Some occasional balance issues and mundane elements don’t keep this Souls-like from being worth your time.
After so many delays and an underwhelming demo, I was worried Code Vein might be a mundane Souls-like entry upon release. So, I went into the game expecting very little, especially as someone who places Dark Souls on a pedestal and isn’t ashamed to compare other games to it. Instead, I wrapped my first run of the game impressed by its fluidity, freedom of choice, and excellent execution of genre fundamentals. Not only can I recommend Code Vein, but I’d go so far as to call it a must-play for fans of the series it so wonderfully imitates.
Before you even step a foot into its dark and oppressive world, you’re greeted by a robust character creator that surpasses any I can personally recall. It’s a true joy crafting your ideal anime hero with all the hair, face, and body sliders, but the real star here is the detailed accessory collection. Outfitting your character with an impressive array of glasses, hats, chains, bags, gloves, and more means you can make them as hardcore or as playful as you’d like. Code Vein makes a wise decision to not take itself too seriously in this aspect, and that makes creating your protagonist all the more rewarding.
"It’s difficult to grow an attachment to characters when you’re bored learning about them. "
This is all in stark contrast to the fact that Code Vein takes place in a post-apocalyptic world and tells a quite serious tale. A calamity has led to the uprising of immortal vampires known as Revenants. The game casts you as one of these creatures in a quest to recover your memories and find out the specifics of humanity’s downfall. It’s a much more story-heavy game than your average Souls-like, opting for a lot of substance and dialogue rather than relying solely on the ambiguous underpinnings the genre is so known for. Sadly, it comes across as little more than maudlin nonsense, only rarely touching on any meaningful points that I found compelling or worth caring about.
Some characters have additional story content told through sequences that see you sluggishly walking and viewing static images while listening to audio exposition. These moments are a chore, which is a shame when a handful of these characters are actually intriguing and deserving of something far more engrossing than this tedious storytelling device. It’s difficult to grow an attachment to characters when you’re bored learning about them.
Outside of its heavy focus on plot, Code Vein’s inspiration is abundantly clear, channeling games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne to build its combat fundamentals. You play a game of stamina roulette as you balance light and heavy attacks, parrying, blocking, and dodging. The experience you earn from killing enemies is lost upon death and must be recovered before dying again lest it disappear forever. You rest at mistles (see: bonfires) to refill your health restoration items, and it subsequently respawns all enemies in the area. If all of this sounds wonderfully familiar to you, there’s at least a really good chance that Code Vein will scratch your Souls-like itch.
"Whether you want to deal damage up close with a light or heavy weapon or deal magic damage from various different elements, you’ll find a blood code that fits you."
Code Vein manages to inject some interesting ideas of its own to set itself apart and keep things interesting. For example, dozens of blood codes act as the game’s class system, and you’re allowed to swap freely between them as you see fit. Each has a style of weapon that is best suited to it and a collection of passive and active gifts (abilities) to learn. But Code Vein never makes you feel as though your choices are black and white, largely due to the fact that you can learn gifts from one blood code and use them in another. This allows for a surprisingly deep experience of mixing and matching gifts to find your perfect loadout.
Whether you want to deal damage up close with a light or heavy weapon or deal magic damage from various different elements, you’ll find a blood code that fits you. But swapping between them frequently is often the key to success. Though you may be able to eek your way through the game only using your favorite, there’s a lot of power in experimentation. Taking down certain bosses is made exponentially easier when using a ranged option that can help you avoid AOE damage, whereas you may find it much quicker to fell average enemies using a simple sword for rapid, calculated attacks. Thanks to the ease of switching over, you never have much to lose by trying a new combination, and doing so during my playthrough often led to me discovering I enjoyed a specific blood code more than the one before it.
The sheer variety of blood codes means you’re likely to end up with a vast amount of gifts to use, but the game’s ichor system isn’t a straightforward affair. Using abilities eats through this resource quickly, and replenishing it is mainly achieved through repeatedly landing blows on enemies and using drain attacks that shed some much-needed spotlight on the vampire backdrop. This keeps you from abusing gifts with no consequence while also giving you incentive to play aggressively to earn more ichor.
"As with Dark Souls, you can summon a real person too, but unless you and a friend use the password system, you’ll generally sync up with a random player."
You can swap between AI companions that tag along for your journey, and finding the right one that compliments your playstyle is a fun puzzle in itself. But having this friend along creates a crazy level of imbalance in the game’s difficulty. You’ll often face hordes of enemies at a time, and your AI-controlled friend is adept at pummeling them relentlessly to the point that you may find regular encounters too easy. But enter one of the game’s epic boss battles, and their lack of regard for their own safety often leads to quick deaths, leaving you to fight an extremely powerful foe on your own. Facing down difficult bosses isn’t new to Souls-like fans, but Code Vein’s bosses typically feel tuned for two players, so having a dead companion less than a minute in can be exceptionally irksome.
As with Dark Souls, you can summon a real person too, but unless you and a friend use the password system, you’ll generally sync up with a random player. It’s a crapshoot as to whether their assistance will live up to your expectations, so I preferred just bringing along the AI pals so I could pick exactly what type of companion I wanted to match with whatever blood code I was currently experimenting with. Additionally, I appreciated their likable personalities and tendency to offer observational input on nearby points of interest. I just wish they were as observant during boss battles.
Though beautiful, Code Vein’s locations all share similar visuals, consisting mostly of some variation of streets, rubble, or buildings. This can make some locations feel too familiar, but it’s nevertheless enjoyable to explore them to find hidden areas and loot, and their tendency to loop back together with shortcuts makes for easy access to mistles for healing and spending experience. I’m a big fan of the map system that charts your progress through the game’s levels, giving you a clearer picture of where you’ve explored and where you may have missed. It often cuts down on backtracking and keeps things chugging along during longer dungeons, many of which take you through maze-like interiors that would be otherwise easy to get lost in.
"Not only can I recommend Code Vein, but I’d go so far as to call it a must-play for fans of the series it so wonderfully imitates."
I’m also very thankful that Code Vein offers a fully-customizable button layout because its default settings are likely to frustrate Souls-like veterans by mapping attacks to face buttons rather than triggers. Some may find this easier to adapt to than others, but cemented muscle memory forced me to reorganize my layout to the genre standard. This created a few hiccups for me when trying to string together some of the game’s more complicated inputs, but at least moment-to-moment gameplay felt more comfortable.
Tackling all of Code Vein’s available side-content alongside the main story took me around 30 hours, and with the calling of NG+ and additional endings, I’m happy to know there’s still plenty to keep me busy grinding away at the game for months to come. If you can overlook a handful of quirks, it might just suck you in too with its nearly endless combat customization and appreciated enhancements to the genre’s established formula — and no one will judge you if you decide to skip the cutscenes.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Robust character creator, Engaging class system, Many layers of customization, Excellent map implementation.
Boring story segments, Imbalanced AI companions.
Code Vein invents as much as it mimics, and while it doesn't pull everything together perfectly, it manages to be an exceptionally fun Souls-like romp through a post-apocalyptic anime world. It's just a shame the developers didn't spend a little more time polishing the game's balance and less time on its unstimulating story.