Building on the formula established by Darkest Dungeon, Vambrace hikes up the difficulty even more whilst providing a surprisingly decent story to boot.
I want to clear the air first before I get going. I hate Darkest Dungeon. Like, adamantly. With all my heart. I would rather choke down three undercooked bricks, followed by a litre of sparkling petrol before I ever play that game again. Thing is, Darkest Dungeon is a really good game. I can understand why so many people have fallen in love with the grim, punishing rogue-like. It features a bold aesthetic with an interesting world and some fresh mechanics that constantly switch things up.
Yet the loop of gathering your party, venturing into randomised dungeons, coming out with whoever survived and trading your hard-won loot never grew on me. I found it tedious and repetitive to run the same dungeons over and over again and replace dead party members with new ones. After all the time I put into it, it never felt rewarding.
So if you’re a fan of Darkest Dungeon, I’ve got great news for you. Vambrace: Cold Shoulder is basically the same game but with the challenge cranked up even higher. I really don’t like comparing titles to other games during reviews but I’m afraid it’s rather unavoidable in the case of Vambrace. Nearly all of Darkest Dungeon’s features are here: The four-party system that tasks you with strategic positioning, the turn-based combat system that works largely on the roll of a virtual dice, permadeath for party members, randomised dungeons and perhaps the most important similarity:
They’re both total bullshit.
As I straighten my tie after such an unseemly outburst, I’ll say that I don’t want to focus too much on how this game is like Darkest Dungeon. We know what that game is about, it’s been available since 2016. Rather, let’s focus on what this game does differently. Firstly, the addition of new gauges to constantly worry about. Alongside each character’s health bar, that functions as one would expect, players also have to keep track of character’s vigour and the Geistmeter. The Geistmeter is essentially the torch from Darkest Dungeon: Once it surpasses a certain threshold, all the enemies in the dungeon become way tougher to kill. There’s no way to prolong this meter and it consistently increases when entering a new room. Vigour, on the other hand, is how cold your character is. Vambrace is set in the cursed and frosty city of Icenaire, so the longer you stay out in the cold the more your characters’ vigour will decrease. When it hits zero, they die. That’s it. Find a new party member and pray the random recruitment board has a healer because you’re gonna need one.
So characters not only die when they are killed (lol) they also die after spending prolonged time exploring. You can raise vigour and health during an expedition…if the benevolent roll of a dice provides your dungeon with a camping ground. You think you can apply bandages in any old room? Nope, you’re gonna need to find special campsites to heal up. And even then you’re not ensured to receive those buffs because the person your place as overwatch of the camp might get unlucky and heal no one. And even if they do succeed, you sacrifice the Geistmeter going up by five notches, which in the moment, is a great deal.
So yeah, this game can be a bastard. It’s a long and tough challenge to even reach the boss of the first expedition alive, let alone defeat them. Let me make it clear that I’m not hating on this game because it’s difficult. I hardly want to start up that debate again although it remains an important one. The reason I didn’t enjoy Vambrace is that it was boring. I’ve said this before in some review somewhere in the past but what I enjoy in a rogue-like is speed.
Dying should be a setback but never so much that it feels like a chore. A good rogue-like should have you die and back in action for a second try in moments, but Vambrace takes its time forcing you to run around an overworld and gather your party and purchase supplies and sleep to heal and then go craft some things and can I go back to the dungeons now? There should also be a good enough variety of options available to play with to make every run feel different.
Vambrace does have variety, don’t misunderstand. Randomly recruiting from 5 races and 10 classes of characters can lead to some really interesting character types. Yet most of my runs started feeling really similar very quickly not because my party were being killed off and I needed to restart, but because it was just easier to escape and try again. Why go through the effort of hoping to find a successful team build when you can just find the one that works? Because when you do land on the winning combination, you’re almost unbeatable; the only thing worth worrying about is vigour and if you can’t boost that up, your only options are to leave or have your characters die.
Look, I guess the above complaint is quite specific. But this smallish aspect of the game had a huge impact on my enjoyment. Combat started to just blend into one samey experience, the loot I found just looked like the same assortment of junk and twine. Which is a pity because Vambrace does have a really interesting world underneath the gameplay. My best times I had with this game were finding the numerous scattered Codex entries that explained more about this detailed and mysterious world and I’d be lying if I wasn’t drawn in by the magic and grim reality of different races forced to coincide in the walls of an icy city within which they were imprisoned. There’s some great writing on display but I fear I’ll never see the end of it.
I plugged roughly 15 hours in Vambrace: Cold Soul and even now I haven’t defeated the boss of the first expedition. Honestly, I’m loathe to continue trying. There’s a really deep and intriguing world within this game and players who enjoy this style of dungeon crawler will no doubt happily spend double the amount of I time I did grinding away too eventually prevail. But it just wasn’t for me. The repetitive grind ruined the story’s pacing, bored me to death and despite the game having a gorgeous art style, there’s only so far a pretty cave can carry you. I just couldn’t do it any longer.
Good luck to you if you try.
Last Updated: May 31, 2019