Just two hours into Code Vein, I was feeling confused and a little disappointed. I’ve rolled through enemy attacks only to take damage, I’ve been caught in tight corridors with multiple enemies and a camera that refused to cooperate, I’ve failed to initiative a backstab attack and lost a chunk of health because I was a centimetre off from the incredibly precise backstabbing location behind the enemy. I’ve also just encountered a boss fight that was book-ended by sappy, poorly acted cutscenes that tried desperately to make me care for the creature I had just murdered. It failed. I wanted to put down the controller.
And yet, I didn’t. Despite clunky game mechanics and an exhaustingly melodramatic story, the latest game from Bandai Namco Studios has something special at the center of it. It was hard to see this through the opening hours of Code Vein, but as my time with the game went on, the things that initially off-put and upset me were quickly cast aside. As Code Vein slowly began to sink its teeth into me, I began to eagerly dedicate dozens more hours to one of the most inventive, yet unrefined takes on the Souls genre to date.
Yes, Code Vein is a game in the style of the iconic From Software series of brutal action-RPGs. While perhaps a bit late to the party, the team at Bandai Namco normally known for their equally derivative Monster Hunter-inspired series God Eater took their time getting Code Vein out of the door. Announced back in 2017 and shown off as a slow and deliberate action game, it was hit with over a year of delays as the team tried to turn Code Vein into something more than just Dark Souls with anime girls.
In many aspects of the core gameplay, that DNA remains very much untouched. You’ll strafe and roll around your opponents with the same poise as a Souls character, even wielding some weapons that include giant hammers and two handed spears in almost identical stances. Your checkpoints are flower mistles scattered sparsely throughout each level, with death sending you back to the last one you touched. Killing enemies rewards you with a currency called Haze, but dying will leave your Haze in a puddle at your location of death in order for you to try and recover before dying again.
The familiarity of Code Vein is enticing, but also slightly dishonest. While the meat of the game carries many of the same characteristics that are sure to please fans of From Software games, many things in Code Vein also diverge from those games in truly interesting ways. Take, for example, the currency of Haze that I just mentioned. You spend these at mistles to level up and increase your health and damage, but you won’t be spending stat points to boost familiar parameters like Dexterity or Willpower. Instead, you’ll change these stats using Blood Codes, equippable power sets that you obtain throughout the game from fallen warriors or generous comrades.
Each Blood Code completely alters the spread of your stats, with one favoring higher Dexterity and Stamina while another gives you better Strength but much lower base Health. Blood Codes also come with a set of unique passive and active abilities called Gifts. Passive gifts might boost your damage with bayonets or give you more health, while active abilities can be anything from strength buffs to poisonous projectiles or even flashy blade-dancing attacks.
Blood Codes are great because, in essence, they make character builds and stat-growth accessible to any level of player. Instead of being required to meticulously build your stats in a specific way or pay an outrageous fee to respec and try something new, simply pop in a new Blood Code and now you’ve replaced a Strength build with a Dexterity build. If you use Gifts often enough, you can even equip them on other Blood Codes in order to mix and match your toolset even further. There’s also a robust character customisation system that lets you really get into the grain on creating your own unique character, and you’re even allowed to switch up your looks whenever you want in the hub world.
There are also AI partners in Code Vein who accompany you into battle every step of the way, unlike the intermitten ghostly aid you could summon in a Souls game. Partners in Code Vein come in a variety of flavors, from the fast and nimble sword-user Louie to the ranged attacker Mia. They each have different toolkits that, on paper, can nicely plug any holes in your particular build. Unfortunately, each AI partner has a knack for constantly diving head-first into battle without second thought or pause for confirmation from me. Early in the game, when they’re much stronger than you, this lead to a number of moments where my partner would grab the attention of an enemy I was trying to avoid, or would swoop in and annihilate an enemy I targeted before I could even land a hit on them. They tend to feel like more of a nuisance than an aid, but thanks to a health-sharing gift they often, I was often brought back from a death-dealing blow with a solid chunk of health at the sacrifice of their own. Heal me up, Louie; it’s the only thing you’re good for.
There are other interesting ideas like these in Code Vein, too. One of the most interesting ideas, though, is executed extremely poorly. The world and story of Code Vein is unique, with city ruins and demonic structures melding together to form your environments. Meanwhile, characters parade around wearing inventive combinations of modern clothing, JRPG battle gear and intricate gas masks that make them look as impractical as they do gorgeous. There’s a haunting and inventive world here that I would love to slowly soak in and get lost in. Unfortunately, Code Vein would rather hold my hand and guide me through an endless array of cutscenes full of melodrama and character dialogue that forces the sorrowful and depressing circumstances of our characters and the world down your throat constantly.
The Blood Codes, for example? Every time you collect a new one and want to activate it, you’ll need to sit through a walk-and-talk segment involving the tragic backstory of the character it belonged to. In Code Vein, the world was stricken by a cataclysmic event that caused half of humanity to turn into Revenants who require human blood in order to survive. Revenants who fail to get enough blood will turn into corrupted creatures called the Lost. The game loves to remind you at every turn that everyone is suffering, as well as why they are suffering, and what specific world events caused them to suffer. As a result, there is no mystery or intrigue left in the world of Code Vein. Everything is explicitly laid out for you, and none of it is all that interesting. On top of that, it turns the blood-warrior power fantasy into more of a guilt trip as you’re constantly met with the reminder that your crazy cool blood powers are born from the death and misery of others.