If it wasn’t obvious enough yet, it’s worth saying right now: Code Vein is like Dark Souls. It’s cliché to try to compare From Software’s landmark series to anything these days, but the shoe fits in this case. It fits so well one might think Bandai Namco had this game developed out of desperation to fill a Souls-shaped hole in its catalog.
In its defense, Code Vein has never really tried to hide that fact. From the earliest previews to the most recent demos, it’s even leaned into its reverence for the “SoulsBorne” structure, as if to signal to potential players that yes, it will try to capture that magic.
Which leaves us with the more pertinent question of whether it succeeds in its ambition. I’m not quite done with the game yet, but so far, I’ve had quite a good time mainlining it.
Code Vein (PlayStation 4 [Reviewed on a PS4 Pro], Xbox One, Windows)
Developer: Bandai Namco Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Released: September 27, 2019
Code Vein hasn’t been shy about its inspirations, but honestly speaking, even I wasn’t prepared to see the extent to which it has lifted the basic Dark Souls formula for its own use. Players will take their characters around various large, multilayered zones, plumbing them for secrets and loot. They’ll use a selection of weapons to hack their way through an array of threatening beasties for currency (here called “Haze”) that’s used to level up, upgrade skills and gear, and buy supplies. Should they be killed in the field, they’ll drop their Haze, and all enemies on the field will respawn. Should they be killed a second time before reclaiming their Haze, all of it will be lost.
They can heal with a special item (“Regeneration”) that has limited uses, but can be recharged by resting at checkpoints called “Mistles,” though doing so respawns the enemies just as a death might. Large bosses anchor key locations, and drop unique items with which to further specialize a character build.
I’m deliberately speaking in generalities here to emphasize what’s remained the same between Code Vein and the series that serves as its template, but I can’t emphasize enough that being familiar isn’t a bad thing in this case. The game works because Dark Souls works, and it’s frankly a pretty small sin to be a very capable copy of one of the best games of all time. What new things Bandai Namco has added to the formula work because they’ve laid a solid foundation to build on.
The most immediately obvious difference Code Vein brings to the table was clear from the announcement a couple years ago: It’s extremely “anime,” and packed to the ears with lovable, attractively rendered nonsense.
Where Souls games pride themselves on indirect storytelling and mystery, Code Vein throws in plenty of cutscenes, NPC interactions, and a premise that looks like it could’ve been spun off of God Eater 2: Rage Burst. The vampiric apocalypse has struck, leaving just one area of the world unswallowed by a horrible red mist. In this safe space (called “Vein”) arises a society of “Revenants,” semi-immortal vampire-like people who fight over the last remaining resources and jealously guard the few remaining pure humans, harvesting their blood to stave off the disease that turns Revenants into the Lost (the monsters populating the world).
The player, once spawned from the game’s (seriously impressive) character creator, is quickly marked out as rather special, having both amnesia and the ability to revitalize the “Bloodsprings,” magic trees that serve as one of the few sources of untainted blood not dependent on enslaving and draining a live human. Most of the early adventures have me teaming up with the game’s other cast members to seek out the “source” feeding the springs, the better to find a path forward for Vein.
And that’s about where I’m at, narratively. I wish I could say something more substantial about the main plot, but true to the nature of the genre, my progress has been slow, thanks to a few bad runs. That being said, Code Vein is, by my lights, one of the friendlier Souls-likes I’ve tried.
For one thing, there’s a minimap! And it fills in when you activate a checkpoint! Also, NPC companions accompany you when you go out, and are competent enough to act as a sort of safety net for most non-boss encounters. These NPCs will talk, use their skills in battle, and even highlight enemies and unnoticed treasures on the minimap for you.
Other conveniences include the game’s forgiving approach to character building. Rather than committing to a build, point-by-point, Code Vein‘s progression involves equipping “Blood Codes,” a fancy term for what essentially amounts to character classes. Blood Codes function as specific stat allocations and ability sets. For example, the Fighter Code emphasizes endurance and melee combat, gearing stats towards strength, health, and the ability to move at normal speed while carrying a heavy weapon. Passive and active abilities also boost endurance, lower the chance of staggering when hit, and improve maximum health. By comparison, the Caster Code has a large supply of “Ichor” (the resource used by skills and magic), and powerful ranged elemental spells to roast enemies from afar with. More Codes are acquired via the story, as well as finding them out in the field or on bosses, unlocking more exotic abilities and specialized play styles.
The fun bit is being able to swap Codes on the fly with nary a second thought. As someone who’s played a Souls game and built my character wrong more than once, this level of flexibility is quite welcome, as is the reprieve from having to agonize over balancing buying points in one stat or another. Some Codes come with abilities locked, with more “vestiges” needing to be collected and restored by an NPC before they can open up their strongest abilities and most beneficial passives. Skills from Codes can also be “Mastered,” allowing them to be used independently and letting players mix and match as they grow.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a game invoking vampires without a ton of bloodsucking, which brings me to Code Vein‘s signature mechanic: the Ichor Drain. Players can, on command or as part of a combo, cause their “Blood Veil” armor to morph into a cool monster and drain an enemy’s blood, causing their own maximum Ichor supply to increase. Since Ichor fuels all the abilities and spells a player has, a player can essentially “buy” more uses of their strongest abilities by playing skillfully and draining enemies while killing them, the better to face the really tough bosses with.
And there’s also the “Focus” system, which rewards players for expert evasion and parrying by unlocking powerful attacks that can launch smaller foes into the air, instantly stun bosses, and automatically drain them.
It’s not all slaughter parties and goth fashion though. Just as Dark Souls wasn’t exactly perfect, neither is Code Vein. The combat itself is faster, and a bit woolier than the precise stick-and-move rhythm of Dark Souls. The faster pace tends to make precision play harder. The enemies are also fairly samey on the lower end, behaving similarly despite looking generally different from zone to zone. The zones themselves, particularly early on, are somewhat bland, dominated by concrete ruins and infested with enemies that are the same color as the rubble.
Multiplayer is also a black box to me at the moment. One can send or search for “distress signals” as a form of matchmaking with an online buddy, but I’ve yet to see an implementation as creative as I’ve seen in even the lesser Souls titles. Or, for that matter, an implementation that works. It might be due to the review period or my own network, but I couldn’t connect to a single person online in my time with the game. With some luck, by the time our finalized review is published, I’ll have put in some time with fellow Revenants from the post-release player base.
It may not be over yet, but so far Code Vein has been one of the more enjoyable Souls clones I’ve played, proving that there really is space for a game to be “another one of those” and still be worthy of time and attention. I’m hoping that impression holds true for the rest of my run with it.
[This Review-in-Progress is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]