Okay, so we’re a little late with this one. I blame a few things here, namely Code Vein hitting on the same week as Deck 13’s great Sci-Fi Soulslike, The Surge 2 (check out the review for that here) as well as Bloodborne’s Halloween themed “Return To Yharnam” event starting up the week after. When I finally got my hands on Code Vein on launch day, well, I’ll be honest, the game didn’t grab me. I pushed through the tutorial mission, scrapped with the first boss and came away feeling a little… eh. First impressions were, it’s a good game but the controls felt a little lacking and the combat felt too stiff. So I got distracted by the call of the beasts and dropped into Bloodborne for a bit. Coming back to Code Vein, however, I was utterly surprised at the game I found.
Let’s start this with the old trigger warning disclaimer (for our editor, Ben, at least) that this is a Soulslike. In fact, it’s a Soulslike developed and published by the step-daddies of the Soulslike, Bandai Namco, seemingly feeling a bit lonely now that their wunderkind Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team at FromSoftware have jumped over to Activision to publish their Soulsy Ninja-Em-Up, Sekiro. On paper this seems like it probably should be a bad idea, like that time Fox decided it could make X-Men 3 without Bryan Singer and we got the abysmal The Last Stand (still, Singer also made Apocalypse and hasn’t had the greatest reputation since, so that was probably not the best analogy!) but in practice Code Vein is an incredibly worthy addition to the Soulslike ARPG subgenre.
The first thing that stands out is the visual style. Code Vein abandons the traditional FromSoftware style of murky shades of grey and brown in favour of a vibrant anime style that’s closer to the likes of Bandai Namco’s own God Eater. In fact, put the two side by side and you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. Chonky weapons that look too big to carry? Check. Edgy goth anime teens? Check. Spiky, demonic baddies? Check check check. It ticks all the boxes and that even extends to the story. “What’s that?” I hear you cry, “A Soulslike game with a coherent story?” Why yes, this game does indeed have a story and, for that matter, cutscenes to help you understand it. That’s not to say it isn’t a story that’s mad as a box of badgers but for those folks who don’t like their narrative delivered to them via item descriptions and cryptic NPC’s, Code Vein will be a breath of fresh air.
Taking place in a post apocalyptic future (as you do) most of the world has been decimated by an event known as The Great Collapse. As mysterious creatures emerge, the remaining humans decide it might be a good idea to reanimate their dead to fight them (as you do). Called Revenants, these undead humans quickly become dominant but require feeding human blood lest they frenzy and become one of the Lost, mindless killers. Fortunately an alternative has been found in Blood Beads which grow from trees called Bloodsprings, so the Revenants and humans live together in relative harmony, until the Queen Revenant frenzies and causes war to break out. Many years later, you as the player take the role of a former Revenant soldier who teams up with a group of survivors to figure out why the Bloodsprings are drying up and uncover a conspiracy that could lead to the truth about the Great Collapse and the Revenants.
See. Absolutely mad, but at least understandable(ish)!
So aside from a less esoteric story, Code Vein is still remarkably Soulslike in its execution, almost to a tee. The action takes place in a world that is somewhat interconnected, the player takes on an avatar created by them to slaughter various enemies using light and heavy attacks, defending with blocks and parries and, upon death, you get dumped back to the last respawn point you rested at. In Code Vein these are called Mistles and, as with Bonfires, Lanterns and the like, represent the spot at which the player can initiate fast travel, do some levelling up and all sorts of other gubbins regarding character management. Fortunately, Code Vein isn’t so much of a copy cat that it doesn’t bring its own ideas to the table, and those ideas are pretty smart and compelling.
First off, let’s talk about the character creation because, oh my goodness, it is good. When you start a new game you get to build your anime lad or lass and the options you can choose from are incredibly detailed. You’ll change their hair, physique, skin, tattoos, makeup, clothes, accessories, oh my… If you’re into the RPG fashion game there are so many options here it’s unbelievable and, best of all, you can change your characters appearance at any time while you rest up at your home base. Decide that your demon hunter needs a stylish hat to go with their dapper attire; you go get that hat on. Bandai Namco have already put out a post release update that adds some more costume and colour options in time for Halloween, so my lovely goth boi is now sporting some stylish pumpkin orange gear along with skull face paint.
The good thing about all these options are that they aren’t then immediately nullified by armour while you’re in the game. Code Vein takes a rather minimalist approach to gear; you can arm up to two weapons and a “veil” a piece of over armour which will buff your defense and tweak your base stats. This is all built around a straightforward levelling system where you put your accrued XP into a single level up which bumps your base stats slightly. Where things get interesting is in the character classes, here represented by Blood Codes. Blood Codes are items that you can find throughout the game, sometimes hidden, sometimes inherited off bosses and other characters, and allow you to tweak your base stats on the fly. The Hunter, for example, will adjust your stats to create a swifter character who excels in ranged attacks, or you could decide to become a Berzerker, relinquishing speed for power and brute force. The cool thing is you can switch these up at any time and the game remembers the loadout you had armed with each Code, allowing you to create custom builds for each one. Struggling with a boss? Maybe you need to switch up your Code. The other cool addition that comes with this is Gifts.
Gifts are unique abilities which are unlocked with each Code. These can be either passive abilities, which do things like buff health, stamina or other stats, or active abilities which take the form of spells, weapon buffs and other combat and support related skills. Each Code comes with a number of abilities already unlocked for use with that code type, and you can buy more with your XP while you rest at Mistles. If you find memories in the game world, you can also take these to a specific NPC within the game to allow you to access even more Gifts. Taking things even further, the more you use a Gift, the more you level it up – a fully levelled up gift is then unlocked for use with any Code you want (this process can also be sped up by using items you find in the game) meaning you have complete freedom to create any number of character loadouts to experiment with. It’s incredibly liberating although it’s not a system that’s really explained particularly well within the game, so you may want to do a little research or you could find yourself mixing and matching incompatible items.
That brings us back to the Veil’s I mentioned earlier which are a critical part of this mix. Each one is very much geared towards a specific play style and buff either dark (offensive) or light (defensive) Gifts. They also come with drain attacks which are essential for gaining the Ichor you need to use gifts. Drain attacks are initiated either mid combo, as a stand alone attack, or as a back attack or parry. Each Code starts off with a cap on the amount of Ichor you can hold which reduces every time you use a gift and increases with standard melee attacks, replenishing your supplies. Use a drain attack and you can increase this cap up to an upper limit, again dictated by the Code you’re using. Each Veil drains at a different rate which makes picking your Veil, Code and Gift combos essential.
This level of customisation really elevates Code Vein above its peers and allows for a different approach to character builds, more akin to Capcom’s Monster Hunter games, where you don’t shoehorn your character into a specific path from the get-go, but can tweak and change your playstyle as you unlock new abilities. It does, however, highlight a disappointing aspect to the game, namely the online multiplayer. In Code Vein, multiplayer is strictly co-op only; In the game you’re always accompanied by an NPC from the story who will help you out (although the git-gudder masochists can turn this off if they want) which does make this a much easier Soulslike than you’d expect, however if you want a bit more help in your game, you can send out a “distress signal”. Conversely, if you want to help someone else you can look for these distress signals to jump into their game – handy for helping out with troublesome bosses, but that’s as far as it goes. Rewards, as well as bonus XP, are limited to medals which can be cashed in for titles and icons you can display in your online banner, but the lack of any meaningful covenants (in game groups which offer rewards for completing online tasks, such as the Vilebloods in Bloodborne which rewards players for successful invasions) or a PvP mode means that the endgame feels slightly lacking. Here’s hoping Bandai Namco can add some kind of arena in a future update which will allow Revenants to test out their builds against other players.
There is still some interesting post game content for players to sink their teeth into, however, in the form of The Depths. These procedurally generated dungeons are similar to Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons and present challenges and repeated boss encounters. In these you’ll be able to hunt for and grind rare materials and the different Depths can be unlocked by finding maps hidden throughout the main game and presenting them to an NPC at the home base. While the Chalice Dungeons were somewhat maligned in Bloodborne, The Depths are a fun romp with either an AI companion or a friend and will certainly extend the life of the main game.
There are a couple of other notable niggles with the game; for one the controls are a little stiffer than other, similar games, more akin once again to Monster Hunter with more purposeful combo inputs, but there is a lack of fluidity to the movement. The character designs are also a little… awkward in places. Namely the female characters who are somewhat anatomically unbalanced in their upper bodies. That’s not a prudish statement, but the… largeness of certain… things, as well as the swaying animation… well, you get the picture. It’s just a little unnecessary, similar to how it was in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and… ahem… stands out a bit.
It’s absolutely not a dealbreaker, though, and Code Vein is well worth the time of any hardened Souls veteran looking for a different experience. On top of The Surge 2 and Blasphemous, this has been a great year for ARPG’s!