poor early game.. existing souls fans may find the struggle worth it
TL;DR - This game starts out very awkward and clunky for players who have never played games in the Dark Souls / Monster Hunter genre. Existing fans of unforgiving dodge/parry/iframe combat are treated to a cool anime style, attractive character customization, and the interesting blood code system. Playing on PC mouse-keyboard is very clunky and rough.
I found the first ~8 hours of Code Vein play completely awful.
If you learn only one thing from this review.. you should know that many of the badly-written voice-acted early story elements can't be skipped, and the early levels are so bland and lifeless, it feels like a bad Korean MMO infiltrated by unskippable voice-dialog. Which I guess maybe is a compliment.
I'm a PC mouse-keyboard only player, who is curious about the legend of Monster Hunter and souls-alikes, but hasn't played them. The remotely similar games I've played and enjoyed the most include Warframe, Blade and Soul, Tera, and Kurtzpel. However, the large majority of my playtime has been in WoW pre-2015 and League of Legends - each of which I've logged more than 7000 hours in. In all of these games, the keybindings are reasonable, there is some sembalance of pace and intro to the game, and playing (and navigating menus) with mouse-keyboard feels natural.
None of that is present in the console-first controller-first Code Vein. The Steam / PC experience for this console-first game is rough compared to PC native games. This is evident in the menu system, which often (but not always) won't exit menus with ESC, but instead uses right-click. It's evident in the way character customization doesn't support PC-standard zoom with scroll wheel. Mouse-keyboard play is a sub-par afterthought.
I found the default Code Vein keybindings unplayable, and some keys (notably interact) can't be rebound. Playing on console (or at least with a controller) is recommended, if you can stomach that sort of thing. PC mouse/keyboard players looking for action combat which feels natural on a PC are advised to check out some of the games in my list above.
For existing Dark Souls III PC fans... there are some PC port elements which are pleasant improvements. Code Vein usually (not not always) displays on-screen mouse-keyboard shortcuts (unlike DS3, which always showed controller shortcuts even when there was no controller in-use or plugged in). And the "fullscreen" mode is a proper "windowed fullscreen" as PC users generally prefer.
However, it's not just the PC port. The dialog writing and story are so bad i can't believe anyone can stomach it.. and in the early game it's force down your throat so much it's hard to find a place to even enjoy the combat. I started to count the number of times I was forced to watch cringe worthy voice-acted dialog, with no skip button. At one point, I was stuck in an NPC red-herring loop, where I needed to let one of many NPCs go all the way through their horribly written dialog sequence to let the story advance, but I didn't know which one.
Perhaps the worst offense, is that I spent as much time buried in menus trying to understand the crazy blood code system and level unlocking, than I spent fighting monsters. I'm pretty sure in the first four hours, there is at least one unlock (blood code spell, or weapon, or item, or concept) per monster killed. That's insane. I prefer a game where they give me some basic skills, and let me loose on a few dozen monsters to get the hang of combat. Then give me a couple more skills and a situation where I have to choose when to use them... Then get me going on the game a little before they throw more at me.
At 8 hours played, I'm just getting the hang of basic dodge, parry, and attacks, in large part due to how much the NPC "partner" will do the work for me if I just keep running around and dodging. Meanwhile, I have 8 blood codes, almost 40 blood-code abilities, and 8 different weapons to try to wade through and understand. That's a new skill-concept every 7.5 minutes. It's too much too soon. Concept and information overload. There are times where I spent more playtime puzzling through menus than in combat.
That said, after about 8 hours, I'm starting to enjoy it more.
I'm finally starting to get the hang of the souls-alike concepts, the concept of the "rear-door" that turns a level into a loop, the where's waldo element of looking under every rock to find unlocks to help your character later, and the idea of just enjoying the combat and not getting buried in the 80% of unnecessary optional ways to play that I don't need to just hit things in the head until they are dead.
Code Vein's blood code idea has promise, but I find the implementation confused. Each blood code includes active abilities (aka spells) which are not locked to the blood code, except in most cases they actually are, because of stats dependencies. Or maybe they only are in the beginning of the game, who knows.
Some abilities merely require character stamina characteristics, while others require arbitrary unlock "grades" of certain stats. The UI does nothing to help you understand any of this. Plus, they they throw so many blood codes and abilities at you in the first 45 minutes of gameplay that it's easy to spend more time in the menus than in combat. Which might be what they are hoping, because the level design is sparse and idiotic.
The thing is.. I thought this game was hard...
...but the only thing hard about it so far, is resisting the temptation to Alt-F4 and never come back when the menu system or the bad-writing or the confusing console centric UI makes me want to vomit. I assume it'll get harder eventually. But then I had the same experience the day they released the first levels of Mushin's Tower to BnS USA, and I completed it in a few hours without any helpers or videos, and said "ohh well" and quit the game. Maybe it's because as a child I played several instruments, including percussion, and lots of these boss fights are kind of like music.
When I reached the 1st boss (on the surface), I beat him pretty easily by just staying away from him and letting my "partner" kill him. After this, I easily reached the first semi-epic mob (the first big fat lady mutant), while still hardly understanding the combat system. Only the game had tricked me into picking Mia as my partner, and she was completely useless and I got killed several times.
This put me into a horrible loop where I keep having to kill the mobs from the mistle to the 2nd boss. Then stupid-run back through the empty lifeless world back to the mistle to rest and save XP, so I don't lose it in another useless attempt at the boss. Really? This is the loop I'm supposed to enjoy in this game?
Eventually, I switched back to Louis, and he pummeled through the mobs, while I did little more than swing a few times and tumble around. Not exactly engaging, but it was progress. At some point I presume they will give me a monster I have to learn to play to beat.
In the meantime...
70% of the problems with this game could be fixed by:
- letting me rebind interact (I want it to be "F" dammit)
- allowing all cut scene dialog to be skippable
- designing early levels in such a way that running back through the empty level to preserve XP and make progress is never the right answer
- removing all NPC dialog red-herrings, where the story is stalled until I magically stumble upon the NPC I'm supposed to talk to.. if I have to talk to a specific NPC to advance the story.. then TELL ME WHO IT IS OR FORCE ME TO DO IT
- make a new blood-code screen which shows all the blood codes and abilities on the screen at one time... with some visual way to understand compatibilties.
With all that, would it be a great game? I don't know, but at least I'd have more fun playing it than writing this review. And that would be an improvement.