Release Date: Sept. 27, 2019Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Bandai NamcoPublisher: Bandai NamcoGenre: Action RPG
Code Vein is like Dark Souls, but anime. That’s perhaps too simple a description, I know, but it’s also true. The great news is, despite the game’s thinly-veiled, gigantic point of influence, it actually isn’t dwarfed by the shadow of the game that inspired it. Code Vein is really good, and it’s almost as stylish, well-balanced, and fun as Dark Souls, which perhaps sounds like a slight but is actually a huge compliment.
While there are plenty of similarities between the two, Code Vein goes in a very different direction than Dark Souls in terms of storytelling. Code Vein features a clearly defined narrative that isn’t light on exposition, which is a blessing and a curse. There’s A LOT of plot and lore to unpack here, and Bandai Namco doesn’t skimp on the details.
The game is set on a post-apocalyptic world where human beings are forced to be vampiric “revenants,” feasting on blood for fear of devolving into insane, feral monsters. You play as a special revenant who can adopt any kind of “Blood Code” you like, which basically means you have tons of fighter classes to choose from. While I’m not typically drawn to the theatrics of anime-style storytelling, I actually found Code Vein’s narrative to be heartfelt and sincere at its core, with sprawling character arcs that felt humanistic and relatable.
You play as a revenant who stumbles upon a group of individuals like yourself, soul-searching wanderers who’ve lost memories of how they came into their current situation. As you progress through the game, you find lost remnants of your comrades’ memories in the form of “Vesitiges,” which when re-lived can grant you new skills.
Character customization is organized into three main categories: Blood Code, Blood Veil, and Weapon. Blood Code is essentially your fighting style and is defined by a unique set of skills, which can range from special attacks to passive stat buffs. Blood Veils are living pieces of armor that maul your enemies when you successfully parry an attack (these animations are badass, with some veils chomping on your foes mercilessly before ripping them apart). And Weapons range from traditional blades, to rifles with deadly bayonet attachments, to tree trunk-sized greatswords.
Each of the blood codes you unlock offers a different set of special abilities, which you must equip before using. Once you perform an ability enough times, though, you become proficient enough to use it even if you’ve equipped a different blood code. Suffice it to say, this is a deep progression system with seemingly endless possibilities of combinations.
This all sounds complicated because the game is full of strange and detailed customization and progression mechanics that are tied into the robust story that unfolds over dozens of hours. But in truth, the game is simple. You hack and slash your way through interconnected levels, gaining experience points with each kill and knowledge with each death. Again, it’s Dark Souls, but anime.
What makes the game worth playing (for dozens of hours, in my case) is that the combat is fun and fair, which can’t be said of most action RPGs. The genius of Dark Souls is that, even though you die A LOT, it always feels like it was your fault that you died, which is to say, you’re never blaming the controls or the combat system. This is a feat of balanced game design, and Code Vein achieves that balance as well.
The game also features an online co-op option that allows you to team up with a partner to tackle the game’s most difficult challenges. In my pre-launch playthrough, I wasn’t able to test co-op play as much as I’d have liked, but the game does provide you with an AI partner whenever you wish. You can choose from a handful of the game’s main protagonists to tag along on your excursions, and the NPCs do a great job of supporting you much in the way a human player would.
The fine-tuned combat is impressive enough, but Bandai Namco goes above and beyond with Code Vein’s presentation. This game looks absolutely stunning, perhaps more so than Dark Souls. There’s a clear Gothic influence in the art style, and a dystopian edge to Code Vein’s characters and environments that spoke to me perhaps even more than Dark Souls and Nioh. More than anything else, the game’s twisted, gnarled visual style sets the game apart from its peers.
Some of Code Vein’s levels look blatantly ripped from Dark Souls’ repertoire. There’s a cathedral section partway through the game that looks like a Gothic labyrinth, a tangle of white spires arranged in a way that’s meant to disorient and confound. This stuff is all too familiar, but some levels look wholly unique, like a cosmopolitan city engulfed in flames, or a snowy expanse littered with icy surfaces that break away when you stand on them, forcing you to retrace your steps and re-acquire the experience points you lost.
Yes, Code Vein is heavily inspired by Dark Souls. But that’s perfectly okay. It brings enough new ideas to the table to set itself apart and carve out its own niche. It’s got top-notch presentation, polished gameplay, and more narrative depth than your typical action RPG. Don’t sleep on this one.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.