Game Review: “Code Vein”

 Code Vein is a video-game I knew I would be interested in early on. Described often as a Souls game blending elements of the anime genre, Code Vein was developed and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment (the same company that published Dark Souls as fate would have it).

   I was not upfront purchasing Code Vein. In-general, I have never been the type to drop sixty dollars on a whim and usually reserve that only for certain games (like Crash 4 very soon). That, and, for the last six or so months, I have seen my interests taken elsewhere and away from the gaming world. Still, Code Vein was always in the back of my mind and I am happy I now have the chance to talk about it with you.

   Released in September of last year, Code Vein was a modest success, selling over a million copies total by February of this year. Meanwhile, the reviews have been mixed-to-positive, a far cry from the critical acclaim achieved by the often imitated, rarely replicated Dark Souls series.

   Personally, I like that the Souls series has sort-of “birthed” a new sub-genre akin almost to the way Castlevania did the same for the 2-D dungeon-crawlers of yesteryear. I enjoy most of them, and even if some of them like Lords of the Fallen can feel like they don’t introduce enough new mechanics to escape criticism, games like Ashen and Remnant: From the Ashes offer a satiable, light-weight interpretation of the series’ core mechanics with their own level of charm and distinction.

   Code Vein borrows a lot from Dark Souls, as you can expect. Sometimes, in-particular, that fact can feel very apparent. Whether it be from the level-design or how certain boss battles play out, for instance. However, unlike Ashen or Remnant: From the Ashes, for instance, Code Vein does not feel nearly as lightweight.

   That is not to say Code Vein is incredibly difficult, mind you. Rather, it’s from how I spent more time conquering its campaign than the aforementioned titles combined (I clocked out at about 35 hours total playtime comparable to the amount of time I spent completing Dark Souls III).

   There is something about Dark Souls I think, beyond its core mechanics, that captures a certain bravado or spectacle to it. Code Vein manages to accomplish that in a way that feels uniquely accomplished, albeit a student of other works.

   The score feels in the same ballpark, but is different. The orchestral or grandiose sound of Dark Souls feels swapped for a meticulous symphonic sound akin to, perhaps, the Castlevania series.

   The graphics, mostly, capture that dungeon-crawler aesthetic, but otherwise have an anime influence that feels clear and certain, particularly the Tokyo Ghoul series, which I am a fan of. Not only do the masks resemble Tokyo Ghoul, but the special-abilities implemented feel very much inspired by it as well. As far as technical standards are concerned, Code Vein does feel budgeted, or, at least, a little dated (hair physics, bulky armor glitching out during cut scenes, that sort of thing).

   The game play is solid. I have said it prior, but I will say it again, I have a lot of fun with the genre and Code Vein is a solid affair. The difficulty is, perhaps, a little imbalanced. I would say the first dozen hours or so, I breezed through everything in a way that was a little too apparent.

   Sometimes I felt like my character was overpowered in spite of never grinding or doing anything to reach that height. Then, you reach an area called the Cathedral of the Sacred Blood and the difficulty increases pretty dramatically. I single this every out, I think, because of how it is both my favorite level and my least favorite level. I like it because it has a lot of twists and turns and exploration, but it is a real chore to try and navigate with all the overlaps on the map and the many twists and minds, especially with no actual key area ever highlighted. Then again, I am grateful we had a map (and a mini-map), which is usually not the case with the genre (it is something Remnant and Code Vein has in common). In my opinion, a lot of Code Vein early-on feels a lot closer to something like Remnant than it does Dark Souls. It feels very casual and conventional, and I think that might make it more approachable than a more traditional Souls outing, almost like a gateways Souls, as it were.

   Something newcomers will no doubt appreciate is that you have the option to be accompanying by an A.I. companion, and, in a lot of ways, I found it offered a lot of new strategies to how I combated enemies. For instance, if you align yourself with a stronger enemy, you can use him to limit your direct contact with a boss, or if you align yourself with a strong healer, you can use them as your “second wind,” encase you die. During the second to last battle in the game, I had a lot of fun sort-of back in fourth healing myself and my partner as we were beat down, chipping away at the enemy. You also have the option to turnoff the A.I. companion, which I did for a little while, but I felt like each boss was more “intended” for having a second guy along with you. I would not recommend turning them off.

   What I would recommend turning off, however, is the A.I. in-game dialogue, which is absolutely atrocious. This is not something that bothers me often, but after hearing my partner comment on practically everything with the same repetitive banter, I turned it off very early on (which was a built-in option as well).

   The difficulty peaks, I’d say, as you are into your thirtieth hour, when you are face to face with the Cannoneer and the Blade Bearer. If you happen to remember Ornstein and Smough from the first Dark Souls, they are a lot like them. Ones’ a big, burly man and the other is a speedy, elemental type. Of course, with your companion, it takes the edge-off, but it still remains an undertaking that might pose a challenge to you.

   The weaponry and level system are all pretty standard. How your leveling works is more simplified than in some other games of this ilk. You don’t have an attribute system, but, instead, each level-up builds upon your overall skill set. The weaponry is uneventful. Really, I think, I have never had a Souls game that has really blown me away with the weapon’s choice or made me feel compelled to switch-up my style in a distinct way. This one does not change that.

   The incorporation of Blood Codes and special abilities is meant to offer-up a remix to the established formula, but I found I was not very taken by it. Meanwhile, the environments, aside from a handful of glimmers, can feel a little humdrum and uneventful.

   The story didn’t work for me either, I am afraid. I like the idea of incorporating a more layered narrative to the genre, but I found that I was really disillusioned by every cut-scene as it happened. Sometimes cut-scenes you can take or leave, but with Code Vein, I actively disliked nearly every occurrence, longing to return to the more intimate game-play that allowed immersion without a guiding light.

   Something I did not necessarily tinker with a lot, but I feel is worth singling out is the customization system for your character – which is robust and allows a lot of personality for your character.

   In spite of what criticisms I had for it, I dug Code Vein quite a bit. Like I said, in some ways, it felt like it let its “hair down,” so to speak, in a way that some other post-Souls games had not (you are likely tired of me comparing it with other games by now, but it is embedded, really). Comparatively speaking, I believe this is my favorite Souls game that is not from From Software, and I have played nearly all of them. I am not one of those gamers that really glues themselves to one property for a longstanding amount of time, but I was really sucked into it. Some more dedicated players might scoff, but thirty-something hours is a lot for me (by far the most I have played any game this year), and by the end of Code Vein, I was interested in what they might do next. Whatever it is, I look forward to it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0