before we even get out of the starting room.
Each area you explore is made up of about 10 randomly assigned subsections, of which you must visit at least 5 in order to reach the exit. A – shockingly simple in comparison to the other HUD elements – map allows you to plan your route, though unless you have a specific class of character with you, you’ll not know what each room holds until you enter it. These range from a battle against some of the wraiths or scavengers who inhabit the land, to random chance encounters that take the form of moral choices for the most part, and it’s up to you whether the risk is worth any potential reward. For example, the ghost of an old man may approach you – listening to his plea may yield a powerful tonic, but should you upset him, then you may find yourself in deep trouble. After a while, it becomes pretty easy to spot which event may happen as soon as you enter a room. You can try to back out before triggering it, if you have an alternate route but this too has consequences.
The bitter cold above ground means that each time you enter a new area, one Vigor point is deducted from all squad members. Vigor, along with a health bar, is one of the main factors in determining your survival. Should either reach zero, that character will die. For good. Well, Lyric will be transported back to base along with any other surviving members, but recruited allies will lay slain on the field, with you not even able to loot them to regain any armour they may have had. You’ll also need to bear in mind the Geistometer – each room entered fills the bar up a little more, as well as actions such as resting at camp. Once filled, extra powerful Wraiths will appear in every room that cause unavoidable fights (unless you retreat). Party members have barely any dialogue or personality, feeling more like personified stats than actual characters. While I lost a few in my playtime, I mainly felt it in the insane difficulty of the areas, rather than on any sort of emotional level.
My other main gripe outside of the abundance of symbols (more in a minute) is the sheer slog the game can feel a times, especially if you lose someone near the end of an area. Healing items and rest can only be used at designated camp spots, also beholden to the random nature of the layouts. After clearing a few groups of areas, you’ll come up against the end game section, where the big bad will be waiting. If you haven’t seen a camp for a while, chances are you’re vitals will be low, and you’ve basically no chance of completion. You can retreat, losing all progress but keeping any items found, yet that almost feels worse than falling in battle. It would’t be so bad if each overall section didn’t take hours to complete; I must’ve taken 4 attempts to clear the first boss, which amounted to about 15 hours total… Movement speed is also somewhat frustratingly slow too. While you can sprint in the underground hub, out on the field you are reduced to a slow walk for the entire time.
Battles are also slow, but not in a negative way. A turn based affair, characters are assigned a slot according to their class and stats, then each takes their turn to attack. Options are limited, with just 3 usable options per character, as well as one to put up your guard. It’s here that things start to pick back up though. Depending on you crew, the strategic options here are quite something. Do you use a weaker poison to deal damage over a few turns, or go all out at the expense of some charged up energy, potentially leaving yourself exposed? Or train your sights on defending an ally, foregoing attacking the enemy at all. I’ll admit, it took a little while to get in to the groove, but once you adjust to your teams strengths, it becomes supremely satisfying to line up blow after blow, wiping out enemies just before their turn.
But by the same token, later on you can feel unfairly cornered, due to some powerful foes appearing out of nowhere, with no chance to heal yourself in battle – or even between battles half the time. And then there’s all those damn symbols. Seemingly every move causes some status effect on someone, whether it’s getting hit in battle, failing a chance encounter or being caught in a trap. A little symbol will show above their head, then a completely separate symbol will be displayed on the info screen. However, there’s no indication of what any of them mean. Some are self-explanatory – a broken bone for a fracture, for example – but I found most to be quite obscure.
This is made even more annoying by the fact that healing items only fix certain things. The amount of potions I wasted trying to heal someone… The potions themselves do say what they cure, but with out a comparable detail in the character screen, it feels too much like guesswork. Even more obscure symbols present in battle, placed in such tiny images inside our squads picture on the status bar as to be illegible, with no explanation. Perhaps I missed a tutorial somewhere, and if so, that will alleviate some issue – though it shouldn’t really come to checking the pause menu after every turn to see what’s what.
Vambrace is absolutely not a game to be taken lightly, and will take any chance it can to remind you of that. Even so, I found I couldn’t stop playing it, eager to get back to the surface and take another stab at the monsters above. There’s enough fun in the tactics and planning to make it worth fighting through the confusing HUD elements. The world has been crafted in an interesting, believable way, and while the characters veer close to anime style excess, the overall designs and aesthetic are great.
There’s a lot to like about Vambrace: Cold Soul. From the gorgeous art work, through the brilliant world building and atmosphere to the deeply involved systems at play, there’s clearly been some love poured into this game. The difficulty – especially early on – and the obscure nature of some elements of the HUD are the main snags in an otherwise brilliant bit of software. If you’ve got the time (and patience), there’s a brilliant experience to be had here.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.