There are a few things most players associate with the Soulsborne titles: challenge, level design, and world-building. A good Soulsborne title has these, but a great one adds a new spin to the formula. Code Vein is a great one. Code Vein sinks its teeth in and takes you on a whole new journey.
Invite it in
Developed by Bandai Namco Entertainment, Code Vein is a brand new IP that looks to join the ranks of the revered. Players take on the role of a revenant, a vampire in all but name. From the onset, it feels like you’ve entered a world half-way through its story. There’s so much on offer and so much to learn.
You discover that a catastrophe has befallen humanity. Some humans wound up infected by a parasite, turning them into vampires. In order to survive, they need to consume human blood. A revenant that doesn’t consume blood will go insane, turning into one of the Lost – a mindless monster, completely unredeemable.
But with humans gone into hiding, blood farms drying up, and everything going south, revenants are running out of blood. Luckily, revenants can also be sustained by blood beads, grown from special – and rather mysterious – trees.
It’s here that you join the story. The trees are drying up and revenants are on the brink of collapse. Life cannot go on in its current state. You’ll need to muster all the strength inside your special blood if you’re to uncover what’s gone wrong and help humanity survive.
Code Vein’s combat is bloody fantastic. The game has built upon the foundations of the Soulsborne genre. Light attacks and heavy attacks make up your main means of dealing damage, while dodges, parries, and blocks ensure you avoid it.
Layered on top of this is a rich tapestry of magic and abilities. Called “gifts” in-game, these abilities are unlocked and learned through a complex upgrade system. Some of these gifts allow you to cast long-range attacks, buff your weapons, protect your allies, move quickly, and even perform spectacular combos.
The trick comes in mixing all these together. You’ll dash in with a flurry of light and heavy attacks, throw in some gift abilities, parry and dodge to work up your Focus bar, and then unleash a myriad of moves for reduced stamina cost. The combat is a dance of blood and blades.
There are, of course, limitations with casting these extremely powerful gifts. You need to have enough Ichor, a mana-equivalent fuel. Ichor can be gained by performing blood-sucking moves on unsuspecting enemies or mid-combat. These result in deliciously over-the-top performances where your character thrusts their taloned hand into the enemy, drawing from them blood and power.
The underlying system on which this is built on is referred to as “Codes”. These are essentially classes that unlock as you progress through the game. One Code might focus more on melee buffs while another is all about ranged attacks. Become proficient with a gift, and you can use it with whatever Code you want. It’s a system that encourages experimentation and variety.
Learn from failure
Bram Stoker said it best in Dracula, “We learn from failure, not from success,” and so it’s true with Code Vein. I’ve died more times than I’d like to admit to enemies I, as someone who’s clocked all the Soulsborne games, have no business dying to. And this all took place because Code Vein surprised me.
Each level is an intimate link of paths, ladders, double-back points, and things hiding in the dark. Bosses ramp up in intensity, quickly overwhelming you. Areas are treacherous, full of enemies, and a delight to explore.
But I went in cocky and paid for it. The pacing must be learned, as it’s different, yet again. It’s much like the experiencing of shifting to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice from Dark Souls. Enemy’s hold their attacks for slightly longer, your parry takes a bit more time to wind up, all while the speed of the combat flashes hot and fast. There’s a rhythm to it, with a crescendo as all the moves come together, followed by a few moments of peace as the next assault is prepared. And it all takes a while to learn.
But that’s a good thing in a game like Code Vein. You want it to be challenging, as, without the threat of death, there’s no glory in victory. There were several times where I doubled-back to rest and level up. I did this because I was concerned about what lay ahead. I wasn’t sure if there was another mistle close by (Code Vein’s bonfire), and I didn’t want to risk losing my haze (Souls, Blood Echoes, etc). This sense of dread while exploring hasn’t happened to me since the original Dark Souls.
It’s like experiencing the genre for the first time. While you know the main rules, there are subtle differences that set it apart. These differences give you pause and cause you to stumble.
But as you learn these new rules, you begin to feel proficient, even powerful. You’re able to grow and swell with strength, almost to match the power your own character absorbs over the course of the game.
To lighten the load, you can have an AI companion fight alongside you. This character is a major asset in combat, and although they can attack a boss and revive you, the challenge still remains. In fact, players looking for a greater challenge can leave this partner behind and strike out into the world solo. There’s even a co-op option for those that require it, though I was unable to test the mechanic during my playtime.
Born in the dark
Outside of the main story, there is ample to keep yourself occupied in Code Vein. Side quests to kill powerful monsters, relationships to foster with other NPCs, challenging dungeons to explore, and new builds to try out add value to continued play.
Though you don’t assign points in the beginning, you collect enough of the aforementioned Codes early in the game to allow variety to shine. A new playthrough of the game means being able to focus on a different combat style. I typically prefer a normal board-and-sword style, but I can easily see myself exploring the ranged combat in Code Vein in subsequent plays.
Furthermore, there are dungeon-like experiences that are collected throughout the story. These are immediately reminiscent of Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons, albeit not as random. They offer a unique set of rewards, provided you can clear the challenging enemies within.
They’re small in size, but the quantity of enemies – and the difficulty – ramps up pretty quickly. It’s a nice way of gaining additional loot. This is especially useful if you reach a point in the main story where you feel you can’t progress without spending some time farming. Instead of farming old areas, these dungeons offer new experiences.
Music to my ears
All of this story, epic combat, and the intense challenge is set to an emotionally stimulating soundtrack. The title screen of the game fills your ears with an epic organ and almost-Gregorian-monk-chanting piece. This style is reflected throughout the boss fights, too. As your dodging attacks and striking back, the music swells and crashes, adding to the intensity.
But Code Vein isn’t afraid to explore its edgier side either. The jukebox and radio in the home base can be switched on, revealing some incredible punk rock tunes. It’s almost reminiscent to the early 2000s, where words like “emo” music were thrown around. I love it.
Those aren’t my eyes
I can’t very well talk about Code Vein without discussing the anime qualities it has. It’s staring you right in the face as you begin. It’s evident in the story, the music, and the design of the characters. For those unfamiliar with this style, it can be confronting at first.
The male characters in Code Vein are sleek, clothed in leather and fine fabric and are otherwise appropriately dressed for combat. The female characters, on the other hand, would make the developers at Team Ninja blush.
Even the female bosses and enemies are scantily clad, bursting at the seams, and otherwise incredibly buxom. It’s a lot of fanfare. It’s almost a parody of what you would consider a stereotypical anime experience. I noted in my hands-on preview at E3 2018 that one of the bosses felt like I was “fighting a demon stripper”. This still holds true.
In saying all this, though the jiggling is excessive, it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. Beneath the boobs and bums is a heart of gold. The bosses are challenging, the combat is deep and rewarding, and the story is intriguing.
Code Vein reads from the grimoire and elegantly adds its own incantations, bringing to the genre a fresh perspective and a lust for blood. Code Vein begs to be devoured. It’s got enough blood in its veins and marrow in its bones to satisfy even the most ravenous of players. If you’re looking for a unique Soulsborne experience, this is it.
This is a review based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Code Vein is available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 on September 27.
- Fast-paced, challenging combat
- Large and intense boss fights
- Rich world-building and story telling
- Interwoven and layered levels
- Huge variety of spells and abilities
- Initially, overwhelmingly complex
- Scantily clad female character and boss design can be a bit much
Sam Chandler posted a new article, Code Vein review: Take my blood