I’m a bit torn on Code Vein. On the one hand, it’s an excellent game that begs to be played by anyone waiting for a new Dark Souls title. On the other hand, it’s pretty similar to Dark Souls. No, this isn’t a bad thing necessarily, as the Souls franchise birthed a whole new genre. With the moves that FROMSOFTWARE has made away from the Souls staples in (mostly) recent years like Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, is basically replicating the formula for an anime Dark Souls playing it a little bit safe?
In short, yes, but Code Vein has its own unique twists and mechanics to still make it an excellent game. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Code Vein from Bandai Namco isn’t the first action-RPG in the publisher’s portfolio, but it is the first one in this little niche. I wasn’t surprised I liked it as much as I did after getting some hands-on time at E3. Hell, I’ve been looking forward to this launch for a while, and after several delays, it’s finally here.
The world of Code Vein has been ravaged by the Thorns of Judgement. Vampires known as Revenants search the land for Blood Thistles, white trees that create blood droplets so they can satiate their thirst in order to prevent become feral, and turning into one of the Lost (the main enemies in Code Vein.) After being captured and meeting Louis, our hero goes on adventure to try to understand the source of these Blood Thistles, and to track down and stop what is causing the Thorns of Judgement. Along the way, you’ll meet up with a number of characters that all each have their own motivations for searching the Vein, and you’ll learn more about each one as you progress.
Occasionally, things get a bit convoluted here, and it’s hard to figure out what’s exactly going on in the story. Usually, this is due to memories that the main character has the ability to access to learn more about the people around him. Only he can access these memories, and only he can utilize different blood types, which makes him a Void type.
These memories quickly became one of my favorite parts of Code Vein. When I wasn’t busy hacking and slashing my way through enemies, I really enjoyed the aesthetic changes that these memories provided. Things became abstract, and an incredible classic score marks the beginning of them. The soundtrack here can quickly turn for these sweeping orchestral songs to synth-y heavy metal to mark the beginning of a battle.
Combat is pretty similar to the Dark Souls series, but with some twists. This will be the biggest part of the review, so let’s dig in. Combat is mapped to a few key buttons: dodge, guard, light attack, and heavy attack. Early on, I used the guard button pretty often, but quickly found myself dodging more than anything. Guarding against attacks still resulted in me taking a bit of damage, and reducing my stamina bar, so I opted for better movement.
Players will choose between a few different types of classes. There are fighter builds, caster, ranged, and all sorts of variations in between. The catch here is that players have to earn the right to use these classes (called Blood Codes in Code Vein) by talking to other characters, defeating bosses, or finding them in the wild.
Each Blood Code has a number of different “Gifts,” Code Vein’s version of skills. Each Gift uses Ichor to execute, and each gift uses a varying amount of it. To earn it back, players can use basic heavy or light attacks, or perform a back attack on an enemy, dealing a large portion of damage and getting some Gift usage back. Players unlock more Gifts within each Blood Code by spending Haze, the experience points you earn from defeating enemies. Each Blood Code has unique Gifts, so it’s important to try new ones you earn to see if they fit your fighting style.
Not only is it important to try out Code Vein’s different Blood Codes to see if they suit your play style, but they can often save your life in different locations by swapping to another. One location deep underground was filled with water and mist resulting in low visibility and movement. Swapping to a caster class allowed me to pull enemies away from other so I didn’t get bogged down mid-fight.
Other areas allowed for more fighter based classes, where I could buff my attacks and increase my defense in order to take down tougher enemies. Of course, there are ranged and melee abilities that players can use to deal some extra damage to enemies, but I found myself relying on my melee weapons so I didn’t get stuck in an animation and take additional damage.
There are a ton of different types of weapons that players can utilize, from swords, to large hammers, halberds, and broadswords. Again, it all comes down to play style, and I was opting for mobility. Weapons can be upgraded for standard gains in damage, but can also be infused with elemental abilities with rare materials.
One thing Code Vein absolutely nails are its enemies. Just when I started getting used to a class of enemy, the game threw me through a loop and drops a whole new group of baddies to learn patterns of. The monstrous bosses here are the biggest draw, and there are some incredibly over the top bosses for players to take down.
The Butterfly of Delirium can poison players with swift close quarters or ranged attacks. The Successor of the Ribcage took me down with one blast of lightning from his wolf body with human arms. The Successor of the Breath had me dodging like a madman when he shot up into the air and slammed back down just to combo into an ice attack. The bosses here aren’t just fun to look at, but they’re fun to fight, and while some of them can be significantly more difficult than others, no matter your class, it wasn’t rage inducing.
I did find Code Vein a little bit easier than I was hoping. When I played the game at E3 2019, I was getting killed by even the weakest of enemies. Sure, if you aren’t paying attention any enemy can defeat you here, but it was significantly easier than when I played it back in June. I’m attributing this to an under-leveled demo character, and now that I have the full release, I was prepared by the time I got to the point in the game where I went hands-on a few months ago. A day-one patch allows players to increase enemy difficulty on subsequent play-throughs, so I fully plan on doing that.
One of the reasons I loved Sekiro and Bloodborne so much is that they catered to faster combat styles. That’s probably why I liked Code Vein so much, it wasn’t so much a slow, methodical experience as it was a flurry of swords and abilities. Players explore with a very competent AI companion that can revive players with an ability that shares life between the two. It isn’t game-breaking, and they won’t revive you multiple times in a row, even if they have plenty of health. If anything it’s a little bit more like in Kingdom Hearts when Donald throws you a little health, except then your partner has less vitality for some of the fight.
Code Vein’s art style is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve always been a fan of anime-style games, but the cell shading here makes every environment stunning to look at. The character’s lip-syncing is atrocious, but hey, as long as the world and the things living in it look good, who cares? Speaking of the world, there are a lot of varied biomes for players to explore. From snowy vistas to undergrounds lakes, the gamut here is wide, and Code Vein benefits from it.
From a performance standpoint, Code Vein runs really well. Frames dipped while I was exploring tight hallways, which I initially though was weird. After having it happen a couple times I realized something. Long hallways and underground tunnels link together different areas, and when navigating these tunnels the game is loading the next area. It’s a smart move that helps keep players in the experience, without breaking up the game into separate loading screens.
The day one patch I mentioned above will supposedly improve performance, but I didn’t have any drops during battle or in more detailed areas on my PlayStation 4 Pro.
Code Vein isn’t breaking new ground, but it is a ton of fun. The fast paced combat helps it have a vibe completely distinct from its Dark Souls inspiration, while crafting its own identity. Lots of customization between classes and abilities help keep combat fresh while exploring the world, even when you’re dropping countless enemies and running back to a rest point to turn in your experience. It’s a bloody world out there, better get going.
Code Vein launches on September 27 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. This review is based on a PS4 copy of the game provided by the publisher. Preorders are still available here.