Code Vein establishes its own identity from the outset. It may latch onto a Dark Souls formula that has come to define a generation of action-RPGs, but Bandai Namco’s latest manages to set itself apart from the rest by presenting a post-apocalyptic world filled with what are essentially anime vampires. Interesting concepts and mechanics filter out from this central blood-soaked idea, resulting in a game that feels familiar yet wildly different from its inspiration. Yet it’s the parts that are most recognisable, such as its combat, where Code Vein stumbles.
After an apocalyptic cataclysm ravages the world, those who died are brought back to life as immortal beings called Revenants. The only price they have to pay for reincarnation is an insatiable thirst for blood. There’s no neck biting, disintegrating in sunlight, or anything else you would usually associate with traditional vampires here. If a Revenant goes for too long without satisfying its thirst for blood, however, they lose their humanity and transform into grotesque creatures known as the Lost. Fortunately, Revenants don’t have to feed on the last remaining humans to survive. Blood Beads grow on plants throughout the world and function as suitable substitutes for human blood, nourishing a Revenant’s bloodlust in much the same way. The problem is, Blood Beads are becoming increasingly scarce, so you have to find the source and hopefully attain a steady supply. That’s the basic plot, anyway, but it doesn’t take long to deviate into other areas and introduce world-ending stakes.
In stereotypical protagonist fashion, you begin the game by waking up with amnesia before finding out you’re the chosen one. You see, each Revenant in Code Vein has a class known as a Blood Code. Your created character is special due to the fact they’re not confined to a single Blood Code like everyone else is. This malleability allows you to swap between various classes whenever you feel like it, with your arsenal of available Blood Codes expanding the further you progress through the game.
Blood Codes are tailored to a specific style of play that often fits into a typical RPG class template–think warrior or mage. Gifts are Code Vein’s version of abilities, granting you access to a wide range of passive and active skills that are tied but not limited to each Blood Code. You’re able to mix and match Gifts to a certain degree, with the most exciting ones letting you unleash flashy special attacks in melee combat. That’s not all they’re capable of, however, as others allow you to fire projectiles of piercing Ichor, boost your attack power, temporarily add a stun effect to your weapon, and many more. The character creator is already comprehensive enough, but Code Vein provides a plethora of options when it comes to finding a playstyle that suits you.
Killing enemies earns Haze that can be spent on levelling up your character, purchasing weapon and armor upgrades, or attaining various items like poison cures and throwing daggers. When you die, you lose all of the Haze you had accrued up to that point unless you can return to the location of your demise and pick it back up. Haze is relatively easy to accumulate, though, so walking around with pockets full of the stuff never feels as stressful as it maybe should. Levelling up your character is also simplistic to a fault because it doesn’t let you min-max your stats. Everything it tied to Blood Codes so it’s unclear why information such as your character’s strength and dexterity is even surfaced.
Either way, incorporating Gifts amid regular attacks makes for some satisfying combos, and there’s a gratifying heft behind each slash and crunch of Code Vein’s melee combat. Defeating enemies is based on rationing light and heavy attacks, and you have access to a decent array of weaponry, too, cycling through the usual assortment of broadswords, halberds, giant hammers, and spears. Most of them are ludicrously large in typical anime fashion as well. There’s not a lot of variety between each moveset within a weapon’s specific class, but bouncing around between weapon types offers some tangible deviation.
Each Gift consumes from a pool of Ichor that’s replenished by simply defeating enemies or refilled in larger doses by performing drain attacks, parries, and backstabs. This incentivizes you to use Gifts regularly, approaching each enemy with an offensive mindset to unleash a bevy of special attacks and then quickly regain any lost Ichor. You need to pick the right moment to use a drain attack because of its lengthy windup, but backstabs are relatively easy to pull off, while parries require precise timing.
Wailing on enemies is satisfying, and Gifts spruce up each fight with their inherent flexibility, yet combat is a disappointingly by-the-numbers affair because of the AI’s shortcomings. There’s an adequate variety of enemy types, but this variety generally only applies to their visual design as opposed to their behavior and movesets. They’re surprisingly static, spending most of their time simply idling instead of reacting to your attacks. Each weapon you wield is usually able to stagger enemies on the first or second hit, allowing you to dispatch each foe with almost no resistance, and this remains true throughout the entirety of the game. There are a few enemies that break away from this mould, requiring you to actually dodge and make use of your Gifts, but they’re an anomaly amid a sea of one-sided slugfests. Bosses aren’t quite as easy to take down, but they’re not far from it. There’s no need to learn patterns or delicate back-and-forths that require you to engage with every aspect of Code Vein’s combat. It’s simple enough to beat each boss on your first or second attempt by simply manoeuvring behind them. This only deviates as you approach the end credits and bosses receive a sudden difficulty spike as they rely on powerful area of effect attacks and homing projectiles.
Code Vein doesn’t have to adhere to Dark Souls’ challenging difficulty, but it also misses the mark by never forcing you to learn or deepen your understanding of the game to progress. Combat devolves into a mindless task where the only thing you need to watch out for is enemy placement and quantity. Difficulty is contrived by throwing numerous enemies at you at once which feeds into a focus on cooperative play. You can traverse through Code Vein’s world with another player or by using one of its many AI companions. The latter can more than hold their own in a fight, proving especially useful when you’re overwhelmed by multiple enemies–though their presence against singular opponents doesn’t do much to quell the simplistic routine of defeating them.
Exploring each environment is engaging, at least. The level design has a tendency to wrap in and around itself, offering secret paths and capturing the elation that’s derived from opening a shortcut or discovering a new checkpoint to rest at and spend the Haze you just acquired. One sprawling area even borrows Anor Londo’s distinct Il Duomo-inspired aesthetic, reimagining the pearly white castle as a labyrinthine maze. It’s just a shame the visual design is regularly pedestrian. You spend the vast majority of your time traversing through bland post-apocalyptic streets and damp caves where rubble is Code Vein’s most distinguishing feature. The addition of fire and sand shakes up the typical dilapidated cityscape, but it’s not nearly enough to shake the feeling that you’ve seen it all before. There’s even a late area that adopts the Anor Londo aesthetic for a second time, with the only difference being that it’s now inside and slightly darker. Evoking memories of Dark Souls’ most memorable location doesn’t do it any favours.
Code Vein adopts the Souls-like formula in its structure, presenting a familiar cycle of progression and basic combat similarities, and there are some interesting ideas here, too, built around the use of various Blood Codes and their distinct Gifts. You can see the fragments of a fantastic game hidden within these systems and its meaty combat feedback, but the mundanity of its enemies and the effect they have on nullifying the combat’s enjoyment prevent Code Vein from ever realizing its potential.