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Vambrace: Cold Soul Review — An Exquisitely Cruel Adventure

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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.

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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.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC.

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Review

The Sinking City Review — Sanity is Optional

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Video games based on tabletop games seem to be in vogue at the moment. With Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines 2 and the announcement of Baldur’s Gate III generating a lot of hype, the time seems to be right for The Sinking City, an atmospheric horror-themed investigation game. Based on the lesser known Call of Cthulhu board game, The Sinking City sees the player taking the role of Charles W. Reed, a private investigator and veteran of the First World War as he travels to the fictional town of Oakmont, Massachusetts to seek reasons why he is plagued by horrific visions. Reed quickly discovers that the citizens of Oakmont are also troubled by the same visions, as well as other threats of a sinister and supernatural nature.

The game is set in the 1920s and unashamedly embraces the hard-boiled themes of that era of fiction while blending in a strong dose of creeping, Lovecratian horror. The city of Oakmont absolutely drips with ambience, from the murky lighting to the semi-constant rainfall and the looming, old-fashioned New England architecture. The graphics are extremely impressive, and the animation is very fluid. Even the horrific monsters are fascinating to look at. Getting caught up in the many mysteries lurking about the beautifully well-realised town leads to quick and easy immersion.

The town itself is half-inundated after an otherworldly event known only as The Flood. This means that many of the streets need to be traversed by boat. Doing so can be a little awkward at tight corners, of which there are many, but the other option is swimming in waters infested with any number of nasty things, so taking the time to learn how to steer is worth the extra effort.

At times, the player may need to don an old-fashioned diving suit and take a trip underwater. These are some of the most unsettling sequences in the game, as the ambient sounds, underwater lighting effects, and the shadows of things twitching just beyond the edge of vision give a profound sense of claustrophobia and helplessness as the player lumbers slowly towards the destination.

The main gameplay elements recall other investigation or detective games, such as L.A. Noire or developer Frogwares previous work on the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series. The developer has used that experience to good effect, as the outcome of the quests depends on how well the player has managed to pick up on various clues hidden in the crime scene and evidence. The developer has said the goal in each investigation can be reached in multiple ways, so if the player gets stuck at any point, they have the freedom to move on to a different quest. Sometimes, evidence for the problem quest will pop up, or the player will have a sudden epiphany on what to do next.

The visions experienced by the protagonist have a gameplay application as well, as Reed can use his visions and investigative powers to reconstruct crime scenes and gain insights into the events. However, doing so costs Sanity. Some disturbing scenes or monster encounters can also drastically cut the player’s Sanity, and this, in turn, can affect perception of the environment, causing the player to overlook or completely misinterpret what actually happened. Total Sanity loss is fatal, as the protagonist descends into suicidal insanity.

In addition to conserving Sanity, players need to also conserve ammunition. Though encounters with supernatural creatures often involve the need to unload a gun into them, bullets are also used as currency in Oakmont, as bullets are more valuable than gold in the nightmare-infested town,. The player can barter for useful tools or weapons, but will need to remember to keep some bullets aside for those inevitable run-ins with tentacled horrors.

The result is a balancing act with the player trying to conserve Sanity and ammunition while delving into the secrets hidden within the town. The Sinking City has many layers, with much to be unravelled in the dark, dripping streets.

The Sinking City

The setting is well-served by the music, which is mostly subdued and ambient, serving the mood well. Of particular note is the voice acting, which is great, particularly on the part of the protagonist. Reed’s voice actor does an excellent job of portraying his various moods, giving a convincing performance of a troubled, world-weary war veteran.

The Sinking City is one of the best Lovecraft-inspired games available and, despite some slightly awkward controls in places, the game is brilliantly crafted. Fans of horror will love its atmosphere and those who enjoy investigative games will quickly become absorbed in the depth offered by the gameplay. Those who loved L.A. Noire or Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and players of the tabletop game, should definitely give thought to picking this title up.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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