Vambrace: Cold Soul is an interesting game, to say the least. When I played it for the first time (through Xbox Game Pass), I didn't understand the mechanics. The Diablo fan in me wanted this to be a dungeon crawler, where you explore every nook and cranny in search of gear to sell or equip.
Vambrace doesn't work like that. It's a dungeon crawler, but it also has the soul of a survival horror game. You have limited resources to explore, and if you stay out too long your team will start to experience difficulties associated with exposure in dangerous territory.
Every "zone" of this game is essentially split into two directions. You can take just about any path to the exit, but there are really ever only two "direct" options. Not taking the direct option comes with risk. You might find a room full of treasure, or a wandering merchant to buy your spoils of exploration (and possibly sell you better gear). You could just as easily run into enemy groups, come across traps. Or, you might stumble across a random event that could give you good loot, or damage your party.
And if you stay out too long, your party could become beset by one of the game's two exploration hazards: loss of vigor, or being haunted by the ghosts of Icenaire's fallen citizens.
Vambrace has two "health" bars. The first is your standard health, which controls how many hits and how much battle damage your characters can absorb. The other is "vigor", which is a measurement of how long they can be out in the cold. Health drops when you get attacked or trip certain traps or events. Vigor drops as you explore, usually as soon as you enter a room. You can "heal" both at campsites, either by using a character with high "overwatch" or by using various items. Carrying items comes with a substantial encumberment penalty, though, and you have frustratingly little room to work with here. So you're pretty much forced to keep a "balanced" party with at least one character specializing in campsite "overwatch" duty.
Camping does incur a specific penalty of its own. Vambrace comes with a third meter you have to keep an eye on: the Geistometer. This measures the party's "terror" level and once it hits a threshold (oddly enough, NOT 100% full, even though going above the threshold doesn't change anything), every room becomes a fight encounter against a group of powerful ghosts. Performing various actions at a campsite that's not in a shelter will raise your terror level, bringing you one step closer to having to fight your way through every remaining screen of the current zone. This is rough because Vambrace doesn't really oblige a team with free healing. As mentioned earlier, you have to camp or use items. Items heal more, but they're expensive, heavy, and always in short supply. Some of the game's random events can lower terror, but these are very rare.
So you essentially have to book it from beginning to end of each zone, calculating how much risk you can take to deviate from the shortest path. You might find an extra treasure room (there are always two per zone), or an extra campsite (there are always two per zone). Or you might have to go slightly out of your way in hopes of finding the merchant to offload some heavy items (there's always one per zone). Or you might want to maximize your loot because you're trying to find some items to craft the next tier of gear, and you're planning on retreating to town regardless.
Right up until the end of the game, Vambrace features an excellent "retreat" mechanism that allows you to freely escape back to the safety of Dalearch. This is super useful for when you know you're in over your head but want to push forward and maximize loot. As soon as you recognize that you're dangerously low on supplies and health and you probably won't make it to the next neighborhood, just zip right back to home base. Upgrade what you can, sell everything you don't need, buy what's available, and venture right back out.
Understanding this mechanic is the key to success in Vambrace. And it makes the game so much easier. Mastering your inventory will free you up to charge to the boss and progress the story. Keeping a balanced team is important, and this game hammers that home in a way that's unlike any other I've played.
On top of being unique, it's also beautifully hand-drawn. The one small drawback here is typical with manga-inspired games: the blatant objectification of the female form. The main females characters (especially Lyric and Isabel) all have breasts the size of their heads and ravine-like cleavage. Many of Lyric's costumes flaunt this, along with other manga and anime trops (Sailor Moon?). The game doesn't really do anything with this: aside from a few offhand and nonspecific compliments on her looks, there are no lecherous mages or dirty old men constantly commenting on Lyric's bosom. However, it's certainly obvious that the artists took their time to accentuate those particular features. Given the gravity of the game's central theme, this is distractingly childish and shallow. But then again, it's essentially anime. What do you really expect?
The animation isn't so hot, though. The characters' movements are a little disjointed, with some extremely basic articulation made by layering 2D renderings of the body parts. When Lyric runs across town, it almost looks like she's qwopping. When characters fidget anxiously in battle, it's just weird and at times creepy. Certain enemy models seem to play on this, adding random expressions that really bring out the WTF factor. It's a nice immersion, even if just to cover up the relative simplicity of the game's graphics.
All-in-all, the story isn't super surprising. It's full of neat lore, and there are lots of things to explore in the districts of Icenaire. But you probably won't find yourself too fooled by which characters do what, and who turns out to be whom in the end. It's a fairly quick completion, especially if you follow the walkthrough available on this site.
Vambrace is a fun game that's worth exploration, even if it probably won't end up being your all-time favorite.