It took some time before we as gamers transitioned from the term “Dark Souls Clone” to “Souls-like.” By altering the phrasing used for games like Salt & Sanctuary of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, we were admitting that there is a difference between copying a game and utilizing a same form of gameplay to do something different. Vambrace: Cold Soul uses a lot of the gameplay aspects of Darkest Dungeon to do something new and interesting with varying levels of success.
Vambrace: Cold Soul is a strategic roguelike dungeon crawler sidescroller where each room you enter has a chance of battle, treasure, shops, or traps. The gameplay is very reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon, including the use of turn-based combat and position management in 4v4 battles. Each combatant has one normal attack and one special attack, called a “flourish.” By minimizing the number of abilities available to each character, Vambrace places a greater emphasis on party formation and strategic targeting over selecting the best abilities for a given situation.
Early planning is extremely important in Vambrace. With the exception of a few combat healers, healing can only be performed using healing items and only at camp sites which may appear only once or twice in a ten room map. So even if you survive a hard combat, you may still be doomed before you can find a place to heal. And if a character dies, both the character and their equipped relic disappear forever.
The permadeath aspect is no where near as punishing as it sounds. The main hero, Evelia Lyric, is the only character who can become stronger after a chapter ends. If she dies, the entire party is sent back to the town and your quest progress is lost. If anyone else dies, they can be easily replaced back in town minus the cost of obtaining a new relic. That said, being down a character in a dungeon is a very easy way to get overwhelmed (and overburdened by items), so character death often spells the end of a current outing.
While the gameplay differences between Vambrace and Darkest Dungeon may feel slight, they create completely different experiences. In Darkest Dungeon, the gameplay forced you to dehumanize your characters in the hopes of creating powerful minions. In contrast, Vambrace forces you to think carefully about who you bring with you and to constantly keep your characters topped off with health and vigor. It is much more of a struggle to push through to an end.
The other major difference between Vambrace and Darkest Dungeon is the story – in that Vambrace has one. You play as Lyric, a girl on a quest to fulfill her father’s last wishes. As the only person who can push through magic death barriers, Lyric is the only person capable of leading a party outside of the main village of Daelarch.
Lyric’s story itself is fairly standard fare. Few trust her when she shows up initially, so they send her out on quests to help save the village. As she travels to new locations, she finds corrupted spirits that she must defeat in order to un-corrupt them. In some instances the game has you make difficult decisions and pushes the consequences of those decisions out into later portions of the game.,
The tone of the world is largely consistent. The city of Daelarch exists in perpetual winter and most characters in the world seem hardened by the world they inhabit. While the dialogue never feels especially cheesy, it does tend to be the same level of serious at all times with few breaks for levity or even rising tension.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with Vambrace. The combat is just challenging enough that it took me multiple runs before I was able to make it through a city and the different gameplay elements worked well together. I could have done without the inventory management and lack of combat benefits as it made the second part of most levels feel like a slog to the end with no benefits to be found.
Vambrace: Cold Soul proves that the gameplay loop of darkest dungeon can be used for more than just turning you into a soulless manager. Vambrace took a system about torturing your units in the hope of making them greater and twisted it into a system about slowly climbing through an ice covered hell with the hopes that this time you and your team can break through.