Vambrace. Cold Soul Switch Review by SwitchWatch
Developer: Devespresso Games, Headup Games
Publisher: Headup Games
Release Date: August 29th 2019
Price as of Article: $24.99, £19.99
Game code provided by Headup Games
Game Size: 3.2 GB
Set in the dystopian city of Icenaire, cursed with eternal winter by the King of Shades, our story begins as a group of mercenaries venture through the cold and unforgiving scape, when they suddenly fall upon an unconcious girl in the snow. Being in a good mood they decide to bring her back to base and let their leader decide her fate. When the girl comes to, she finds herself in unfamiliar envionments, as she is being questioned by Lanvil, the general who demands to know how she got here, and how she passed through the infamously impenetrable ice wall that encircles the land.
Confused, the girl politely introduces herself as Evelia Lyric, and tries to explain that the vambrace, that is helplessly stuck on her arm, was what allowed her to pass through it. Lanvil is not entirely convinced of her story, but lets her go for now and hands her some change so she can get something to eat at the market. In the underground town of Dalearch, she meets all sorts of peculiar people, and although she starts off on the wrong foot with the village leader Celestia, it isn’t long before she falls into Lanvil’s good graces, and when a dangerous sorceress escapes her prison, Lyric, being the only one who can use the vambrace and thus pass safely through the ice walls, is then tasked with assembling a team and venture up to the deathly cold surface in pursuit of her.
Thus begins Lyric’s strange misadventures in the frozen city of Icenaire, as she searches for her long lost father, a certain Dr. Nikolaus Lyric, who happens to also be the one who invented the vambrace and left it in Lyric’s care. Will she find him in this icy hell? What will she do then? And what is her role in all this? As Lyric fights her way through hordes of undead, these questions only grown ever more prevailent.
While I won’t spoil anything beyond the initial setup, as I always feel that would be a disservice to the reader, but the story immedately grabbed me, thanks to a cast of likable, relatable, and overall interesting characters, and the writing is strong and believable as well. Boy, I have missed a dark fantasy setting that takes itself serious.
Vambrace: Cold Soul is a turn-based RPG, but the twist here is that the heroes and enemies all line up on the screen, and what kind of weapon or attack they use, then determines which- or how many enemies they can hit. Your party consists of up to four characters, and the two characters closest to the enemies, are then in range to attack the two closest enemies on the opposite site and vice versa. This means that the two heroes in the back cannot directly attack the two enemies in the back, but the same goes for them, however, long range weapons can hit all targets regardless of range, so the game also demands that you be strategic and carefully consider whom you bring along on your quests, and what position they are in.
All characters have a selection of four moves, ranging from light to heavy, with a heavy move needing to recharge over several turns after use. Some characters even have the ability to boost or protect their teammates. Should you however still feel overwhelmed by the opposing force, you can always try to run away, but enemies appear in set locations, so if you return, they will be there waiting for you. Honestly, I’d have prefered random encounters, as blasphemous as that is to say, or at least being able to see the enemies on screen, so it would then be up to you whether to engage them or not.
You of course have a health meter per character, but all four characters also have a certain ”vigor” meter to watch out for. This is essentially your spirit or morale, and while it can be affected by various attacks in battle, this meter also slowly drains outside of battle as long as you are up on the surface. If any of these meters drain, you are immediately sent back to the ”hospital” back underground and while you keep anything you collected before you collapsed, you will have to trek all the way back where you left off. While I hate being on a makeshift time limit in any game, I suppose having a meter like this makes sense, and there are ways to refill it, such as when you find a bonfire where your characters can rest up.
Should you, mid-battle decide that a re-structure of your team is in order, or need to check something in your inventory, these options will always be readily available to you via the face buttons. Don’t worry, the enemy will wait their turn.
All warriors you recruit on the town’s billboard have their own unique strengths and weakesses, such as being good at detecting traps or being extra good at a certain attribute. As you embark on your very first mission, you can only choose between four capable mercenaries, but as you progress you steadily unlock more to join your cause. You can however, at any time, only hire three in addition to yourself, so while choosing may be easy at first, strategizing and picking the best hands for the upcoming mission, will require you to be observant and dexterious.
Now, I previously stated that I liked the story and felt it had strong writing and characters, but this only goes for the main cast of characters. In most RPGs and J-RPGs, your team is set and written into the story in a way that you follow their journey and watch as they grow closer, but seeing as Vambrace’s entire schtick is the recruitment of different team members to fit the mission at hand, I felt that my team members were just that, hired hands, a means to an end, nothing more, which made the impact of the mission itself feel less to me. When you first recruit party members, you are suggested to go talk to them at the local inn before the mission, so as to ”put a face” on your new colleages and get familiar with them, but when I did, they all just had a single line of dialogue and the conversation was thus very short and one-sided. I am not asking for Mass Effect length conversations but making me actually care about these people would have been nice.
While the overworld is presented in a topdown perspective, entering a dungeon, a building, or any other kind of indoor structure, puts you down to a ground-level perspective where you can only navigate your characters in two dimensions, aside from when you enter a door or a side-corridor. Think of it as akin to how you move about in the 2D pixel horror games Lone Survivor and Claire, and perhaps this choice is no coinsidence as developer Devespresso Games earlier delved into the survival-horror genre with The Coma which navigated in much the same way. This adds more depth and possibilites of exploration, but on the flipside it also quickly becomes quite disorienting, especially in areas you don’t have a map for. It doesn’t help, that you are only allowed to run when you are inside specific buildings like the war counsil, the tavern, or at the market – friendly places in other words. In the wild however, your party can only trod slowly ahead.
I suppose you can argue this adds to sucking up the atmosphere and appreciate the level of detail in your dead cold envionments, but not being able to run is still a big no-no for me. If anything, it seems backwards to me that you can run indoors but not outdoors?
Albeit a bit annoying, as I am the type who often just wants to get going and figure things out as I go, the game does hold your hand a bit early on and dumps a truckload of tutorials on you that goes into depth on everything, from combat to how the inventory works, and although it is a lot of reading, it is appreciated.
Occassionally, you will also be faced with dialogue trees, but as I have only played the game once, I must admit I have no idea how different choices/answers affect Lyric’s personality or the outcome of the conversation, if at all.
The audio in Vambrace: Cold Soul struck me immediately as very atmospheric. You really feel this world, whether you are out in the cold hearing the wind howling, or at the inn or the market where you hear people mumbling and glasses being rammed together. Aside from a few key cutscenes and the usual grunts when your character finds something or makes a move in battle, the game unfortunately features little to no voice acting, which I feel would really have given it an extra push in making the world spring to life.
Now, I don’t know how much it costs to make a game, let alone hiring voice actors, but when all the visual novels I have played have been fully voiced, aside from the main character, games that are nothing but dialgoue, then why can’t we have full voice acting in adventure games like this where dialogue is sparce as you are going to be fighting most of the time anyway? Are Japanese voice actors just that much cheaper?
Regardless, voice acting or not, the music and background noises really do an excellent job at ironically making this 2D game feel three dimensional and alive, and the main menu theme especially makes you pumped up and ready for adventure!
Also, as a person who appreciates the smaller audible details, like something as small as selecting an item in the old The Legend of Zelda Oracle games, or unlocking a door in the new Resident Evil 2 remake, I really like the sound effect of wood and rusty metal as you enter battle and your hud slides into place.
Visuals & Performance
Vambrace: Cold Soul is absolutely gorgeous with its blend of western comic mixed with anime, and they go beautifully together to create a grim fantasy-esque artstyle that is truly unique and entirely its own. Character animations can admittedly seem a bit stiff when walking, but as you engross yourself in the hauntingly detailed visuals of this frozen world, I find that you are easily able to let small nitpicks like that slide.
Performance wise I did encounter small hickups whenever you pass an invisible save point on the overworld, but apart from that, the game ran absolutely smoothly. Going from the underground town to the surface takes a bit of time, but entering combat or going between areas is seamless and almost instantaneous.
While I had a few quirks with aspects of the gameplay, I did like it overall, and so, the fun combat along with the solid writing, excellent atmospheric soundtrack, and gorgeous presentation therefore makes the asking price of £19.99/$24.99 an easy recommendation from me if you are into dark fantasy strategic role playing games in the first place. It is quite obvious to me that a lot of work, care, and effort went into the collaboration of this title, and if you decide to pick it up, I think you’ll agree. Some people have also compared the game to Darkest Dungeon, but I have not played that game, so I can only take their word for it, and let you take that for what you will.
Fun strategic combat
Can’t run in most places
That damn vigor meter