The “Dark Souls of X genre” joke at this point is basically beating a dead horse, but honestly after completing my initial play-through of Code Vein, that was exactly what came to my mind. Published by Bandai Namco, literally the same company that published the Dark Souls franchise, Code Vein is an action/combat-RPG game that takes place in the same in-game universe as the God Eater video games. I have never played the God Eater games, but I became interested in Code Vein after watching a YouTube review of it online and seeing that it was a Souls-like game. After playing through the game, it is definitely very similar to the Souls games, albeit it does put enough of a twist to be its own unique experience instead of being a straight rip from the franchise.
Just like Dark Souls, the world of Code Vein is not exactly a pleasant place. The game focuses mostly on the denizens of the realm, known as revenants. In short, they are basically semi-immortal beings that depend on blood to survive, otherwise they go insane and turn into mindless, violent beings. The “immortality” the revenants have also comes at a cost, where it seems that the more often a revenant dies, he/she begins to lose their memories. As the player character, you start out as a random revenant trying to survive, and uncover more of the overarching plot as you progress through the game and interact with the various characters. However, because you’re the player character, you have this particular ability to “restore” the memories of other revenants by discovering their vestiges in the world and then restoring them through one of the characters in the game, and it’s through these memory restorations that you learn more about the characters and the background information of the plot.
If you have played Dark Souls, you’ll feel right at home with Code Vein. The core combat mechanics are very similar; you have light attacks, heavy attacks, rolling and blocking as forms of avoiding/mitigating damage, and even parry/backstab mechanics. Code Vein also has two additional attacks you can perform with your weapon which you can mix into your attack combos. One thing is that you don’t have access to an off-hand, meaning no shields/off-hand weapons, spells, etc., and blocking is done with your primary weapon, meaning that blocking is usually more effective with a larger weapon. Your blocks/rolls/attacks are also limited by your stamina bar, which means you can’t just spam your way to victory and have to properly manage your stamina just like in Dark Souls. Code Vein has another form of resource management in its combat as well, and that is the concept of Ichor, which functions the same as mana. Ichor allows you to cast various spells in the game, called gifts, including actual magic spell attacks, fancy weapon maneuvers, and self-buffs. What’s cool about the ichor mechanic is that the primary way of restoring it is through actual combat, as your weapon attacks actually give you ichor so you don’t need to hoard any ichor-restoration potions in fear of running out at an important moment. The overall combat feels fluid and great, and is definitely one of the bigger things that keeps me attached to the game, however the lack of off-hand options is a bit odd to me, and it would’ve been nice to be able to equip a shield or off-hand weapon as it actually gives additional options to players who forego the safety and big damage of the two-handed weapons.
As far as character building and creating different weapon builds, this is probably where Code Vein shines. The amount of visual options you get to customize your character are astounding, and you can pretty much create anything your heart desires if you’re willing to put in the effort in the character builder. The fact that a ton of characters in different shows/games/anime have been created by the player base is a testament to how extensive the creator system is. From a more game-play perspective, the build-making is pretty diverse too. There are three central pieces to your character’s combat build: your blood code, weapon, and blood veil. Your blood code serves as the “class” or the core skeleton, each with its own stats and gifts. For example, the “Atlas” blood code is a blood code with stats that are pretty tailored to fit somebody trying to use a tankier build with a large, two-handed weapon, due to its high strength stats and gifts that benefit using such a build. One good thing about the blood code/gift system is that a lot of gifts in the game can be “mastered,” and when mastered, a gift can be used regardless of what blood code you choose. Your weapon is pretty straightforward, and your blood veil serves as your primary armor/defense. Blood veils are what determine the strength of your gifts as well as your drain attack (attacks that restore ichor, also performed when you backstab or parry an enemy), and have their own unique attack as well that restores and increases your ichor amount. Blood codes, weapons, and veils can be swapped out at will, so you’re not restricted to a specific build at any point, which allows for flexible and safe character customization as there’s no need to worry about screwing up a build unlike in Dark Souls where you can potentially mess up a build by leveling the wrong stat. The flexibility is great and encourages a ton of creativity, albeit it is a double-edged sword when it comes to gameplay balancing.
Balance, Difficulty, Enemy/Level Design
These aspects of the game are unfortunately not as polished/fleshed out as the combat system, albeit these stood out more due to me being a Souls veteran, so for non-Souls players these might not affect one’s experience too much. Regarding balance, the game’s weapon balance is not particularly good, and part of that is due to the sheer flexibility of the blood codes and gifts system. Before I go into this, I will say that at the end of the day, Code Vein is a single-player game (with some co-op) against AI enemies and has no PvP whatsoever, and it’s possible to beat the game with any weapon so in the grand scheme of things it might not matter too much, albeit weapon balance is definitely something that should be addressed due to it having a bigger influence at higher difficulty levels and that players will naturally be more inclined to replay the game and customize builds more if they’re incentivized to do so. At the time of this review, two-handed swords stand head-and-shoulders above the other weapon categories (in particular the hammer class, currently hammers are completely outclassed by two-handed swords and thus have no real niche), due to their huge damage per swing, range, ability to stagger, and their high defensive options as well which more or less mitigate their slowness as you can just block attacks safely. Also, through the use of blood codes and gifts, you can completely eliminate their slowness altogether, leaving you with a way to more or less trivialize the game.
This is where the faults of the flexibility of the blood code system really show; the fact you can swap gifts and blood codes out whenever you want makes it so you can swap a bunch of blood codes and stack every single buff imaginable, then swap to a two-handed sword and unga-bunga your way to victory. There’s one particular gift in the game that’s obscenely overpowered where on top of massive damage boosts, also makes your character quick no matter what gear he/she’s wearing, which more or less invalidates lighter weapon builds because you can achieve the same speed while using a massive greatsword! To compromise between the flexibility while actually allowing for some semblance of balance, I honestly don’t think blood codes should be able to be swapped on the fly, and rather you can only change your blood code at a mistle (the equivalent to bonfires in the Souls games) so that way you still have overall customization flexibility, but you have to be careful about what build you want to use to tackle a specific area rather than just swapping at any possible moment.
The game’s overall difficulty curve also leaves something to be desired. Regarding difficulty, the game’s challenge feels all over the place. For the most part, the game’s not particularly hard on your initial play-through, though there are random difficulty spikes in different areas that don’t feel particularly natural as far as difficulty progression goes. There are some times where I would struggle on a boss for a bit and attempt it multiple times, and then the next boss would be absurdly easy and I will first-try it without any problems. While I think the bosses are cool and fun to fight, the general approach to their difficulty largely stems from them doing really high amounts of damage (a lot of the later bosses can easily one-shot you as a player) rather than having complex and interesting move-sets, which partially explains the wonky difficulty curve. If I fight a boss that has easy to avoid moves but kills you in one-shot, that fight would be absurdly easy for somebody who’s got a firm grasp of the mechanics and would be really punishing for somebody who doesn’t.
I also feel like the game providing you with a companion screws with the curve; some bosses definitely feel like they should’ve been fought solo without a companion, where some feel like they were designed to be fought with your partner. If you want a real challenge, play most of the game without a companion and only use a companion if you find yourself really stuck. To make things worse, regarding NG+ enhanced difficulty which is available upon beating the game the first time, it’s like the developers realized they screwed up by making the first play-through way too easy, and decided to ramp things up 1000%. How? All the enemies, even the basic mooks, hit significantly harder where some of the “mini-boss” enemies can even one-shot you, and they’re also harder to stagger, which accentuates the problem of 2-handed swords being over-centralizing in this game, because heavy weapons are great at staggering enemies on top of all their pre-existing advantages. Is it more difficult? Absolutely, and it actually makes your companion balanced so you don’t have to feel bad about making the game a joke. One of the biggest challenges you face going solo is healing, as using a regeneration charge is super punishable due to how long it takes. In NG, it’s not a super big deal for most of the game, but come NG+ enhanced where enemies deal significantly more damage, it’s far more punishing so having the companion to rescue you is a nice safety cushion. I appreciate the NG+ enhanced for actually bringing a challenge, but honestly the way they made the game harder feels incredibly lazy/artificial and they should’ve balanced the difficulty curve better, making NG+ enhanced easier while making the first play-through harder.
Regarding boss and basic enemy design, Code Vein is very hit or miss. I generally think a lot of the bosses were cool and pretty fun to fight, especially in NG+ enhanced where they don’t die instantly. I can’t say the same for the regular enemies though; there are probably fewer unique enemies than the fingers on my hands, and most of them have extremely simple move-sets. As a result, a large majority of the level-clearing in the game is super easy. How does the game circumvent this? They’ll occasionally interrupt your game via “Lost Invasions” where they just dogpile you with basic enemies; the classic “pit the player against as many enemies as possible to make it difficult” approach. They go from annoying in NG to outright obnoxious in NG+ due to the NG+ difficulty enhancements. The level/world design is also pretty mediocre, and pales in comparison to the Souls games, where a lot of areas look/feel very generic, and the one area I actually enjoyed navigating and clearing was the very last area in the game. There’s also a ton of wasted space between areas, where you spend about a minute transitioning between areas, running through long empty tunnels/corridors that have nothing to them, not even enemies, and even have the bonus of dropping your frames. The greatest thing about NG+ enhanced is the fact you keep the maps you unlocked in your first play-through, so I could just blitz straight through the level to the actual interesting part, which is the boss.
Code Vein’s writing is overall serviceable, and I will say it’s one of the few things I actually preferred to the Souls games, though that’s mainly because I prefer a more straightfoward narrative to one that tells the story mostly through the world (no style is objectively better than the other, it’s just my personal preference). I generally tolerated/liked most of the characters, though some of them were a bit too trope-y for me, at least as someone who’s generally familiar with a lot of common anime themes. If you enjoy anime overall though you’ll probably feel right at home; for one the Japanese voice acting cast is actually pretty stacked, and I recognized a good amount of the voices while playing through the game, and the fact a lot of the characters are pretty similar to other characters the voice actors have played is almost like a cool Easter egg. One cool thing about how the game gives you information about the characters is through the vestiges mechanic, and that was something I enjoyed a lot. In the world you can pick up various “vestiges” that are associated with certain characters/blood codes, and you can restore them at your player base by speaking to Io. There your character enters a dream-like sequence where you witness past events associated with the character that vestige belonged to, giving you a glimpse into their past. These particular qualities made me appreciate the characters more, and some of them have really heart-breaking, tragic pasts. Not surprisingly, the tone of the story is fairly dark, but unlike the Souls games where futility and hopelessness are big themes, Code Vein never really feels that way and it always feels like no matter how hard the path is, there is something at the end to make it worth it (and that’s true depending on which ending you get).
Overall, I think Code Vein is a fantastic idea for a Souls-like game with its storytelling and character/build customization, with a good core combat system and engaging story to boot. However it definitely misses the mark in some areas on the execution side which are a bit much for me to ignore and it certainly lacks the polish I take for granted from the Souls games (I actually encountered a few annoying bugs and crashes that would not happen in a FromSoftware release), though I don’t want to be too harsh as FromSoftware are the kings of the genre for a reason, and I respect the attempt by the Code Vein developers at the very least. I really want to see the developers take the current formula and just fine-tune and push it further either in the DLC or the next game, as this game does provide a sound foundation to build off on, and at the end of the day the game’s really fun for all of its faults. If you’re a fan of Souls-like games and enjoy anime aesthetics/storytelling and being able to create your own waifu (why else would the character creator be as good as it is?), Code Vein fills that niche perfectly. It at least serves as a decent placeholder for Elden Ring until that comes out.
Rating: I would hesitate to recommend this game at retail value, but it is absolutely worth it if it goes on sale.