Code Vein Review: An Anime ‘Souls-Like’ That Has Earned My Respect

People have a tendency to attempt to replicate something that’s been proven to be pretty successful, and there’s nothing really wrong with that so long as you stay away from being a complete copy-cat. We see the same thing happening with the Soulsborne series, and honestly speaking, I don’t really look to Bandai-Namco to be making anything outright original. However, like any creative product, the truth about it eventually unravels. I had previously joked that this was going to be an adventure that’s even edgier than God Eater; and in some aspects, I may have been right, but overall, I find myself humbled by how this game actually turned out to be. It may have been seen as an attempt to replicate the success of Dark Souls and its predecessors, but such a statement does no justice to what it has attempted to build on top of that. Long story short, Code Vein has won me over, so let me tell you how.

We are introduced to a world that is full of undead vampires due to some massive disaster called ‘The Great Collapse,’ where survival has become everyone’s struggle with their food supply, blood beads, becoming more and more scarce as each day goes by. You play as one of these vampires which are referred to as Revenants. Accompanied by a mysterious woman, she demonstrates that you actually have some unique powers, and are lead on to begin a quest that may save the already ruined world.

Production (4.3 / 5)

Playing this game on the PlayStation 4, it actually performs quite well. Hardly having any framerate hiccups, except maybe when you’re traversing tunnels or elevators clearly meant to replace loading screens. Though it appears to be operating at around 30 fps rather than 60, it doesn’t get in the way of gameplay.

Character models are actually quite detailed, which generally make up for the lack of good textures, and their occasional failure to load properly. They generally allowed modelling and lighting to do most of the work to make the game look good, while sticking to simpler textures to make the game more particularly anime. Unfortunately, it’s also due to this choice that half of the maps look mostly unremarkable and getting lost is easy. At the very least, it’s easy to discern where you can go.

The audio experience is pretty commendable through the game. Both English and Japanese dubs  have done well in portraying their respective characters in a respective manner, so which one sounds better to you is more of a matter of preference. While this has lately become more of a thing you can expect from Bandai-Namco, I did appreciate the songs of this game also having nice-sounding English and Japanese versions, as well. That’s a bit of an extra mile I was surprised to find and appreciate. However, the strange part would be how I didn’t find the music to be a big part of the experience while I was playing, despite me enjoying them well enough when listening to it alone. Maybe it’s because the story’s characters are doing a lot of talking that the music is hardly given a chance to really shine. I do recall the melody for flashbacks, which is probably more due to how often they happen.

Mechanics (4.5 / 5)

Bandai-Namco has no intention to reinvent the wheel, the traditional functions found in the soulsborne genre are all there; stamina, attacks, dodge-rolls, parries and blocks all function as how you would expect it in this kind of game. Save points serve the same purpose and you even use, lose, and gain XP in a very similar manner. So, with that out of the way, what exactly do they do differently?

First, stat’s aren’t fixed. You can quickly change builds, or rather, job class, by changing your blood code. Each blood code has a preset stat allocation and a set of gifts (aka: skills)  tied to it, ideally to shape out certain tropes you find in RPGs. There’s the bruiser type, a type that’s meant to attack at range, another agile type that’s meant to land many hits in one go, a healer, you unlock more of them as you proceed through the game. The pretty cool part is with enough grinding, you can use gifts without having to equip the related blood code. This makes it possible to mix and match as you like, equip several attack buffs together? That’s possible. Tweak stats so that you can meet the requirements to use more abilities? You can do that too. 

For combat, one thing that really stood out to me was how ichor and focus. For Ichor (which you’d usually call Mana/MP), you can use items to regain it when you’re running empty or just do the most natural thing, attack. Depending on your weapon, you gain ichor per attack that you hit on an enemy. The type of attack also dictates how much you gain. Normal attacks give you little compared to drain attacks, parries and back-stabs, where the latter two actually even expand your maximum capacity. This makes playing aggressively pretty rewarding as it lets you use gifts more often. As for focus, it serves as a reward and escape tool, to avoid getting combo’d to oblivion as well as reward good play. It builds up as you either dodge hits with strict timing or get hit in repeated succession. It gives you damage reduction for the next hits as well as stronger resistance to flinch, allowing you to land more attacks with less risk or finally be able to roll away from a bad position. Also when it’s full, it allows you to use a launcher attack, which is basically another uninterruptible attack, without having to rely on a parry or back-stab.

Finally, there’s the AI partner. You are, by default, expected to go through the game with a companion. Honestly, a curious choice for a genre that’s been known to have you go at dungeons and bosses alone and without help. They’re pretty helpful in exploring maps, as you can pick a companion that covers your weaknesses and make map exploration that much easier. You can also opt not to take anyone with you, especially if you’re the type that thinks having a default ally breaks the game. Except if you get trapped in a preset invasion, which is basically the game throwing random enemies at you and not giving you a chance to plan ahead. Playing solo was completely viable, even against bosses, but not for these. I find this pretty annoying, that it could have been implemented better, at least make playing solo viable!

Content (3.7 / 5)

Code Vein decides to stick to their style and try to take the story as seriously as they can. As they give you an epic quest to save the world while unravelling the mysteries of said world, and the characters involved with it. It goes out of its way to flesh out and develop each character’s story, or rather, backstory. Seeing as Revenants can’t remember a thing thanks to the memories themselves being lost during their many deaths, you literally pick up the pieces and put them back together for everyone.

How their stories are explored remind me very much of Get Even, where there are various setpieces designed for you to walk through as voice overs of the concerned characters play through complete with ashen statues. Now the presentation is pretty cool and they do mix it up quite often, however it gets pretty tiring with how constantly this takes place. Repairing these vestiges, the item form of the memories, means going through the flashback they provide, and it’s quite possible to have 3 or more of them at a time after clearing a stage. Ending up to use 30 minutes or more of your time just for a rather predictable flashback session. It’s a shame because the presentation would have been much better if it wasn’t overused so badly. The fact that getting other endings depends on how well you complete them adds to the pain a bit.

For level design, they’re not exactly ground-breaking, but they leave enough around to make exploring interesting. Finding items, gear, new shortcuts, and most importantly vestiges. I would spend a good amount of time exploring the map until all of the dead-ends and hidden passages are revealed, and for the most part it’s pretty rewarding. There are certain maps that are a bit of a nightmare to comprehend, even with a mini-map designed to help you orient yourself, you’re literally going between towers so all the paths overlap and you can’t tell the difference between floors. There’s also some incentive for backtracking later when you’re done with the stage. As some sub-quests open up which can give some pretty good rewards after. However, the quests themselves are generally limited to ‘kill this’ or ‘fetch that.’

What would be the worst or most lacking part would be I would say, the enemies. In general, it looks like enemy AI aren’t very interested in fighting your partner, having you be the main target most of the time. This makes it easier for your allies to survive but not for you. In fact there appears to be a strategy where you just run around and let your AI ally do most of the work if you don’t want to figure out the match up. Though, matchups aren’t a lot to think about, while enemies do change how they look, and maybe have a new attack or two if you get far enough. Their movesets are generally the same depending on the weapon they’re wielding. So you rarely ever feel the need to change what you’re doing. If anything, you just decide that you’ll need a different partner depending on the stage. Having them come in formations or with interesting positions does help spice up the encounters, but with an AI partner it’s generally easy to breeze through most of them. As for the bosses, I’d say about half of them presented a challenge that equated to a considerable amount of retries, though few didn’t feel challenging at all.

Lastly, having a kind of ‘chalice dungeon’ in the game was a pleasant surprise, but of the two or three extra dungeons I explored I can’t really name one that left a strong impression on me. But hey, it’s optional content that gave you access to more stuff, so it’s a plus if anything.

 

Features (4.3 / 5)

What you’ll first come across as you begin your game is the character creator, and I have to admit this is a pretty robust customization for how your character looks. Using the accessory system to be able to make custom hairstyles is pretty amazing, add to that the other accessories you can manipulate with a lot of freedom. If you were paying attention to the screenshots you might notice that I got to play as Tanjiro Kamado, the protagonist of Kimetsu no Yaiba, in the world of Code Vein. One visit to reddit may show you how well people have replicated their favorite characters to be part of this universe. I appreciate how Bandai Namco is willing to let players just go ham on this department.

However, it’s annoying I can’t get rid of the mask, I wish they would at least add one that isn’t so huge.

While I did say this was pretty viable to play solo except for invasions, I wouldn’t say the same when it comes to NG+, enemy stats are buffed so ridiculously that making them flinch is already pretty difficult. Bosses become damage sponges that you’ll want at least one ally around to help whittle down their HP at a reasonable pace.

And since I’m pretty late to releasing this review, I’d also like to mention that their first patch added more quality of life features, like making it easier to switch partners, the map that I mentioned before. Blood codes remembering what gifts are equipped to them makes it a bit easier to switch builds as well, though I never felt like I had to do this much.

The online experience in the other hand is rather great. Netcode seems to do its job without any major issues, and follows the expected mechanics you’d find in a souls like. Except for the fact that you can’t go hunting other players for whatever reason. Seriously, Bandai-Namco, why’d you leave that out?

Conclusion

Being a fan of the soulsborne series I was ready to hang this game out to dry, I’ve seen many attempts to make use of the genre’s tried and tested formulas but ended up using them poorly. Code Vein may have looked that way at first, but it actually comes in with fairly well-polished mechanics. While I do like how it has gone with telling the story upfront rather than with a ton of context clues, it may have done it better by having a little less of that. I do say that encounters could have been better, but I’d be lying if I said the bosses weren’t at least interesting when I encountered them.

In my opinion, the hurdle that this title I couldn’t quite beat was setting itself apart from Dark Souls or Bloodborne. While it builds a decent amount of mechanics and features on top of the conventional stuff, I don’t think I stepped away with how I would usually play these kinds of games. Rather than feeling like I’m playing Code Vein, I feel like I’m playing a heavily anime flavored Dark Souls. Most of their new technical things didn’t feel like they mattered much because I can get through the game without thinking about them. Indeed, these new dimensions existed, but they didn’t seem to have enough weight for me to play with them in mind.

This doesn’t mean I wasn’t having fun, though. I found myself pressing on just to see what’s in the next room, or if the next shortcut or save point was just up ahead. On top of this, it’s easy to see how much effort they put into crafting this game. Contrary to what I assumed this Code Vein would be,  you wouldn’t say that this game was just quickly put together for some quick cash. Considering how much they showed in terms of story, mechanics, characters and options to play, they tried to go the whole nine yards in making this a game many would appreciate. 

At first I was ready to point and laugh at what I thought would be a shoddily put together game. But it’s shown me how wrong I am about it, and I honestly look forward to a sequel if they decide to launch one.

If you’re not too bothered by the aesthetic, and can put up with the cut scenes, this is a pretty respectable game in the soulslike genre.

Code Vein has quenched the soulslike thirst with a 4.2 / 5

Available on PS4, X1, and PC.

We would like to thank Bandai-Namco Entertainment for the review copy!

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