Rarely does a single game manage to spawn its own sub-genre, but that is a feat accomplished in recent years by FromSoftware’s Dark Souls. The combination of rich lore, unique design, and tough but satisfying gameplay attracted many gamers. This in turn brought in developers who wanted to further explore design ideas. One recent title influenced by the Dark Souls philosophy is Bandai Namco’s Code Vein.
Code Vein eschews the medieval realism of Dark Souls and instead subscribes to an aesthetic resembling a shōnen anime series. This immediately gives Code Vein a distinctive visual style, something that is emphasised by the expansive character creation system. The sheer number of options available means players can create a completely unique character. As with all the best character creators, players will be able to sink a lot of time into the character creator, especially since players can later revisit the character creator later on for tweaks and adjustments.
Upon entering the world of Code Vein, the player discovers that they are taking the role of a Revenant, a type of undead dependent on human blood to survive. Revenants need to consume blood to avoid going insane, and apparently came about due to a world-wide apocalypse called the Thorns of Judgement. Dark Souls fans will, of course, find all this familiar; Code Vein is not subtle about its sources of inspiration.
Where Dark Souls buries much of its story in the environment, forcing players to seek out the lore and background piece by piece, Code Vein prefers a more traditional video game story structure, with cutscenes and dialogue. This approach means that the world building feels shallower than Dark Souls, while the characters have more depth and personality. Indeed, the narrative seems to focus more on the characters and their quirks and motivations. This gives the player a reason to care about the cast, but has the unfortunate side effect of leaving many questions about the wider world unanswered.
When venturing out into the world, players have the option to take an AI-controlled partner with them if not playing in multiplayer. Taking this offer is advised, as Code Vein is extremely difficult without the additional help. The problem with solo progression highlights one of the major flaws with Code Vein: an inconsistent difficulty curve. At times, the player can be cheerfully carving a path through enemies, then be suddenly brought up short by a new boss mechanic or enemy ability. This often feels cheap and unfair, as some deaths will come at no fault of the player, which can be extremely frustrating.
Combat is just as Dark Souls-like as can be expected. Though the characters are not equipped with a shield, players can choose between numerous weapons, each of which can be upgraded using bits found throughout the world. This is made more in-depth by the use of Codes, which are roughly the equivalent of character classes. Each Code specialises in a different type of combat: where one might prefer long-ranged combat, another is better at smashing things with massive swords. Interestingly, players are not locked into a single Code and can switch between them freely. The various abilities available to each Code are unlocked as the player progresses, gradually increasing in both complexity and power. The Code and weapons upgrade systems work well together, and if the combat and difficulty curve were smoother and more refined, it would be excellent.
Part of the difficulty of playing Code Vein is that the levels are clearly designed for two-player co-op, not for single-player. While taking along an AI partner offsets this issue somewhat, the AI is as inconsistent as the rest of the game, and can sometimes entirely fail to aid the player.
Code Vein encourages exploration, and the distinctive visual style make this quite pleasing for the most part. Reuse of some assets make things look a little slap-dash in places, but otherwise the environments feature much to admire. However, while these areas are pretty, they do not hold the secrets and depth of the locales from Sekiro or Dark Souls, making them little more than glorified fighting arenas at times, which is a shame.
Code Vein tries hard to overcome its flaws with anime style and flamboyance—and in many areas almost succeeds. The character creation and Code-based upgrade system are intriguing, but the combat and partner AI are too inconsistent to overcome the uneven pacing and difficulty. Code Vein has its positives, but is flawed as a single-player experience.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.