The expected level of video game difficulty has fluctuated over the years. Early arcade games were punishingly brutal, encouraging the player to insert another coin to try again. Early console games were often created with the express purpose of being too difficult to beat as a rental, necessitating a purchase to have a chance at completing them. As games grew longer and the hobby became more mainstream, such arcade-style difficulty fell out of favour, replaced by gentler mechanics that would garner a broad appeal. However, within subsections of the gaming community, a thirst remains for games with the super-hard approach, shown by the success of titles like Dark Souls and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. South Korean studio Devespresso Games aims to slake that thirst for punishment with Vambrace: Cold Soul. Taking inspiration from the 2016 indie hit Darkest Dungeon, this brutal roguelike adventure carves a niche in the market with beautiful artwork, a mysterious world, and devastatingly difficult gameplay.
The city of Icenaire is cursed. The evil Shade King created a thick barrier of ice surrounding the town, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. His army of blood-thirsty wraiths roam the deserted streets, devouring any scavengers who come their way. The only safe space in the city is Dalearch, an underground Dwarvern settlement on the verge of a civil war. One day, a scavenging party finds a strange woman frozen half-to-death in the snow, the first new person to turn up in years. With the power of the magical vambrace she wields, the new arrival, Evelia Lyric, can break down the icy barriers that keep the people captive. The vambrace was left to her by her father, along with some cryptic notes about the nature of Icenaire. Recruiting a group of like-minded adventurers, Lyric explores the icy streets, aiming to take down the Shade King and unravel the mystery of her father’s writings. The adventure begins with typical fantasy tropes, but as Lyric progresses further into the labyrinthine city, so does her tale twist and turn.
Icenaire’s frozen streets are full of danger, with traps, monsters, and fear itself for Lyric to contend with. Each area is a web of branching paths, with a random event happening in each space of the map. If the player is lucky, the spot might contain treasure, a friendly ghost, or a campsite for some much needed rest. If they are less lucky, they might walk into a trap, which will require a nimble character leading the party to avoid. More often than not, however, the location will contain enemies, which need to be defeated to proceed.
Combat is turn-based, with the fastest characters attacking first. Each unit has either short, medium, or long ranged attacks, and the standing order of the party plays an important part in battle. Characters at the front bear the brunt of the enemy onslaught, so short range/high health units excel there. The long range archers, on the other hand, have low health and need extra protection. In addition to a basic attack, units can perform a flourish, which is a special attack charged over time. The flourishes are powerful moves that can often turn the tide of battle. Each of the game’s ten classes has a unique move, from the Dragoon drawing the aggression to the Arcaster showering the enemy with arrows.
Building a balanced party is critical and will take some attempts to get right. Every unit besides Lyric can die, and the recruits available to take their place are randomly generated, so the player may end up with strange combinations. Lyric is a required party member in all missions and starts out really weak: a jack-of-all-trades in a game that favours specialisation. As the story progresses, Lyric becomes stronger, slowly shifting from the worst party member to the best. The recruits do not level up or improve, but a wider variety of units become available over time, making fine-tuning a team easier.
When exploring the frozen wastes of Icenaire, the characters utilise a wide array of exploration skills in addition to their combat moves. For the the group to progress safely through the streets they need someone proficient in detecting traps, picking locks, scouting ahead, haggling with merchants, and guarding the camp. Rarely will the stars align that the party will have all the required skills in one group, but items can help make up for any shortcomings. A large supply of health items will reduce the need for sleeping, and a good scout can evade enemy encounters. Items can only be used at campsites, but will be retained if the party falls in battle.
Even with a well-equipped, well-balanced team, victory is never a certainty. Enemy wraiths are consistently much more powerful than the player characters, and the missions to progress the story are long. Reaching the first boss takes over an hour slogging through the snow and if she defeats the player all that progress is lost. The difficulty is not a curve, but a cliff that one must struggle to climb. Once this first challenge is surmounted, however, the game opens up considerably, with many side quests and crafting options for better gear becoming available. Persevering against the elements and defeating a difficult boss gives a wonderful sense of achievement few games can match. Still, that harsh initial challenge will put a lot of gamers off. Introducing some of the side quests earlier might mitigate that frustration, offering some shorter alternative goals while still retaining the desired severe difficulty.
When taking a break between being battered and bruised, the player can appreciate the beauty of Vambrace: Cold Soul by wandering around the underground city of Dalearch. The graphic novel aesthetic suits the game perfectly, and each of the five fantasy races feels distinct through a rich in-game history. Music is also superb throughout the game, from the intense drumbeat of battle to the jovial tunes of the tavern.The CEO of Devespresso Games, Minho Kim, has been developing the world of Icenaire as a hobby over the course of 19 years, and the vast portfolio of sketches and lore he drew from made a strong basis for a compelling world. Unlike most games in the genre, Vambrace: Cold Soul focusses on storytelling, with both Lyric and the town of Daelarch developing over the course of the game. The story progression awarded from completing a difficult mission is the greatest prize.
The interface, on the other hand, can be a little unintuitive. The characters move on a 2D plane, but the map is displayed as an overhead view, making unclear whether moving upstairs will take you to the left or right on the map. This confusion is compounded by the ghost fog feature, where powerful enemies appear if the player stays in one area too long. Getting trapped in the ghost fog from poor navigation is frustrating. Tutorial information also is not saved anywhere in the game. Vambrace: Cold Soul contains a lot of different gameplay systems, and a returning player could be quite lost if a lot of time has passed since the last play session. Lyric carries a book with her in-game, so adding in a few pages about the basics should be easy.
Vambrace: Cold Soul is not a game for everyone: it can be harsh, cruel, and even unfair at times. Should players rise to the challenge, however, they will find a great blend of brutal gameplay and interesting storytelling.
Reviewed on PC.