Haematological Histrionic Heroes
I do wonder if people appreciate the genius of 2k’s WWE games. Their quality or lack thereof is of no moment when one considers that hours upon hours of fun can be had with pretty much no wrestling at all. What it, and to a lesser extent Code Vein, does is simply create a playground to show off your creations. Creating a character is fun, dressing them up is fun, showing them off is fun; everything else is more of a bonus really. Having a great game attached to your character creator is of course ideal, but it is far from necessary for the experience to be of value.
But while Code Vein certainly doesn’t have the scale and scope of the sweaty spandex simulator’s creation tools, it does crucially understand the benefit of having a nice and robust character customization system. That is has a nifty little souls clone attached is simply the cheese sauce in the lasagne.
The setup of Code Vein is thus; you are a revenant, an undead being with a thirst for blood lest you turn into a crazed monster known collectively as the lost. Following the great collapse, some vaguely apocalyptic event, Humanity and your revenant kin struggle to survive and you must work with your allies to find a way to bring some sense of peace and stability to a world ravaged by malevolent creatures. One thing I can say is that Code Vein really does try to tell more of a traditional story than anything From Software has done, but you quickly wonder whether this was all that wise given the fetid stench it gives off.
Language fails to adequately convey just how atrocious the writing is. I am simply unable to fathom how something this cringe-worthy could possibly have been allowed to pass unchallenged. It’s not so much bottom of the barrel as six feet under the earth the barrel is sitting on. If a character isn’t explaining the plot to you they are soliloquising their innermost thoughts and feelings, usually to the sound of the world’s saddest cello, in the kind of language that makes me want to slit my own throat just to escape the torture. It’s melodrama by numbers, the numbers being the binary code for incompetent and boring. It does at least score a point for the silent protagonist, as beyond the odd grunt and line your character is mute and therefore the smartest, most charismatic person alive.
This would not be such a problem had the developers learnt anything from the soul’s games approach to narrative and how a relatively small amount of dialogue can go a long way in terms of creating intrigue and more importantly, pacing. Typically in a Souls game one can ignore the plot for the most part and get straight to the dying/backstabbing. Code Vein on the other hand loves to waste your time with its tiresome parade of talky cut-scenes, acted out by bland anime cut-outs. When a large proportion of your game involves going into people’s memories to learn of their (almost always traumatic) past, dialogue and character do become important, yet both of which are staggering in their awfulness whether compared with From Software’s oeuvre or taken on their own merits.
Combat however finds Code Vein on much stronger footing and not just because it doesn’t have quite the narrow ledge fetish. It plays as you’d imagine for the most part but with a little more care needed in that enemies here are far more resistant to stun locking. You can backstab and parry but shielding isn’t as useful due to the limited damage reduction it offers. All very competent but your weapon never seems as long as you think it is and the game is very poor at informing you about status effects. Dark Souls was always very clear when you’d been poisoned, informatively telling you with its build up bar and then in big old capital letters, but Code Vein relies on these tiny icons popping up at the bottom of the screen which unless you’ve looked them up could mean anything.
Enemy variety is a little on the thin side and the menu system can seem baffling on first viewing but once you’ve deciphered the game’s own quirks it’s quite easy to slip into that satisfying Souls-like gameplay loop. Weapons are your usual set of oversized anime swords and hammers but while the variety isn’t particularly rich, amends are made with the many skills and abilities that you can have access to.
Code Vein has what amounts to a class system and allows you to swap them at a moments notice. Each class a set of base stats but more importantly has a ‘blood code’ which grants a series of skills and abilities that can be unlocked and eventually migrated for use with any other class once you’ve mastered it. The range of abilities is impressive, ranging from magic spells, passive buffs and special attacks but what makes this system interesting is in how you can create any number of specialised classes for different situations and swap to them on the fly. Not happy with your current setup? Then you can change it, and if there’s a skill that you want but your favoured class doesn’t have it then it allows the potential to access it. It’s well thought out and can be extremely useful where your current setup isn’t working or where you want to try something out without starting over. Whether cosmetic or practical, Code Vein allows you to tinker and it is in the richness of its options that gives the experience its most interesting and entertaining dimension.
Artistically there are also some positives; character designs and costumes are suitably silly and fabulous, monster designs are quite creative in parts and overall the anime aesthetic has a little more detail than you’d typically see in similarly styled games. That said there are times where the experience shows a strange lack of imagination, especially with its environments. It reuses its ruined city style multiple times, disguising it with either fire or sand, and there’s one pretty memorable area that simply gets a change in lighting late on, robbing the game of immersion as thoughts move from a sense of exploration and wonder to contemplation as to the game’s budget or the developer’s ambitions.
Despite my complaints about the use of overwrought strings in the story, the music itself does stand out. Had it been lent to something worthwhile there could be quite the soundtrack here, with lots of pretty piano motifs and long, aching melodies. More tracks would have been appreciated but what’s on offer is certainly part of the game’s more positive aspects, even if it too is sometimes tainted by quite risible lyrics.
Code Vein is ultimately what it appears to be; a Dark Souls knock off. What is of concern however is how much of a cheap knock off it can feel at times. It doesn’t look as impressive, or play as well despite some very interesting ideas and a fantastic suite of customisation tools. There is a very frustrating feel of “what if” borne out of a sense that developers really ought to be building on what has gone before rather than struggling to match it. I had a good time in spite of everything; its mix of silly gothic dress up and Souls imitation speaks to my gaming heart, but I cannot bring myself to grant much more praise than that.
It is however the perfect candidate for a sequel. Its flawed yet at times quite novel design is ripe for a more ambitious and expansive follow up. As it is, Bandai Namco's first attempt at emulating its former partners is something of a mess, at once both creative yet conservative, entertaining yet at times baffling in its ineptitude.