While this is a rather niche title given the anime graphical style and Soulsborne type of gameplay, Code Vein sticks a decent landing.
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Release Date: September 27, 2019
As the title suggests, Code Vein is all about the blood and ashes. Humanity has fallen to the Thorns of Judgment and all that is left are the derelict remains of a crumbled society riddled with the Lost. Those who remain are now Revenants, creatures who were once human but require blood to be consumed. If they are to not replenish blood supply, they are at risk of going into a frenzy and ultimately becoming part of the Lost, to which the only way out is by death and fading into ashes.
The ashes from deceased Lost are called miasma. Every Revenant wears gas masks to prevent inhaling this miasma, for doing so expedites their bloodlust and makes them more susceptible to going into a frenzy. All that stands are you, the silent protagonist, and the allied Revenants who want to get out of this hellish nightmare. It’s a very vampiric setting minus the inability to be out in the sun.
Let’s just get this out of the way now. Yes, this is “anime Dark Souls”, and that’s okay. Bandai Namco publishes the games, so it was only a matter of time until some elements of the Souls games were incorporated into other games such as Code Vein.
The game is difficult. Dying makes you lose your experience points; dying again before retrieving the item left behind at the scene of your first death makes you permanently lose those points. There are bonfires— or mistles in terms of this game’s terminology— that act as safe havens where it restocks your inventory with curatives as well as resets all enemy spawns in your area (minus bosses and chests).
You also have the stamina bar which is used when executing attacks, dodges, parries, or sprinting. Proper management of the stamina bar is essential to your survival given that depletion of it in the heat of battle is certain death. Bosses have large pools of health and are way more difficult than the enemies you killed or ran past. They have telegraphed attacks that are oftentimes very fatal, so expect to use all your regeneration items or face many deaths.
Code Vein does borrow core elements of a typical Soulsborne game, but it has its own ways of differentiation. While I did mention that it is difficult, it’s not in the same realm as the Dark Souls games. In fact, this game can be a good introduction to people who want to get into the Dark Souls experience with less frustration. The game encourages you to choose one of the NPCs to fight alongside you in your missions. While this isn’t necessary, it does allow those who may not be so well-versed in these types of games to still enjoy it for what it is.
Having an NPC with you can trivialize boss fights and quell ambushes at times, given that they have strong spells, good damage and take some aggro off of you (shout out to Yakumo for being the best NPC). I’m glad that this is a thing because there is no penalty for choosing either option.
You can equip two different weapons of the five variations the game has to offer. You have one-handed swords, polearms, hammers/axes, bayonets, and two-handed swords. Ideally, you’d want to run weapon classes with similar attributes to optimize your build (like one-handed swords combined with polearms), but to each their own.
All weapons do not feel exactly the same either. Weapons and Blood Veils (the battle garbs) have different stats and characteristics which have slight variations in gameplay as well. There’s a mobility stat tied to the gear, so even if there are two weapons in the same category they can feel different in terms of attack patterns.
The thing about the combat system in this game, despite borrowing many aspects from a typical Soulsborne game, is that it can sometimes feel like a hack and slash or a Musou game. This becomes more apparent if you provoke too many enemies at once or when you encounter “One of the Lost has invaded in search of blood”. Admittedly, these are the parts that threw me off and caused most of my deaths, right next to falling off narrow paths and underestimating bosses.
Just a side note: encountering a sizable mob of enemies and not having long-range weapons or projectiles is guaranteed death. Enemies stagger you to oblivion and it can become frustrating trying to evade attacks when you’re in what feels like an infinite combo.
The part I appreciate the most in Code Vein is the customization and surprising amount of depth. You aren’t necessarily tied to using one type of weapon if you started out with it. In the early game, I went with axes and the two-handed blades because I wanted big damage with few hits. However, I found myself losing stamina too quickly, so I went with a more balanced and lighter setup. This isn’t to say that heavy weapons weren’t optimal; it became a personal preference. There was no penalty for changing my build, especially when getting around to the Blood Code system.
Without diving too deep into spoiler territory, there is a combat customization system titled Blood Code. This is where you can choose your ideal play style. Each Blood Code offers different boons and abilities tied to certain weapons and favors certain stats over others. Playing with different Codes allows for these abilities to be used with others upon maxing them out. You unlock more by story progression and exploration, and they are all tied to characters you’ve interacted with throughout the game.
You can further unlock the code perks by finding memory fragments found in the various places you travel and restoring vestiges through your soft-spoken companion, Io. Upon restoring these vestiges, you transition into a somber walkable cutscene where respective characters’ memories are displayed, oftentimes showing the more human side of them and adding backstory. It’s a walkable cutscene in the sense that you are slowly walking through a Revenant’s memories. You can choose to skip them, but if you care about character depth, go through them. They can be repetitive after the first few times experiencing them though.
Character customization is great too, with the multitude of skin tones, hairstyles, makeup and such. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to make an anime adaptation of myself or just make a completely original creation. Clothing and auxiliary components are more limited, but the game does allow you to go back whenever to change your character’s look as you please.
While Code Vein does seem like it can be rather complicated when you try to translate the terminology from Dark Souls over to it or just being new to these kinds of games in general, the game does give decent tutorials and refreshers when you need them. Maybe you skipped out on some cutscene for whatever reason and you need a refresher on the story. There is a hot spring you can visit at your home base where you can do such a thing.
Aside from solid mechanics and good storytelling, the game’s only real faults are in the performance, enemy variety, and some parts of the combat. At times when transitioning into different environments or facing lots of enemies, the game’s frame rate starts to have some hitching in it. It eventually clears up when everything is processed, but it is noticeable enough.
Enemies are very lifeless and for the most part, sound the same. Their movements and attacks do not differ from each other throughout, so they become trivial once you get around to figuring out their patterns.
Also, something about the combat doesn’t feel completely right. The combat feels nice and it’s nice to look at, but it just doesn’t have proper hit detection or weight when it comes to connecting your moves. It goes hand in hand with the clipping issues you see at times when in an in-game cutscene. It feels off-putting and can distract from an overall decent game.
To be frank, if Code Vein took a different route in terms of gameplay and mechanics, I feel this wouldn’t be generating as much buzz as it is currently doing. Anime games don’t necessarily sell millions of units in Western markets unless it’s something Dragon Ball or Naruto related. Hopefully, with some performance and further refinements to the combat via patches, this would be a much heavier hitter.