Chances are if there is a game that is being labelled as a ‘Soulslike’ game I’ll be interested in it. I’ve really enjoyed some of what the other developers and designers have brought to the table with the likes of the stance system in Nioh or the limb targeting in The Surge (even if I hated pretty much the rest of the game); the little nuances in these games help separate them from the rest and bring a little more creativity to this subgenre of gaming. Code Vein looked to be another one of those things and, though it had a bit more of a quiet and confusing development cycle, which comes across with its incredibly derivative design and ideas. However it’s still a solid game that can stand on its own regardless of its various shortcomings.
Code Vein sees the player assume the role of a voiceless revenant (read: vampire) who wakes up next to an aloof girl named Io in the ruins of a city that has long been dead. Unlike most of the Soulslike games, Code Vein emphasises the importance of its plot and it doesn’t take long for the game to begin introducing you to its colourful cast (who seemingly only have an appropriate amount of clothing for the male members). Given that the game focuses more on story than pretty much any other Soulslike game, you would hope that the story is well written. Thankfully, Code Vein actually has a pretty decent story. The pacing is good, with a constant crescendo into milestone points, and its lower moments are met with character backstory that is actually explained without reading item descriptions. Bandai clearly wants the ability to experience the characters and their motivations to be as accessible as possible. Naturally, there’s a little more than what is on the surface and piecing characters’ memories together has tangible benefits for both the gameplay aspect as well as understanding each character. It’s a nice balance that is met and it is by far one of Code Vein’s strengths.
Though the story may be relatively good, its delivery can be quite… flat. A problem I noticed with Code Vein was with the voice acting. Now I’m very used to Japanese games having bad English voice acting, it’s something of a staple in a sense. But when tense moments are completely ruined due to atonal voice acting, or dialogue just completely misses the mark for the same reason, the story can very easily seem very average. It’s the little things like when characters are wearing their gas masks yet sound like there is nothing over their mouth or when characters are in pain but speak normally (even though they are very clearly hurting). These smaller missteps in the voice acting just really put a damper on the solid story and completely break the tone of certain scenes.
In terms of actual gameplay, anyone who is familiar with any of the Soulslike games will find themselves quite comfortable with Code Vein’s interpretation of the popular gameplay style. In a lot of ways, the game takes notes from Dark Souls. With things like disruptive backstabs, a parry system that can either be your best friend or your worst enemy and a primary healing system that requires upgrades to become more effective and have more uses (the healing item coincidentally also gets replenished when you rest at the game’s version of bonfires). Don’t let this fool you though, Code Vein still does have its own ideas with the combat, that begins with the Blood Veils. Blood Veils (also known as armour sets) determine a variety of stats, including your parry animation as well as the effectiveness of ripostes and backstabs. While it took me a little while to understand that upgrading the Veils didn’t actually increase their defensive capabilities but rather increases their stat scaling for the offensive capabilities that each Veil has, I actually like this difference as it meant I had to learn the attacks of each monster and not rely solely on how many hits I could take. In a way Code Vein very much adopts the approach of you being able to take down enemies quickly, but they can take you down quickly too. The Blood Veils aren’t the only way that Code Vein separates itself from the crowd, however, and the Blood Code system is proof of that. Most games of this ilk rely on raw stats to determine the type of gear you can use and various other traits of your character, Blood Codes add another dimension to this basic idea of levelling up. To put it simply, Blood Codes are sort of like the different classes that you character can be. While a lot of them can overlap in terms of basic functionality, they all have different gifts (perks and skills) which can make them play remarkably differently from one another. Blood Codes can even determine things like the weapons and armour you can use, it’s a really well thought-out system and it is one of my favourite parts of the game.
While Code Vein does do a lot to separate itself from the crowd, the further along the game you go, the more derivative it becomes and when it hits those points it can be a little disappointing in just how unoriginal the game can get. I’m not going to say when it occurs but the game tries its absolute hardest to have its own Anor Londo moment by giving the player this big reveal of a large, intricate cathedral structure high in the mountains. Thankfully, the game doesn’t attempt its own Ornstein & Smough… at least not until after this area. Even smaller things like having to drop down a hole onto small ledges to slowly make your way down to a doorway just feel like they are ripped straight out of FromSoftware’s works. The most egregious example of lack of originality, however, has to go to a boss named ‘Skull King’. Have you played Bloodborne: The Old Hunters? If you have, firstly you are awesome because that DLC owned and secondly, you will be more than prepared for this boss as the moveset is nearly identical (just with a bigger hitbox). Even the mechanics are the same. The boss gets mad and puts an effect on its swords, it then gets double mad and puts a secondary effect on the sword which occurs after the first. I would even go as far as calling it a carbon copy as I should not be able to perfectly read a boss fight while half asleep on my first attempt. Even the writing towards the latter half of the game becomes incredibly derivative, rounding it with a cyclical conclusion but in a much messier way than the games it takes inspiration from.
If you can look past the fact that the game lacks originality, then you might also be able to see the really good level design that is present within the different areas of Code Vein. I actually found myself quite absorbed in some of the key areas and impressed with how intricately designed they were. Path criss-crossing and overlapping, needing to drop down ledges to find hidden pathways and such, Code Vein does an impressive job of using 3D space in a subgenre of gaming that generally lacks any panache in its approach to verticality. These areas also house a lot of surprises for the player, whether it be ambushes or a challenging assortment of enemies, the game makes quite an effort at keeping the player on their toes. In saying this, these surprises can often highlight one of the key issues with Code Vein’s combat. While most games make quite an effort with the herculean task of balancing risk versus reward, Code Vein is just happy to outright work against the player. The game will easily oblige with hitting you multiple times without any form of counter, especially if you are stun locked. I’m all for the game punishing you when you make a mistake but if it does things that there are virtually no counters for, well that’s just not very well designed. It’s a shame that it works this way because the combat is quite fun and there are even some now quality of life shortcuts for people who decide to play with keyboard and mouse – something which cannot be said about FromSoftware’s games.
In terms of visuals and sound, Code Vein is pretty solid. The art is gorgeous, especially in the later parts of the game, and the sound design is good. Bandai has made excellent use of the lighting tech available in Unreal Engine 4 to make one of the prettier anime games that I have ever seen. While it is fairly lacking in terms of graphical fidelity, something that you might notice when you enter the more detailed areas, the art is good enough to set the stage for the game and communicates the atmosphere perfectly while also having a pretty decent level of performance and polish. I do have to admit that the game has a pretty big issue with objectifying its female characters, but that is also something that is more to do with the source material (the anime) than the game itself. It also does not support ultrawide.
Code Vein is a pretty solid attempt at a formula that is tried and true and manages to bring some cool ideas to the table. It has a pretty decent story, familiar gameplay and interesting character building ideas that are fun to mess around with, but as you progress towards the end of the game you can clearly see where it got its inspiration from. Unfortunately its derivative nature, bad voice acting and sometimes unfair gameplay are enough to turn this from a must have into a game that might be better left for the bargain bin unless you thirst uncontrollably for Soulslike titles.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher