When I sat down to write this review for Bandai Namco’s Dark Souls-flavored action-RPG Code Vein, I really didn’t want to use the terms “Soulslike,” “Soulsborne,” or anything related to FromSoftware’s efforts. I wanted to address the positives and negatives of Code Vein without shining a light on the titles that came before it, though I have already failed miserably in this mission. Code Vein borrows so heavily from Dark Souls and Bloodborne that it’s difficult to avoid talking about them in the same breath, let alone a “professional” video game review that takes a harder look at everything. Is Code Vein an enjoyable experience? Sure. I enjoyed my time with it, and I look forward to diving back into this bizarre anime vampire world as soon as I have the opportunity. That said, it’s not a very good Soulslike, as it’s far too linear and easy. If you’re looking for a challenge, might I suggest turning your attention to The Surge 2, another recently released Soulslike endeavor.
That said, I can attest that Code Vein definitely provides a fair amount of fun, especially if you enjoy watching moody vampire — I’m sorry, revenants — talk about how miserable they are to live as vampires (again, I’m sorry, revenants). In-between fighting mobs of hideous monsters and taking down giant creatures who specialize in crushing cocky players who think they’ve mastered the craft, you’ll spend a fair amount of time getting to know the inhabitants of this crazy little universe. They’re all blood-sucking freaks in one way or another, from the emotional Louis to the absurdly busty Coco, and they all have something to say about the state of the world. Your character, despite playing a role in helping everyone get the tasty blood beads they so desperately crave, keeps his or her mouth shut throughout the adventure. Instead, you’ll nod here and there whenever you’re brought up in conversation. God Eater 3 fans know what I’m talking about.
Code Vein’s story features a lot of convoluted twists and turns, but here’s the whole thing in a nutshell: Something called the Lost Queen declared war on humanity, so someone cooked up some nifty vampire-esque revenants and used them to fight back. Of course, once humanity the queen faced defeat, the revenants had nothing to do but sit around, lounge in hot tubs, stockpile dangerous weapons, brood, and seek out blood beads, which keep them from transforming into thirsty creatures known as the Lost. Of course, a serious problem arises when the springs that provide these precious beads begin to dry up, though your character seemingly has the power to bring them back to life. Good thing you happen upon a group of do-gooders who want to use your power to help rescue those in need while preventing vampires (I’m sorry, revenants) from becoming soulless minions of darkness. Otherwise, things would have gotten pretty dull.
Sound complicated? It is, kind of. Truthfully, I didn’t spend a lot of time getting to know the ins and outs of the story — I just wanted to smack around monsters with my attractive revenant with the green hair, dark eyes, and badass makeup. Code Vein gives you a very robust character creator, allowing you to create the revenant of your wildest dreams. If you snoop around online, you’ll notice that many players have carefully recreated characters from their favorite anime, with remarkable results. I opted for an original dude with the aforementioned traits, though if you want to sink a few hours into making your hero or heroine the talk of the post-apocalyptic wasteland, you can certainly do so. You’ll spend a lot of time looking at this person, so it helps to have someone you actually want to stare at during your wild vampiric adventures. I always want to spend a lot of time crafting a character who’s memorable and kick-ass, but I usually end up with someone woefully generic.
After a brief tutorial that quickly runs you through the basics of combat, skills, and all that jazz, you’re thrust into this cruel and punishing world — except, if you’re a Soulslike fan, it’s truly not all that punishing. As much as I love FromSoftware games and its growing list of knock-offs, I am not very good at them. I dig the lore so much that I’ll deal my inability to “git gud.” Maybe it’s an age thing, maybe my old-school arcade skills have become rusty as I begin screaming toward middle age, or maybe I’m simply an unskilled moron — regardless of the reason, I’m actually kind of good at Code Vein. And by good, I mean that when I mindlessly button mash during a particularly difficult boss fight, I am not immediately smacked across the face for attempting such as cheesy maneuver. More often than not, you can get away with cheap tactics and empty-headed moves when facing the foes throughout Code Vein, though only to a certain degree. Too much tomfoolery will send you back to a mistle, which serves as a bonfire in this kooky vampire-flavored universe. I’m sorry, revenants.
Mistles/bonfires aren’t the only things that Code Vein “borrows” from the Dark Souls formula. Instead of souls, you collect haze during your adventure, which you can then use to level up your character. Haze also acts as a form of currency, allowing you to upgrade your armor (blood veil) and your weaponry, the latter of which cater to a number of different playstyles. You’ll also need to manage your blood code, which acts as Code Vein’s job system, allowing you to jump between a full-blown warrior to a character who can cast spells during combat. You can also mix and match traits from different blood codes to make your own unique badass, which is essentially the route I chose to take. While I liked the idea, the codes really didn’t seem to make a noticeable difference in play styles, especially since I could take the best from each one and carry it over to the style that I favored the most. Great idea, by the way, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the execution.
And, really, that’s Code Vein’s problem in a blood-encrusted nutshell. It’s not that the folks behind the insanely enjoyable God Eater 3 have crafted a trash game, but it doesn’t do much to separate itself from Dark Souls, Bloodborne, The Surge, or any of the “hardcore” action-RPG titles that have popped up in recent years. Sure, you get a trusty companion who joins you during your journey, and, yes, the class/job system adds a unique wrinkle to the proverbial mix, but that’s just it — a few interesting wrinkles and nothing overly unique. The combat, a place where the game should truly shine, doesn’t feel as meaty or as rewarding as its brethren. Again, it’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a little clumsy and, at times, unresponsive. When you’re playing a game that requires expert timing, you need the controls to be as tight as humanly possible. Code Vein’s mechanics will no doubt feel a little too loose for old-school Soulslike fans to take very seriously. In fact, I doubt many of them will have any trouble with Code Vein whatsoever. Instead, this will probably serve as a fantastic “gateway drug” into the world of Soulslike titles, which, in many ways, is kind of fantastic. It will give would-be Dark Souls fanatics a place to cut their teeth before getting into the nitty-gritty.
Although I’ve kicked around the lackluster controls, wonky leveling system, and brutally silly story, I do genuinely love the way Code Vein looks. And while some of the levels might seem a little dreary and repetitive in spots, the game absolutely nails the post-apocalyptic atmosphere. It seems to take a lot of visual cues from God Eater 3, which, in my opinion, isn’t a bad thing at all. It even borrows that game’s hub system, and what a lovely, attractive little hub system it is. If I suffered from vampirism and I had a base of operations complete with a bar, an armory, hot springs, and a pretty decent view of the obliterated landscape from my balcony, I probably wouldn’t spend a lot of time anywhere else. Code Vein absolutely nails the atmosphere, which often seems to live somewhere down the block from Anne Rice, the cheesiest anime dialogue generator you’ve ever encountered in your entire life, and someone who’s really, really obsessed with FromSoftware. For some folks, that a recipe for a fantastic evening indoors. Other people, meanwhile, probably won’t get very much mileage out of it.
Code Vein feels like a game that’s on the cusp of something truly great. I really do believe that! In fact, with a few finely-tuned patches and some careful “road mapping,” the game could step out of the Dark Souls’ considerable shadow (assuming the developers want to do that) and become a very nifty alternative to the other games that ape this style and format. Admittedly, I was pretty disappointed when Code Vein ended up on the delay tray last year, and I’d hoped a little more time in the proverbial oven would cook this puppy to a delicious golden brown. Sadly, it still seems a tad undercooked, and I truly hope the developers spend some time listening to feedback from the fanbase to help boost this title in the areas where it tends to sag. God Eater 3 definitely benefited from a fairly constant stream of tweaks, updates, and patches, so let’s hope the same rings true for its moody vampiric cousin. I’m sorry, I meant moody revenant cousin. Silly me.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Bandai Namco.