As I mentioned recently, the Dark Souls franchise has had an incredible impact on the gaming industry, allowing the resurrection of difficult games, influencing gameplay mechanics and storytelling and giving rise to the subgenre of souls-likes. Interestingly, Bandai Namco Entertainment, the publisher of the Dark Souls games as well as Elden Ring, decided to take a crack at producing their own in-house souls-like game called Code Vein from the team that developed the God Eater games. When marketing the game, much was made about the visual aesthetic, that being that the characters use an anime art style, as well as difficulty and some of the more unique mechanics but it took me a few years to finally get around to playing it. Having now completed the game, the question is how does it stack up compared to the Dark Souls games and other souls-likes?
Code Vein is set in a post-apocalyptic world where an event called the Great Collapse caused a new danger to rise. In order to combat this, Revenants were developed to fight back against this threat by resurrecting human bodies by implanting a parasite within the heart, granting them superhuman abilities and a desire for human blood. Upon death, they will be resurrected by the parasite within them, meaning that destroying the heart is the only way that a Revenant can truly die. The player character wakes up within a ruined city surrounded by impassible red mist and is assisted by a mysterious girl called Io as they try to figure out what's happening.
In contrast to the abstract storytelling style of Dark Souls and many other souls-like games, Code Vein is far more typical in its storytelling with plenty of cutscenes to explain to you what is happening. While I'm not generally bothered by cutscenes in video games, I do confess that some of these cutscenes went on a little too long for my liking. The storytelling has some decent twists and turns so it's a shame that so many of the characters in the game come off as bland or uninteresting. While I wouldn't say that the story of the game is bad, it also wasn't particularly engaging and merely serves its purpose of moving you from area to area.
The basic mechanics of the gameplay will be quite familiar to fans of souls-like games with light and heavy attacks, dodges that grant invulnerability frames and must be timed well to dodge attacks, stamina that is used up via attacks and dodges but regenerates quickly etc. Where the gameplay really differs from others is character development as well as the use of skills. Rather than following the typical souls-like formula of giving you a base class which determines your starting stats and equipment but little else, Code Vein has your character collect Blood Codes that are associated with other Revenants which essentially function as classes. You are able to switch between them via your equipment menu and each Blood Code has predetermined stats as well as skills that you can equip. Where this system gets interesting is that the skills each Blood Code contains can be mastered which allows the skill in question to be used on any class as long as the stat requirements are met. This does allow for some flexibility as you are able to combine various passives and active skills to fit your playstyle but the method of mastering these skills can be a little irksome.
Once you obtain a Blood Code, you'll typically only have access to one skill and will have to spend your currency, Haze, in order to unlock more. However, certain skills with some Blood Codes are locked and will not allow the player to purchase them. In order to unlock these skills, you must first find a Vestige which contains a memory associated with the Blood Code and turn them in to Io. You are then sent to a space where you can only walk while you look at recreations of the memory and listen to dialogue. While the information in these Vestiges does provide some background for characters, it's also rather slow and I frequently found myself searching for the spot where I could progress from next so that I could immediately begin walking as soon as the scene that was playing was done. To be fair, I checked and Bandai Namco do allow you to skip these scenes if you choose to do so but, since it was my first time playing the game, I chose to experience each and every one of these Vestiges and it was rare when the story within a Vestige actually proved interesting to me. Once you've unlocked the skill by using Vestiges, you must still go back and purchase it via spending Haze. As for mastering these skills, you're allowed to either spend Awake MJ items which are quite rare or you must go out and fight enemies while having the skill you want to master equipped. While cheap skills are quite quick to master, the most expensive skills will take quite a long time before they can be mastered and it can sometimes feel a little limiting when you are exploring a location and forced to use a Blood Code you're not fond of just so that you can master the skills.
With regards to leveling, Code Vein is comparatively basic compared to other souls-likes. You must spend an ever increasing amount of Haze in order to level but, in contrast to other souls-like games, you are not given the opportunity to develop specific stats. Instead, you get an increase to your health, your stamina and the power of your skills every level. While certainly not as interesting as the typical souls-like method, it can still be quite helpful to increase your level. However, there is a problem that, as far as I can tell, isn't mentioned within the game itself. Each area of the game has a hidden level cap and, when you exceed that level cap, enemies found in that area stop giving any gift experience in order to master your skills. This led to a situation where I was a little paranoid about leveling up and would level up a little bit from area to area in case I exceeded this cap.
Exploration can be quite fun as you traverse an area and slowly fill out your map. Yes, there is a map in this souls-like game. The map will leave little dots indicating where your character has traversed, quite helpful to know where you've already explored, but to actually fill in the layout, you have to either find mistles, the bonfire equivalent in this game, purify rotten mistles or kill specific monsters. The game even keeps track of the percentage of map unlocks you've discovered, something that I ended up using to give me a vague idea of how long it would take to explore a specific location. Level design follows the souls-like formula of giving you locked doors and paths that you can open in order to be able to traverse the area more efficiently but it was only occasionally that I would be overjoyed at one of these as, most of the time, the shortcut didn't give me enough of a benefit in order to get excited.
Each area typically ends with a boss fight but I'm just going to say that I didn't enjoy these bosses anywhere near as much as I do in other souls-like games. Similar to the Dark Souls 3 formula, each boss can be broken into two phases. The first phase is really easy, too easy in fact, and I can only assume that the idea behind this was to give time to the player to learn some of the boss patterns and attacks. The second phase is considerably harder and, while most bosses proved to be easy enough to defeat, a few felt like they got too powerful and I'd be caught off-guard by the staggering difference between the first and second phase.
The final aspect of gameplay that I wish to cover is the use of AI companions. At each mistle, you're given the option of several NPCs that can fight alongside you but you're only allowed to have one with you at a time. These companions can feel a little too powerful when you're fighting your rank and file enemy with them frequently killing an enemy that I hadn't even spotted. They aren't quite as powerful when it comes to boss fights but an incredibly powerful ability they have is that they can spend some of their health to resurrect you within a few seconds of dying. While there are some limitations to this such as being on a cooldown, relying on your companion to be on their feet rather than knocked down, being unable to resurrect you if you fall into a bottomless pit etc., it can still end up trivialising many encounters.
Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. Character designs are generally good and there's a pleasant use of colour throughout the game. However, many enemy designs feel quite typical and uninspired and even bosses end up looking quite lacklustre. The environments also felt lacking in detail and design and I would occasionally have my flow broken as I observed the area and noted how several aspects of the level failed to blend together. The animation is decent even if it felt a little too weightless at times but something that I found quite frequent in the game was texture pop-in in cutscenes where textures appear blurry for a little bit before loading in higher resolution. When I saw this, I immediately realised that the game had been developed on Unreal Engine, notorious for it's issue of texture pop-in. While the graphics of the game suffice, I think that many components of it could be greatly improved if there ever turns out to be a sequel.
I chose to play the game with the voice acting set to English and the cast gives a decent performance overall. They do end up struggling a bit when it comes to some of the tone shifts in the game as well as some awkwardly scripted moments but I definitely consider the English dub to be more than sufficient if you feel inclined to choose it. With regards to the music, it has the issue of being well-made and quite enjoyable to listen to but also too intrusive in many situations which may have been served better with either quieter music or even none at all.
The PC port is mostly good with a selection of graphical options, resolutions and framerates to pick from. However, I did notice that occasionally the mouse cursor would appear in the middle of a menu I was navigating, despite playing on controller, and would throw off the selection to wherever the mouse cursor was. While there weren't any situations where this proved to be excessively problematic, it was still quite annoying whenever it appeared.
Code Vein ended up being an interesting enough experience that I can definitely recommend it to fans of souls-like games and it may even prove to be a decent first souls-like game for fans of anime to try. However, I don't think that Code Vein can sit with the best that the souls-like genre has to offer due to various issues that I hope will be addressed in any future sequel, which the ending seemed to heavily imply.