Maybe not what you’re expecting, but in a good way.
True to expectation, Code Vein is indeed similar to Dark Souls. Its relationship to the Soul series is very similar to how Team Ninja’s Nioh or Dontnod’s Vampyr regard the From titles, whilst remaining starkly different from all of them. That is to say, it takes the Souls series to be more of a skeleton to keep the pieces together in an otherwise completely distinct construction. Code Vein is by and large a capital A Action game, with combat that wants adrenaline-fuelled abandonment from your part, and a story more like melodrama than high fantasy.
Insofar as the “Anime Souls” moniker rings true, it does so much more in the anime portion. For good and ill, the designs typify an aesthetic where perfectly coiffed hair covering eyes and jackets draped over shoulders will remain in place in the middle of a sword fight. Also your jacket can turn into twin dragon heads, which is cool. This also means, unfortunately, that most women in the game will sport dresses that somehow have all been torn around the thighs and the cleavage. And that is when they don’t forego blouses altogether in favour of a bikini top. Whilst I’m no puritan and can sometimes tolerate, or even enjoy, that kind of appeal to baseness, it contrasts poorly with the tone and even the overdressed men. Suffice to say, if you find any of the guys living in Vein attractive, that is entirely of your own accord, and not a perspective the game’s character designer is interested in entertaining. Luckily the character creator tools do allow you to create a variety of feminine outfits that do not revolve around sex appeal.
Lopsided fanservice notwithstanding, the visuals do a great job of reflecting the rest of the narrative. Saturated and bright colours are the order of the day, where an ice mountain is more a winter wonderland than tundra and a toxic swamp is a glowing mass of reds and purples straight out of a stylized world like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A single cathedral becomes an angelic Castlevania with beautiful carved marble patterns inspired by the Cathedral of Milan extending for miles on end.
The combat is also pleasantly surprising. Whilst it wouldn’t be worthy of a style meter, it is certainly more complex, speedy and varied than even Bloodborne. This is due to the titular “codes” of the game. You see, in Code Vein you play as a “revenant”, a sort of science-made vampire that derives its power from the “BOR Parasites” implanted in them. Every revenant’s biology constitutes a certain code and concedes special abilities complimenting it, but your character does not share in this. Mysteriously codeless, your character can adopt the abilities of anyone whose blood they can get their fangs on.
In gameplay this means that your character’s entire build levels up instead of making you allocate points across individual stats. The latter being determined by your current code instead. This allows you to wield different weapons, but it also allows you to use different “gifts”—which is where the fun really starts. Gifts are essentially spells that will range from enchanting your weapons with different elements, to augmenting stats, to special combos and states; such as having your health bar fully replenished and your stamina enhanced but having a set time to finish the fight or else you will automatically die.
Every code, even the ones focused on melee, has a wide variety of gifts to use. Which is where the drain and ichor mechanics come in. To use a gift you must expend ichor. As such, a third attack button will unleash a drain attack; powerful and slow moves that, if landed, will replenish a fair amount of ichor and even increase the amount of it you can carry. Drain attacks can be woven into combos or charged up as their own special move, and if you play skilfully enough to reach a “focused state” they can even be used for basic juggling of the enemies when paired with a special input for launching.
Gifts take on greater importance as Code Vein progresses. Since the sheer power and usefulness of the drain move ensures a constant influx of Ichor, it quickly becomes second nature to make the expenditure of it just as regular. No-frills melee combat then simply becomes a way to sustain an offensive during cool downs. As you begin to amass codes, the inheritance system is given an opportunity to start developing some complex builds. If you fulfill certain conditions a gift will be “inherited” and become available for use in any code that meets its stat requirements. This gives you an opportunity to customise and optimise your gift loadout to complement any code’s stats and its ultimate, uninheritable gift to truly fearsome results.
This makes Code Vein a varied and much more explosive experience than any game it may share influences with. Any monotony that it might suffer from as a consequence of the limited moveset is easily ignored by the fact that futzing around menus for a few minutes is all that’s needed to transition into an entirely new playstyle.
Vein’s louder sensibilities are not only apparent in your own abilities but in everything surrounding you. After getting past the tutorial stage, the simple and weak enemies quickly turn into shotgun wielding warriors and giant bug people capable of trapping you in honest-to-god combos that’ll take a three-quarters bite off your health. To aid you, the game provides a bevy of optional companions, turning many encounters into exhilarating sequences where the head count nears double digits and everyone is constantly powering up as a symphony swells in the background.
All the praise is not to say that Vein doesn’t have flaws in its fighting. Whilst ample, its variety of fauna isn’t nearly as expansive as the ones FromSoft tends to come up with. And instead of a steady progression the game simply throws neck-breaking difficulty spikes at you when you arrive at new areas.
In its quieter moments, such as they are, exploration is still a big factor in the game. The levels are so winding that shortcuts are found every few minutes and the level progression has you constantly walking new paths barely a few feet above where you recently stood. It can be wildly confusing at times, and when your companion says lines like “Everything is the same colour, my sense of direction is useless.” it’s hard not to feel like someone at Bandai Namco is laughing at your expense. In a semi-successful attempt to ease this, the game provides you with a dotted line tracing your recent steps at the top-right corner of the HUD, and nearing the end of every gauntlet you will find items that reveal the whole map you just got through to keep better track of your explored areas.
For its part, the story of Code Vein is uniquely winding in its own way. Not content with having its main fantastic conceit be a slightly confusing mix of vampires and zombies by way of shounen anime, its backstory is convoluted like few. With two duelling catastrophes preceding the story and many different scientific projects leading to different variations on the BOR parasite. As well as several governmental, military, and paramilitary organisations overlapping each other. All in a timeline that could be 10 years long just as easily as it could be centuries.
Thankfully, most of the game’s narrative efforts aren’t actually aimed at untangling the fake history of the world of Vein. Instead its moment to moment conversations and important cutscenes are devoted to the personal drama of its main cast. And it is disarmingly affecting. The melodrama description rings perfectly apposite in a world of lifelong romances and one-man quests to remake the world in a more just image. Though it had seemed clichéd at the start and I approached it with a heavy cynicism, I was deeply moved by several scenes. Even if this being a shounen-type story ultimately means that I was robbed of a well-deserved love confession.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Code Vein’s script is its almost-episodic rhythm. Whilst individual moments of earnest sibling love or long-awaited romance may feel all-consuming when they happen, the game finds it comically easy to move on and explore other dramatic or philosophical musings on without looking back for hours, if at all. This does a particular disservice to the latter, as the script shows an interest in themes spanning from the usefulness of charity, to matters of personal devotion to parents and friends, to the many positive and negative shapes that admiration can take. It’s singularly frustrating when it goes on just long enough to reveal it has interesting thoughts on each of them yet never runs with any one long enough to elaborate on them.
Ultimately I was caught off guard by Code Vein. What little expectations I had, it exceeded all of them. Where I was expecting serviceable dungeon crawling with the evergreen stamina management system I was presented with a fast and varied combat that I always wished for in games like this and that I was always happy to catch a glimpse of in late-Souls-series inclusions such as weapon arts. And where I’d initially held the story at arm’s length it quickly found a way to my heart and almost moved me to tears in a couple instances. The torn jeans and synthy heavy metal flavour was always a winner because it’s still 2002 in my heart, however.
If you so choose you can ignore the ichor system completely, stick to a single code religiously, dismiss the AI companions, tape over the map, and play the game as a more colourful Dark Souls and you’ll still get a fair bit out of it, I would assume. But it would lack the ambiance and understated approach you probably enjoyed in those games. And I’m not sure that conciliatory efforts like a way to recover some of the experience lost upon death could truly win over those who found the Souls games actively hostile. It feels like a game made outside of the dominating cultural conversation surrounding the series. And though that is all I ever wanted as someone who felt underserved by both sides, those invested in it may need to make an active attempt to meet it halfway. You do need to invite a vampire into your house, after all.