On paper, Vambrace: Cold Soul feels like a winner. Take the roguelike nature of Darkest Dungeon, add more substantial narrative and exploration aspects, and cover the entire thing in a Korean manhwa aesthetic. I dove in ready to love it, but unfortunately Vambrace mechanically misses parts of what make Darkest Dungeon work so well.
Vambrace: Cold Soul begins a lot like Darkest Dungeon, with the protagonist finding out about a secret past from the will of a dead relative. In this case, Evelia Lyric inherits a the eponymous vambrace from her adventurous father. Her dad's final wish is for her to take the bracer to the lost city of Icenaire. There, a band of survivors trapped in an eternal wall of ice fight against the undead army of the King of Shades. The bracer can open holes in the cursed ice, which allows Lyric and a chosen band of adventurers to journey into the rest of the city and reclaim it from the undead.
You sortie out from the Dalearch, the one part of the city that's not controlled by the undead. There you'll meet the various factions vying for control of Icenaire: the Guardians, the Sylvani, and the North Venture Company. Each faction has a host of characters you can talk to and the overall layout of Dalearch makes it actually feel like a city that's dying a slow death. You can walk around the city itself and talk to the various residents, providing a bit of texture to the world. The streets beyond Dalearch feel forgotten, and the zones show the former touches of life and the other adventurers who have died there. The writing isn't entirely top-shelf, but I found myself actually interested in the story of Vambrace in-between the relentless death and dungeon diving.
There's also some color added to the mercenaries you recruit. They're pulled at random from a pool comprised of five different races and 10 classes, but they each have their own name and look. The character art is simply fantastic; early on, you'll find yourself choosing the characters that look more interesting. You can even meet your chosen squad and talk to them directly in the local tavern, where they each have their own unique lines of dialog. If there's a part of Vambrace that succeeds wonderfully, it's this narrative and aesthetic layer.
Unfortunately, it's a dungeon diver, meaning the gameplay needs to mechanically be up to snuff, and Vambrace: Cold Soul isn't quite there. The core loop involves you striking out from Dalearch into other regions of the city. Each region has various sectors that you can navigate with your handy map. Each room in a sector has a single encounter, whether that's a fight with an enemy, a treasure room, or a camp where you can rest. You can take more straight-forward routes through these sub-zones, or wander a bit for more loot and treasure. There's a soft timer though: a Geistometer slowly counts upwards in Terror as you explore, and once it's full, powerful Mad Shades will attack you constantly.
Each sector has 8-10 rooms within it, though a path to the exit is generally only five rooms. You need to complete five sectors to reach the boss of any region. Here's the thing though: that's a straight shot all the way through. If you leave at any point on the way, you start over again at the beginning of that region, retaining only the resources that you found along the way. Getting to the first boss was many, many, many hours of play on my part.
The shorter runs early on wouldn't be a struggle, except for a few problems. Every member in your party has Health and Vigor, with enemy attacks draining and certain spells imparting negative status effects like Terrified, Befuddled, or Sleepy which effect either Health or Vigor. If your help drops to zero, you die. If your Vigor drops to zero... you also die? The problem is healing and recovery are exceedingly rare; if you don't have a healer in your party, you can only heal outside of combat in specific camps. These camps only come once per sector. You can rest at them, but outside of healing items, recovering Health and Vigor is completely random, based on Overwatch stat of the character you set to guard the camp.
The Hedge Mage is one of the few classes that can heal in combat, and if you don't pull one, you're out of luck. There's no stable of adventurers in Vambrace; you only have Lyric, the three adventurers currently in your party, and whichever ones are available at the Hunter's Camp. And those won't change until you recruit one of them. Given how integral party composition is, you'll find that you can end up with some horrible pulls. For example, adventurers have specific attack ranges-Short, Medium, and Long-and it's possible to end up with a team where you'll have a Medium-ranged character in your third slot, meaning you're unable to attack. "Just pick the character with long range attacks for that slot!" you say. That's an apt plan, except you can't see the stats or attacks of a character until you've added them to your party. So you have to hope they're what you need, sight unseen, outside of their class.
Party members don't level up either. Lyric levels up, going from one of the worst members of any squad to the very best, but that only improves your pool at the Hunter's Camp, not your current team. The best you can do is equipping new relics on them, which is expensive, and less efficient compared to getting another member. (Also, if they did, the relics go with them.) This lowers the initial attachment to party members. They might look and sound unique, but you'll eventually drop them for something better, so it doesn't matter. So, leveling is almost non-existent, your party pulls are completely random, and healing is difficult at best and completely random at worst. This means farming is the only way forward, but again, Terror is consistent and can't be lowered.
It's rare that I notice a user interface, but Vambrace also makes several missteps here. You can't mouseover your party's attack moves to check exactly what their stats are. Instead, you have to open the Bio menu and scroll to the right character. If an attack hits multiple enemies, you have to choose "accept" for every target. Moving character position in your party should be an easy drag-and-drop affair, but it requires select once character and then selecting the position they should be moving toward. And the first time I hit Escape to bring up the main menu in combat, I found out that it skips a character turn, something the game didn't tell me. There are just a bunch of small user interface issues on top of the general design problems.
It's a shame because, on the surface, Vambrace: Cold Soul could've been a story-based alternative to something like Darkest Dungeon or FTL. Sadly, the excellent art and solid narrative gives way to a game that wasn't designed all that well. Randomization is king, party composition is too simple and stringent, and there's a host of small interface issues that needle at your brain after hours and hours of play time. Vambrace: Cold Soul is a good concept with bad execution, ultimately ending up as cold and dead as the city of Icenaire itself.
The roguelike nature of Darkest Dungeon combine with more substantial narrative and exploration, and a Korean manhwa aesthetic. Unfortunately, the mechanics of Vambrace need work. Your squad of mercenaries is largely disposable, there's too much randomization in terms of progress, and there are several issues with the user interface. Perhaps a sequel can bring the gameplay closer to the excellent aesthetics, but Vambrace: Cold Soul doesn't come together completely.