When Bandai Namco’s action-RPG Code Vein was first revealed, it immediately caught my attention with its beautiful anime graphics. However, much to my disappointment, it was also stated that lovely looks won’t turn into a blitzkrieg gameplay, but rather, to yet another Souls-like. I like my anime games fast and furious, thank you very much, not cumbered with deliberately slow response times and burdensome systems to unnaturally regulate the action, giving you a calculated shorthand in combat against powerful enemies. That’s Souls for you the way I see it, like it or not, another chapter to my big book of unpopular opinions. Still, Code Vein’s unusually in-depth character customization remained enticing, and when the opportunity arose to give the game a spin in the closed Network Test Edition, I gladly jumped that train.
Indeed, character creation is very detailed. From a big selection of hairdos, eyebrows, eyes (especially pupils), make-ups, accessories and whatnot you can come up with all sorts of cute, cool, weird, and kick ass anime girls and guys for your protagonist. I just wish the Japanese developers would stop putting facial scars and freckles in the same category, so I could put both onto the toon’s face. Features and their proportions have strict anime limitations to prevent deliberately making malformed monstrosities. I had an image of a young actress I had seen in a Finnish TV show a couple of hours earlier in my mind when I set up to make an anime version of her for my character. After I had punked her up, she was ready to face the challenge waiting for her.
The tutorial goes through the necessary gameplay phases in a rather unglamorous, drab, washed-out terrace in the middle of nothing. But when the game started for real, I was greeted with a lavish anime cutscene, showing my character in detail up close and personal. I was glad that effort I put into creating her wasn’t for vain. Souls games never gave this, properly showing your protagonist in all her glory, as their stories are hidden in details scattered around environments. Code Vein has a fully narrated story instead, with dialogue and cutscenes. And although the protagonist is of a silent type, she’s at the center of it.
The world depicted in the game is the usual, post-apocalyptic concrete dystopia of many Japanese animations, comics, and video games. Setting the story within familiar frames makes it a bit more welcoming as the lore is, once again, the kind of you can easily lost track of if you don’t pay attention to it. Revenants, once dead soldiers resurrected with a parasite that has turned them into vampires in all but the name, wage an endless battle within the world covered in a mysterious miasma that has been hanging under the climate ever since the great war. Revenants must satisfy their thirst for blood with Blood Beads. Otherwise, they turn into the Lost, the game’s main enemies. As it happens, our protagonist is a revenant, too, but exceptionally strong one. Unlike other revenants, she can acquire and switch between several Blood Codes that in gameplay terms are different character builds for the combat.
Blood Codes comes with their own set of Gifts, active or passive skills that enable special attacks and increase character stats. Some Gifts, like enhanced dodge and most of the passive ones, can be equipped regardless of the Blood Code while most of the extra attacks require certain Codes. Of course, there are other systems regulating the combat, too, like stamina for attacks and Ichor for activating Gifts. Stamina replenishes when you stop waving your weapon while Ichor can be sucked from enemies. All in all, very Souls-like, a bit more Bloodborne than Souls themselves, not only for the strong theme of blood in the story but also for general feel of the gameplay.
I found Code Vein a bit more welcoming than FromSoftware’s games, though. There are more Mistles for a quick save than there ever were campfires in Souls. Within Mistle, you can level up, acquire and upgrade gifts, switch AI partner, manage storage and teleport between other Mistles. Interacting with Mistles also resets all monsters in the area so it’s not all a walk in the park. If you die, you resurrect at the nearest Mistle but still, you have to go all the way to the spot you were killed at to collect your unspent Haze back, or it’s lost. Haze is especially important because it’s spent on everything in the game, from leveling up, purchasing and upgrading gifts, and improving equipment. So, you’ll be needing bucketloads of Haze, rewarded from killing enemies, to make further progress in the game.
The story part of Network Test Edition was quickly pulled through, taking you to the Homebase of the good guys where you can socialize with them, buy items and equipment, edit your character and finally, enter an extra dungeon (or depths, as the game calls them), exclusively set up for the occasion. There, amidst densely enemy-populated ruins, finer details of the gameplay came through better. You might have noticed by now that I’m not the biggest Souls-fan out there, but I came out liking Code Vein’s take on the concept. I’m not saying that it’s easier, but it’s more fun and that’s all you can ask from any game, isn’t it?
Soon, I had leveled up dozens of levels to tackle the deeper challenge of the depths, even though it was mostly useless as the progress made in the Test Edition won’t carry over to the full game. It was dead-easy to grind Haze as the Lost were everywhere patrolling the grounds. It was only a matter of beating them and going back to the Mistle to save, level up and upgrade Gifts. Rinse and repeat. Why did I make such an effort for nothing, then? I simply got hooked to the gameplay, helped a great deal by the briskly animated, lithe anime chick I got to create, giving an extra personal depth to the game. She was also more agile to move around than characters in other Souls-likes (not to mention, prettier to look at, too!). Of course, the combat felt weighty as it should, as you aren’t waving any pansy einhänders but two-handed swords, polearms, axes, mallets, halberds and whatnot. I also liked how it’s not vital to use target lock, freeing you to execute your own personal playstyle, backed by the Blood Code of your preference (I mostly used Prometheus for its mobility-enhancing attributes). In short, the combat just felt good.
Tagging along the protagonist is an AI-controlled partner, quite capable to fight on her or his own account and who is especially keen to tank enemies. When played online, you can also have another player to accompany you alongside AI. It makes things considerably easier especially in the boss fights, as the enemy’s attention is divided between three characters – as long as the online partner is up to the task and not just fooling around. To avoid such things happening, it’s best to play with someone you know, a luxury I couldn’t unfortunately afford in the Test Edition. Speaking of boss fights, I was mostly disappointed with them. All played to the similar loop: be patient and vigilant, bide your time, dodge and look out for an opening, a paint by numbers affair becoming so passé in the genre. I wished for a more dynamic approach to the boss fights. It’s not only Code Vein’s job to make it right, but action games overall should aim for more unique concepts of beating big bad enemies.
In the end, the question is: what can Code Vein offer over Souls-likes, or even Souls themselves? Well, amazing anime art, a cool anime girl or guy made with an in-depth character creator to play with, and a bit more welcoming gameplay. Even if the game mechanics all owe to FromSoftware’s hit titles, Code Vein has enough of its own to add the mix to make it worthwhile addition to its ilk. With everything going for the game, from its organic sub-systems to the satisfying combat, Code Vein feels like something I want to learn and master when it’s out later in the year.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.