Bandai Namco’s Vampire Action RPG has some bite, but is it enough?
When I saw the announcement trailer for Code Vein being unveiled, I thought: "Wow, this game might totally be my jam!" But what I mostly heard from others watching the same trailer was: "Wow, it's anime Dark Souls!" It seems overdone lately to compare games to Dark Souls, to the point that the comparison is starting to not mean anything anymore. If a game is difficult, it’s Dark Souls inspired. If a game is dark fantasy, it’s Dark Souls. Co-op or Antagonistic online interactions? Dark Souls. Suffice to say, the comparison to From Software’s popular Souls series is starting to become meaningless, so when I heard people say that “Code Vein is anime Dark Souls”, I wasn’t really sure what that meant before getting my hands on it.
Code Vein’s first impression on players is an almost ridiculous amount of character customization. The amount of options available sound almost comical when put into some sort of list, so let’s just say you can choose from things like pupil shapes, sclera colors, hair lengths, tiny hats, how many individual tiny hats you want to wear, your gas mask, and other things. Though, the only real disappointment is that body size isn’t a slider; your character just goes from ‘unhealthily skinny’ to ‘approximation of normal human weight’. Also, ladies, you’re gonna have some big… assets. A player could spend literal hours in here, and the game seems to note that maybe you want to change things up after you start playing, as you’re able to change your appearance at will in the central hub of the game once you unlock it. There have been a lot of people posting recreations of anime characters and others in Code Vein, and honestly the creation aspect is perhaps one of the best parts of the experience, really letting you spend your time crafting a character that is uniquely yours. Unfortunately, the game… sort of forgets that this is who the protagonist is not too long after.
Players take their newly awakened (and amnesiac) main character out into the destroyed world of Code Vein, a place where Revenants are constantly trying to secure their survival after a calamity, with Revenants that succumb to the parasites within them morphing into dangerous Fallen. The world of Code Vein is in shambles, and your character may hold the key to unlocking a way forward… If you can survive long enough to do so.
The first thing that struck me with Code Vein is that there is A LOT of talking. Like, a lot. Within the first 5 hours of the game, I felt like I had spent most of it listening to people talk, walking my way through memory fragments, and seeing things happen without taking a lot of agency in making those things happen. This, personally, was where I first started seeing the flaws of “It’s like Dark Souls” falling apart; Souls games have always operated on a very specific story aesthetic, where the character has arrived too late, things are already falling apart, and there’s really nothing left to save, just an attempt at piecing together what was happening before whatever calamity befell everything around you. Code Vein is different: There are a lot of characters still kicking and talking, and at times your silent protagonist fades into the background as the other NPCs talk to one another, as if you weren’t even there.
My first real disconnect with the game happened after the first major boss, which was followed by numerous cutscenes that made my character feel like an accessory to what was happening; if Code Vein were a directed action game where I was asked to play as Louis, an NPC you meet early on who becomes integral to the story, I think I would have been less disconnected to what was happening than how things were presented.
In fact, this might sum up my biggest complaint about Code Vein: you don’t ever really get to feel “alone”, unless you go out of your way to do so. The game works off of a sort of “buddy” system, where an NPC ally follows you around during the game’s action sequences, fighting enemies with you and tagging along. The problem is that they seem far better at doing things than you are, charging headfirst into waves of enemies and usually clearing out mobs far faster and with more style than your character is capable of. This changes a bit as the game goes on, where instead you end up babysitting your NPC companion into not dying because they can’t seem to read enemy patterns and behavior, but early on the game very much feels like you’re playing a supporting role to the NPC, a problem that presented itself to me in the first major boss fight.
Without spoiling anything, the boss fight felt… hectic. The boss’s behavior was almost totally random, with no discernable patterns, because it would change wildly based on whether characters were near it or not, and would switch between targeting myself and my AI companion seemingly at will, leaving sometimes little room to react or block. Eventually, I had to adopt a more long range fighting style, simply so I could stay far enough away from the enemy to have it focus on my companion, then lure it towards me while they would recover. This system eventually worked out, but it felt far less satisfying than I had wanted it to be, essentially making me change my entire playstyle and weapon loadout to complete rather than going at it with whatever I had and figuring out a strategy from there. I even tried fighting the boss solo, but that proved to be an even worse nightmare, as the AI seems coded to work best (as in, most fair) against multiple targets, and became ridiculously oppressive against me by myself. Attempting a later boss using the online multiplayer had a different issue: bosses became far too easy, as they couldn’t seem to handle 3 attackers, 2 of which were human and less prescribed than the AI NPC.
This was when I realized I had to make a decision that would affect how I would look at Code Vein: It was a more action-oriented version of God Eater, which happens to share numerous staff members with Code Vein.
Areas are bland, and opening shortcuts really just allows you to avoid having to walk through them again, but almost every area is a straight line of sorts, meaning there really isn’t much reason to backtrack to begin with unless hunting particular enemies for crafting essences or grinding. There is no diverging path: you simply go in the direction the game points you in, and work from there. Map exploration feels less important to exploring the game, and more important to just figuring out where to go next, or what specific item or location you were attempting to reach might be. Unless you were totally reckless, your AI partner will ensure you stay alive (unless, as the end of the game starts to invert, you’re racing to keep THEM alive), meaning that brute forcing your way through Code Vein is also totally possible, making the game seem fairly easy. At times this is nice, as Code Vein is certainly an accessible action game; players can somewhat coast to victory on the support of their NPC partners, and can even adopt supportive playstyles by equipping Blood Codes that allow them to buff and heal party members, and the limited online functionality allows you to call for help from other players (if you can find any; in my time playing I was only able to get this to work twice) to add a second partner to the mix.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the world of Code Vein was interesting to explore, but it never really feels like it is. It also adopts the “storytelling” method of Souls games in that many items fill in lore gaps and info dumps, but this feels superfluous at times because despite how much narrative the game throws at you, it never really tells you enough information to know what anything that’s happening means. While your character is an amnesiac, it takes that issue too literally, as characters will begin talking about events and important ideas without ever taking time to clue your character in on what any of that stuff means until perhaps hours later (or you discovered it on your own from some sort of item description).
Code Vein gives you a huge amount of options and customization (25 Blood Codes, all with different stats, abilities, and specialities), allowing you to tailor your approach to enemies and areas in whatever way suits that particular challenge best. The story makes a big deal out of your character having the ability to be this blank slate, and the game seems to push you into taking advantage of this in terms of gameplay too, without outright punishing you for only using one approach. As you level up, the stat specializations and changes come from swapping Blood Codes. While you can change them on the fly in the pause menu, I will say that I wished it were possible to have hot keyed at least two of them, making it possible to change during battle more seamlessly than just mashing the Option button to get to my menu, change all my gear and set up, and then go back to the fight.
Early on, it’s hard to appreciate the Blood Code system, as you don’t have a lot of access to things that let you take advantage of the variety they offer. You start with very basic gear and start finding pieces along the way, and I found myself prioritizing fast attacks with wide arcs to damage or variety until about midway into the game, where it started to become obvious that my best approach wasn’t a “Jack of All Trades” method, but instead creating and maintaining gear that would suit particular circumstances best. While you could very likely brute force your way through Code Vein with only one or two Blood Codes, the game really seems to expect you to change your build constantly; the game encourages you to make a character that can change on the fly when a new problem rears its head.
The game has you fighting hordes of enemies and occasional bosses, meaning the combat has to be faster paced and also a bit more hectic. Combat can be a bit slow to keep up, though, as you don’t really have a lot of combat variety in your combos, and while you can change to various weapons and styles, there are really only a few basic types of weapons in the game. The amount of buffs and abilities you can use are where the real customization comes in, but it combat can still feel a bit rote and clunky as you mash the same buttons over and over again to mow down mobs, and using abilities like Drain to increase your Ichor count, or special attack abilities, can become costly as Ichor tends to be a small resource, and your AI partner will occasionally steal your kills, meaning your flashy attack not only doesn’t work, but wasted resources.
While it may not sound like it, I enjoyed Code Vein quite a bit! One of the best parts about it is that it is a far more accessible version of the “Souls” style games that everyone knows and loves, while also being a bit more like God Eater in the way it presents some of the gameplay in a far more accessible way. For example, while your healing is limited, you and your partner can use a skill that shares health between you, and you have some window of time to use this skill before a character dies completely. While exploring an area, I got attacked by a huge enemy, and their attack knocked me out; I assumed I was done for, but Luis actually revived me using his skill, allowing me to roll to safety, recuperate, and then team up with him to take down the enemy. During our fight with the boss, I was able to do the same, sacrificing my own health to heal him and keep him in the fight, allowing us to take the boss down on what was essentially our last ditch effort to do so. In these little moments, Code Vein really shines, letting you feel cool and do cool things with the character you spent so much time creating.
And while the action is a bit stale, the flow of combat can feel fun and cinematic, especially as you unlock more complicated abilities and Blood Codes. Code Vein operates on a Rule of Cool, sacrificing challenge at times in order to make sure that you feel like your character is a badass, doing cool, flashy attacks and decimating hordes of enemies. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, it feels fulfilling and enjoyable. The game rewards your investment into your character, allowing you multiple opportunities to take pictures of your character, posing them at various stations in your home base, and has flashy cinematic sequences during certain combat attacks, that let you look as cool as you hoped your character would after all that time in character creation. I appreciated this, but some may not, as it does tend to make the game feel easy and somewhat unchallenging; even though I butted heads against the first boss a few times, after that, the game was fairly smooth sailing, with the occasional death coming as a result of trial and error more than specific, unique challenge. The game has a LOT of bosses, so if you enjoy big, cinematic battles, you’ll find a lot of them here, although ironically I felt that the second boss in the game was one of the hardest, with many of the bosses having similar, repeated attack types: AOE, tracking magic, big 360 swings, and somewhat erratic patterns. This meant that while the bosses were quite different in aesthetics, they have somewhat similar movesets with some slight variation; the second boss, who uses poison, is something of an outlier because it hits you at a point in the game where you have limited resources and haven’t seen a status ailment yet; the rest of the bosses feel more “fair” in that regard.
Code Vein feels a bit like an RPG in terms of story; characters talk a lot, and the story is the main motivator to continue the game, but there are sometimes a few speed bumps to this. While the game’s characters push a sense of narrative urgency, nothing ever feels overly urgent or dire, and the focus on reclaiming memories (both your own and of NPCs) makes the game feel like most of the bad, challenging, or dramatic events have all happened in the past, leaving many of the big character reveals to feel somewhat inconsequential. Even when I finally learned the big secret behind my own character and her companion Io, I couldn’t really say I was very surprised (the game kind of telegraphs everything), nor did I find the game treating these revelations as anything big; if the characters in the game weren’t very concerned about it, I didn’t see any reason I should be. I did, though, enjoy the various characters that I met and can’t say I didn’t like any of them, but it just felt like I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, worried that something bad will happen to anyone.
The game forges a style of game that centers on the idea of reclamation and forward momentum. Your character’s amnesiac past isn’t that important, because what matters in Code Vein is moving forward. Even as characters regain their memories, they react to them in a way that centers on what that means to them now, rather than what it meant to them then. If you're itching for a fun action game with a colorful anime-styled world, Code Vein is the game for you! The game will never ask too much of you, and rewards short play sessions quite well, meaning that you can take your time and enjoy the story and world that Code Vein have to offer, even if the challenge isn’t particularly there. Personally, while I’m quite finished with the game, I do still find myself turning it back on to mess with the character creator, posing to take screenshots and occasionally doing some small adventuring with my partners for gear I didn’t complete, while trying to occasionally find multiplayer sessions to join and help others.
+ Aesthetics and visuals are great, with character creation being a big high point.
+ Action is fun and fast, and develops more as you get more Blood Codes.
+ While not groundbreaking, the story is very enjoyable.
+/- Difficulty is somewhat on the easy side; accessibility is nice, but self imposed challenges (like playing solo) become far too difficult due to game balance.
+/- NPC ally mechanic can be somewhat odd, as it shifts wildly between holding your hand and babysitting fragile CPU partners who can’t read patterns.
- Online is a bit boring and hard to manage, and not many people seem to make use of it.
- Exploration is kind of dull; maps are generally straight lines with the occasional loop.
Does the vampire curse of Code Vein call to you? Do you also spend hours in character customization like I do? Let us know what you think of the game in the comments!
Nicole is a features writer and editor for Crunchyroll. Known for punching dudes in Yakuza games on her Twitch channel while professing her love for Majima. She also has a blog, Figuratively Speaking. Follow her on Twitter: @ellyberries
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