The Vambrace of Destiny

I make a beeline for the DiBianca game at the start of each IFComp, since by now his games are a well-known quantity: high-quality, polished light puzzlers with a minimalist parser interface. I’m pleased to say that while this latest entry does not tread much new ground away from this formula, it certainly does not disappoint.

Summary: In The Vambrace of Destiny, you’re tasked with exploring a dungeon to hunt down a rogue wizard who has stolen the MacGuffin. Along the way you find gems which grant you new spells that you can cast to solve puzzles and defeat monsters that block your path. Each spell is a single-character intransitive verb (like G for Gust, F for Freeze, etc.): you don’t (and can’t) aim the spells at any specific objects in the room; gameplay revolves entirely around which spell you cast in which room on which turn. Lest you worry that this minimalist interface would trivialize the puzzles (and indeed the first few rooms of the game do entail simply using a single spell to defeat each monster you encounter), rest assured that the game quickly escalates the difficulty by requiring that you carefully time a spell to coincide with events happening in the background (such as waiting for an enemy to remove their helmet before attacking their sensitive hearing, e.g.) or combo multiple spells in sequence.

While the game for the most part follows a puzzle-box-type progression where each new spell unlocks one puzzle leading to a new area of the map, there are also optional “treasures” that you can collect by solving harder side-puzzles scattered throughout the dungeon. Many of these require first collecting spells from later in the game and then coming back when you’re better equipped.

Full unmarked spoilers below.

Review: The core of Vambrance bears a strong resemblance to DiBianca’s entry last year, Trouble in Sector 471, and Vambrance iterates on that work in several positive ways.

  1. Although only sparsely-described, the room locations in Vambrance are more memorable than the factory hallways in Trouble, as the fantasy setting allows for more variation in room descriptions. As a consequence, whereas in Trouble I would find myself walking aimlessly through the map looking for a puzzle I vaguely remembered seeing somewhere before, in Vambrance the built-in automap was enough for me to finish the game without needing to make any extra annotations or notes. I also enjoyed the whimsical and diverse cast of creatures and obstacles made possible by the Zorkian kitchen-sink setting.

  2. The puzzles are thoroughly clued throughout the game: rooms where Quake is effective are marked by environmental messages about debris flaking from the ceiling, etc. The consistent and fair cluing almost made me feel bad for my habit of spamming all available spells in each room to see which get non-default messages—a habit that the constrained interface makes all too easy.

  3. Speaking of the constrained interface, the need to only type a single letter per spell—no carriage return required, even—leads to a breezy and fluid playing experience that is reinforced by the minimalistic descriptive text. This is a game to speedrun during a lunch break rather than contemplate over after-dinner bourbon.

The game introduces several additional gameplay elements over the basic spells. One of these is a tag/pull system that allows you to summon an item you’ve seen previously in the dungeon to the current room. Since there are seven different items you can summon, these spells significantly increase the combinatorial search space for puzzle solutions without compromising on the single-key spell interface. If you want to try summoning two different items to solve a room’s puzzle, though, the tag system does force you to walk to the second item’s location to tag it and to walk back to pull it—I was a bit worried that this friction would prove cumbersome as the game progressed but in practice it wasn’t a problem, since (1) there aren’t all that many different items to tag, and most have a single, straightforward function (such as a mirror to reflect beams, etc.) and (2) the puzzles aren’t so hard as to require extensive guess-and-Pulling.

Another extra gameplay wrinkle used throughout the game are pixies that will temporarily enhance or alter one of your spells. Whereas most puzzles are self-contained to a single room, the pixie mechanic forces the player to think ahead about where the pixie’s power might be relevant and how to reach that puzzle in time. While an interesting mechanic in principle, Vambrance didn’t explore it to its full potential—with the exception of the first pixie that enhances the Keen spell, they’re only used to solve one puzzle each, and the limiting-timing aspect of the pixie power isn’t exploited beyond requiring the player to combo the pixie powerup with a teleport spell to reach the relevant room. It would have been interesting to require the player to more extensively prepare a path / set up shortcuts from the pixie to a puzzle in advance, and I wish there were more places to use enhanced powers that rewarded creativity or exploration.

The final room is an “exam-style” showdown with the wizard you’ve been hunting since the start of the game. The fight has two phases: the first plays the final-exam trope straight: each wizard attack mimics one type of puzzle you’ve had to solve throughout the game and you need to respond with the appropriate spell. Fail too many times and you’re kicked out of the room for a few turns—you can just z a dozen times and try again, but this enforced cooldown is nicely balanced as a wakeup call to the player to slow down and play more carefully without outright killing the player and raising the Zarfian cruelty.

In the second phase, the wizard tries to trick you: his attacks have an obvious weak point (for example, an enemy attacking you with a metal sword) but if you try to parry the threat directly, the wizard reveals the initial attack was bait (you try to steal the sword with a Magnet spell, but it turns out the sword is aluminum). There is a Sword Master of Mêlée Island atmosphere to this phase of the fight but I think it could have been refined to be more effective:

  • if you fail to stop the wizard’s attack, the game reveals to you what spell you should have used instead;
  • the wizard seems to use the same attacks in the same order when you lose and try again;
  • as far as I can tell, there is no cluing on how to correctly rebuff the second-phase attacks, other than by trial-and-error. (To be fair: maybe I missed the clues; or maybe there was time to Investigrab to learn the needed clues and I was too impatient.)

Together these factors incentivize memorization as the strategy for winning the fight: lose once to learn the tricks behind each attack, then try again and win. It would have felt more satisfying if the wizard drew each attack from a large random pool and I had been forced to intuit clues about how to indirectly stop each attack on the fly (as in the Sword Master of Mêlée Island puzzle).

Finally: I was a bit disappointed that there’s no secret endgame after you recover the staff and the twelve treasures. (…or is there? A beta-tester told me there is not, but I’m always suspicious of games that let you cast spells by typing in letters of words…)

Verdict: If you’re familiar with DiBianca’s works, The Vambrace of Destiny follows the usual formula, but it stands out as one of his stronger outings thanks to the depth of gameplay, engaging atmosphere, and high level of polish. It doesn’t quite have the ambition of The Wand, but the tradeoff is more focus on accessibility which should make Vambrance fun to play even for those who don’t usually enjoy parser puzzlers. A very satisfying start of IFComp '23 that has set the bar quite high.