We here at Nintendo Life have something of a soft spot for 2018’s excellent roguelike RPG Darkest Dungeon. With its beautifully distinctive art style married to tight, enthralling battles which made maintaining the sanity of your party of warriors every bit as important as keeping on top of your combat strategies, it managed to walk a fine line between satisfying dungeon crawling, a clear and concise user interface and easy to parse gameplay systems. Vambrace: Cold Soul attempts to add to this template with its own distinctive (and gorgeous) art direction, a heftier dose of narrative and a more fully-realised hub environment than Darkest Dungeon’s tiny gothic hamlet. Unfortunately, a desire to concentrate too much on bells and whistles has led to the game’s designers allowing the all-important gameplay to fall by the wayside.
Taking place in the cursed city of Icenaire, which has been set to ruin and encircled by a deadly Frostfence at the whim of the wicked King of Shades, the story sees you assume the role of Evelia Lyric, a young lady on the trail of her father who has bestowed upon her the Aetherbrace, an artefact permanently fused to her body which enables her to cross the king's deathly barrier. With this power at her disposal, she becomes the only hope for the survivors of Icenaire – hunkered down far beneath the beleaguered city – to fight back against their fate and lift the curse that’s turned the rest of the world’s inhabitants into a freakish collection of ghouls and murderous wraiths.
In terms of backstory, it's strong for this type of game, and developer Devespresso has obviously put a ton of effort into trying to ground its dungeon-crawling in a fully-realised world. However, it front-loads all of this narrative, leading to a slow start to proceedings which is further hobbled by constant tutorials explaining the frankly unnecessary number of systems at play whilst at the same time walking you through its overly fussy user interface.
There are a lot of menus here. Of course, all of this could be overlooked and we’re sure we could learn to live with the myriad menus and organising involved in prepping your dungeon raiders for combat if it weren’t for the fact that all of your precious time spent preparing isn’t paid off with engaging gameplay. Instead, once you finally hit the ground and start duking it out with the armies of undead freaks, it quickly becomes apparent this is a dull game with overly long and difficult dungeons which are confusing to navigate thanks to a troublesome map. The AI is pretty pedestrian, your party members have zero presence and there’s a version of Darkest Dungeon’s fear mechanic crowbarred in that does nothing to alleviate the monotony of proceedings.
Yes, once it really gets down to business, the combat here is a heavily watered-down version of that which it emulates; each battle plays out with you waiting your turn to strike, repeatedly hammering on a couple of basic attacks for each of your four fighters and occasionally striking out with a "flourish" move that builds as you play but doesn't really add a great deal of choice or strategy to what you're doing. Your team is made up of a disposable cast of characters with nothing memorable to help them stand out; they're simply meat for the ghostly grinder that you’ll never develop any sort of relationship with.
Where Darkest Dungeon gave you a sense of mastery over your tight-knit squad – a squad who you actually cared about – excelling at making you feel you could pull off a last-minute victory or turn the tides with a smart strategic decision, Vambrace: Cold Soul charges you with nothing more than listlessly smashing attack for the most part, praying that luck is on your side as you descend once more into the abyss. You'll spend your time here unsure whether death would be a disaster or a relief.
Another big part of Darkest Dungeon's success was its well-realised fear mechanic, which added negative traits to your party as they became increasingly shaken up by the ghastly goings-on around them – traits which could be healed and treated in interesting ways back at your hub. Men on the edge would spend a while in the asylum, for example, taking time out to heal their minds from the horrors they'd witnessed. Here, all of this has been reduced to a simple fog meter which rises constantly the longer you battle it out in the depths. It adds nothing but another layer of frustration to proceedings; another thing you can't control that whittles away at your chances of succeeding. It's indicative of Vambrace: Cold Soul's central problem overall; it has all of these systems – a fear mechanic, permadeath, flourish moves and so on – but it doesn't bring them together in any meaningful way; they don't add anything fun or strategic to the experience on account of the fact the very basics of combat are so blandly handled.
There’s also the problem of unreliability with regards to the attacks you choose to dish out. Your party of four have long-range, medium-range and short-range moves at their disposal. Short-range attacks deal with the front of the enemy pack, medium-range the middle and long-range takes care of the most distant foes. Simple, right? However, in practice, we found our long-range shots (arrows or guns for example) often failing to hit enemies at the furthest reaches of the pack – the exact thing they are designed to do – meaning you’re being further hamstrung through no fault of your own. And in a game this tediously unfair, that’s a real killer blow. The bread and butter moves need to be reliable.
Dungeons are also stuffed full of crates and chests to open. You’ll constantly be stopped, every yard or two, to open another box full of trash to lug back to town. It's a central component of this type of game, for sure, but is carried out here in such an underwhelming fashion that it's hard to care about. You’ll also find yourself stepping on many, many invisible traps that you had no way of knowing existed, especially early on in the game, further sapping your precious life and adding all sorts of negative traits to your team of beleaguered adventurers. Yes, the game tells us that a character in your team with a high enough perception level, or 'Overwatch' ability as it's known here, will see these things, but that didn't stop us repeatedly succumbing to them in the early hours regardless of who we chose to take charge of proceedings.
Back in Icenaire, things aren’t much better. As we’ve already mentioned, this is a fantastically beautiful game, but the way in which you have to traipse about these exquisitely-rendered locations – constantly stopping for laboriously long conversations, or to pick up one of the seemingly hundreds of lost codex pages that fill in the backstory – just sucks the joy out of everything and slows things down to a tedious crawl with too much downtime between dungeons. Of course, if any of these long narrative breaks fed into the actual gameplay on the ground it would be fine, but knowing you've sat through it only to be returned to the dead-eyed depths below makes it all the more infuriating.
The need to grind so much for gubbins to trade for gear and the requirement to make your way back to town before jumping back down the hole to get absolutely throttled by random bad luck hardly makes for an endearing gameplay loop. The icing on the cake, however, is the map which should make it easy for you to see which room you’re in on your way to the big boss battle, but instead confuses the situation further as its top-down view never seems to correlate exactly with the layout of the room you’re in, leading you around in merry death circles until you take it upon yourself to figure things out alone.
All told, there are far too many aspects of Vambrace: Cold Souls' central gameplay mechanics dragging it down to enable it to really take off and be any kind of fun to play through. It's a shame that such a beautifully well-realised world, with such a strong narrative base, is, in the end, overcome completely by the fact it's just not fun to engage with on any level beyond looking its graphics.
In terms of the technical side of this Switch port, it looks good enough to eat in both docked and handheld modes. However, there is a constant stuttering issue in the top-down world hub, which isn't game-breaking in any way, but is certainly annoying as you make your way between the various buildings in the town.
Vambrace: Cold Souls is one of the best-looking games we’ve seen on Switch – it really is a stunner – but in terms of gameplay, it's a pedestrian affair. Dungeons are boring and difficult, combat is bereft of any real strategic depth or flair and it thinks nothing of wasting hours of your time for zero reward. The story gets off to a cracking start and it's obvious that an amazing amount of artistic talent has been channelled into creating the City of Icenaire and its surroundings, but, in the end, it's all rendered a little pointless by the fact it’s attached to such a monotonous and dreary plod of an RPG.