Code Vein is more than just anime Dark Souls
It's very easy to reduce Code Vein to Dark Souls but with more anime tropes. At a glance that's pretty much what it is. There are genre conventions of both Souls-like (Blight Town and Anor Londo equivalents) and anime (like flashy choreographed fight scenes, melodramatic confessions of love, and a character who looks like she's 16, but is actually much older.) I would not say that it particularly subverts those tropes (especially the anime ones), but, both mechanically and narratively, it still has more going on with it and should not be passed up.
(This review will contain some spoilers. Mostly regarding structure. However it does spoil something relating to a side character and broad thoughts about the ending.)
In Code Vein you play a revenant. A creature made from dead human and something called a BOR parasite. Essentially a vampire. As a revenant you only need to subsist off of human blood and as long as your heart isn't destroyed you will revive when fatally injured. However, your memories fade each time you come back. This is used to explain why you are sent back to your last used mistle (the game's bonfire equivalent.) The memory loss stuff never impacts your character mechanically. Dying will only cause you to drop your current amount of haze (aka souls). Which you can then reattain by going back to the place you died.
Memory restoration is a big element to the game though. You will find crystalized memories from various characters around the world. This is largely how the backstory is told. It is how you find out who the characters were before you met them and about significant characters you never meet in person. These scenes really showcase the game’s themes of tragedy, sacrifice, and hope.
An example of a memory you come across about 25% though the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ybI2j3BEE4
Something I really appreciate its willingness to allow its characters to have mundane scenes and back stories. Some memories are as ordinary and uneventful as siblings on a hike and a person visiting a sick friend in the hospital. However, they can also be considerably more dire. Take the character of Coco (major spoilers ahead for a side character). It is implied that before the Great Collapse she was living in poverty and had probably turned to some form of sex work to support her ailing son. “The government” discovered this and decided to take her son away. Months later she receives a letter saying that her had died. No other information is given to her. It is important to note that this played out in the form of her expositing to the player rather than how other characters’ memories depicted. In this case, I feel that’s for the better. Mostly because the distance from the event. When she tells you about what she went through it’s told with the reservation of someone who has had the time to process the horror.
This sort of real world tragedy in a game that is really about anime vampires who can shoot fire from their hands really helps to ground it and reinforce the theme of tragedy. While Coco’s story is the most extreme of them (that doesn’t involve common game tropes like being a war orphan turned mercenary) it shows an attempt to take characters that are typically genre caricatures and make them people. Unfortunately I cannot say that it is not entirely successful with that. Particularly its main cast is uninspired and fit very neatly into roles you’re likely quite familiar with. If you’re only watching the cutscenes and spending time with the main cast then I feel you really miss out on the best narrative parts of the game.
When it comes to the greater narrative of this game it actually reminded me a lot of the Nier series. Not just the thematic similarities I mentioned earlier, but the way it reveals large truths about the nature of its world at dramatic moments not unlike Automata and even has some of that hopeful nihilism.That said, it’s not nearly as well written.
Like Dark Souls, Code Vein initially presents it’s plot in as opaque and obscure. It intentionally doesn’t provide you with context or knowledge about the world. Unlike Dark Souls, there is no introductory cutscene that sets up the lore of the world and character you will be playing as. It just drops you in and expects you to pick up the pieces as they are revealed to you.
Eventually this works. Eventually you have enough context and understanding of the state of the world to make the mid and late game reveals feel impactful and clever. It takes too long to get there. The early game does not provide you with enough information to care about its world or characters. I think that’s why a lot of folks have bounced off it.
This is especially unfortunate because of something that you stumble upon about half-way through that probably should have been how the game opens. There comes a point where you’re allowed to explore your player character’s own memory. This area starts with you waking up in a military hospital, presumingly shortly after you have been turned into a revenant. You are then thrust into Operation Queenkiller. A thing that prior to this point is really only brought in loading screens and item descriptions. By the end of the area you are left with an understanding of why the world is the way it is, a loose understanding of your character’s place in it, and greater questions. Even better, it would actually dovetail quite well into where the game actually starts while only expanding upon the mystery of the game’s first act. Instead it falls haphazardly around the middle of the game just before the first big reveal is made and is presented as completely optional.
Outside of that one blemish, I feel the game actually paces it’s plot well. The progression of areas after the midpoint does feel a bit like episodes, mini-arcs, or, y’know, video game dungeons. But they break them up with well enough with a smattering of side quests and some backtracking. By that point I was confident enough in my ability to actually play the game and enjoying my time with it that the back half really just moved for me. During that time you’re also introduced to just the most scene-chewy-est evil scientist villain who is just having so much fun.
I should mention that this game has some sort of connection to the God Eater series. It’s made by the same team and appears to be set in the same universe. I played about 14 hours of God Eater 3 and did not really pay much attention to the plot or lore. You absolutely do not need to be familiar with that series to enjoy Code Vein. Apparently the connections are mostly just references and fan inferences.
The level design is labyrinthine. Most areas consist of a main route to a boss that is wrapped around itself with a few pockets and deadends to explore. This allows for shortcuts to be opened up and items to be dangled just out of reach. I spent a lot of time seeing the end of a path and asking "how the heck do I get there?" The game doesn't hide paths exactly. You won't be hitting every wall trying to reveal a secret. Instead it tends to obscure ways to go by putting breakable boxes in the way, making you drop off a ledge, or by just having a lot of verticality and confusing layouts.
I actually really like the way the areas are designed. It hits that part of my brain that likes untangling knots. I would show up to an area and feel overwhelmed by all the ways to go. Then approach them one by one and realize it wasn't as complex as it seemed. The game often let's you see something that you can't reach directly, but that lets you know there is something to get. You just have to figure out how to get to it.
Sometimes this backfires though. There was one area that I was sure the path forward (remember there's always only one path forward) was through this extremely difficult encounter. At least once in each area there is an encounter where enemies will start teleporting in around you accompanied by a phrase like “The lost smell blood” shown on screen. Most of the game you'll only face one to three enemies at a time and will have plenty of time to heal up between encounters. That's not the case here. In these situations each enemy you beat, more will spawn in. Often they're the toughest enemies of the area as well. Completing those encounters offers decent rewards and they are repeatable.
So, the situation I thought I got myself in was that I had come to a brick wall that I could not break down. After an embarrassing amount of attempts I decided to run through the room where it triggers and guess what? It was a deadend. I simply forgot that I opened a door in a different part of the area. Fortunately, as long as you know where they are, all those encounters I described are completely optional.
While I enjoy the labyrinthine nature of the level design, it may prove to be frustrating to players who are looking for an interconnected contiguous world or want the opposite, something more directly linear. There are a few "hub areas" of a sort that have multiple connections to different areas, and on rare occasion you even have the option to choose between two areas, but it's never how it is in Dark Souls. Each area is connected by a long twisty hallway that is an obvious cover for a loading screen. You can't see other areas from the area you're in either. Many of the later areas are literally connected by teleporters or are dream worlds.
Then there are the small sort of dungeons called "The Depths". They don't appear to have any sort of random generation to them, but the Depths are essentially small dungeons themed after the other areas where you collect keys to open a boss door. There's nothing particularly interesting about these dungeons. They kind of feel like fluff content. Occasionally you find a cool item or ability, or have a side quest in one. They do let you refight the bosses, but usually you just get a few crafting items and some haze for the fights. They're fine. If they weren't in the game it wouldn't feel like it was missing much.
One annoying thing about this game’s level design is the constant threat of instant death pits. There is not an area that doesn’t have a pit you can be knocked into or ledge you could accidentally walk off. The justification for this is how destroyed the setting is, but sometimes it’s downright silly. You’ll be exploring a sewer-like area and there will be suddenly bottomless pits after you drain the water. Most of the areas are thin walkways without railings floating seemingly hundreds of feet in the air. You will be knocked off them as enemies are frequently placed to do that.
The level and environmental design is probably Code Vein’s weakest point. While the game occasionally has some really truly amazing looking rooms or interesting geometry here and there, a lot it’s place look similar. Here’s the ruined city. Now here’s the ruined city but it’s also sandy, or on fire, or underground. There is something to say about consistency and keeping true to an established lore, but it does feel a bit samey.
While exploring you can choose to bring one of the NPCs with you. These AI companions are surprisingly effective in combat. Often they'll take out entire encounters all by themselves without you doing much. Fortunately they will not engage until you do. They'll even stand in front of you and block if you're charging up an attack or using one of the buffing abilities. It doesn't feel like they are playing the game for you or make it too easy. Their constant chatter can get a bit annoying, but you are able to turn that off. However once I did, I found the exploring to feel too lonely.
The combat by itself is often pretty tough and you're going to welcome the AI assistant, especially in the later areas or on New Game+. I found the challenge level to be pretty much what I would want. You can choose to out level areas to make things a bit easier for you, but even if you grind a lot enemies will always inflict a ton of damage to you. Even when you were having trouble with them around level 40 and are now level 90. I don’t think enemies level with you either. You just can’t be careless.
I was mostly playing a middle weight spear and magic user. I found a few weapons that had move sets I liked and they all happened to be spears (though they're more like pole arms and pikes.) The buttons felt good. You have a light and heavy attack. Then can modify those attacks by holding R1. Heavy attacks can be charged, and there are also attacks that can be done out of a sprint (which is also R1).
The magic feels powerful. Most spells have a bit of a charge up which can be interrupted, but hit hard especially when you spec for them. Magic is broken up in a few ways. It is either Light (usually buffs and utility spells) or Dark (usually offensive and status effects), then there are four elements (fire, ice, lightning, and blood). There are a handful of spells that seem to be non-elemental, but they're uncommon. It is a little disappointing that a lot of the elemental spells are just clones of each other. You have a big fire blast, big ice blast, etc. There are some that are unique, but if you find a spell of one element you can bet there's the same spell for each other. Also, a lot of the later enemies and bosses are very resistant to blood magic to the point where it doesn't seem worth investing in. The same with status effects, which is super disappointing since my favorite class is all about poison.
Magic uses what is essentially MP. You regain MP by just attacking, but also by doing what’s called “drain attacks”. These are four special attacks you have that tied to your current armor style. Doing these attacks will also temporarily increase your total MP. They’re a charge attack on X, your parry, backstabs, and then something I only learned in a loading screen prompt, a focus launcher.
This game sort of has a “super” mode called “focus” that I feel it doesn’t really explain well. Basically, if you get hit a bunch or dodge a bunch you enter into a focused state where you won’t get knocked around as much. But it also lets you launch lighter enemies with your Heavy+R1 attacks. This is super situational and very easy to forget about.
Another thing I found myself often forgetting about was the block button. Why block when you can dodge? Sufficed to say, I don't believe I was playing very well. But I had a lot of fun swinging a big mace that counted as a spear and blasting things with lightning. That's a strength of the combat and class systems. This game really let's you take the time to figure out your play style.
The classes in this game are unique. Not in theming, though they do call classes "bloodcodes". You have a warrior, ranger, caster, assassin, etc. But more in implementation. First off, you can change class at any time, on the fly. They're more like skill loadouts than anything. (Though I wish you could bind equipment sets to them as well). What I found most interesting about how they work in Code Vein is with stats.
Stats in this game scale with your level. You don't directly alter them by dumping points into them. They are a letter grade from E to S, not unlike how Fire Emblem ranks its skills. You often need minimum ranks to equip different weapons, armor, and skills. Example if your strength is rank D+ you can't equip that sweet hammer that needs a strength of B or more. It creates a bit of a puzzle game where you try to figure out how you can use the current pieces to make your own custom class. You only get more pieces the further into the game too.
Class skills, called "gift", can be unlocked by buying the with haze. Some are locked behind viewing certain memories, where they then can be bought. Once you buy them, however, you can only use them when you have that class equipped initially. Eventually you will master them and be able to use them with any class. Or… you can spend some haze and rare crafting materials to just learn them whenever.
I found doing the latter to be a bit of a pain. The crafting items drop fairly rarely and are tiered. As you progress through the game you will start seeing enemies drop the next tier, then the next, and so on. All the while seeing less and less of the lower tiered items. You will likely not find enough to buy every skill you have access to and the items are only sold in a very limited amount. As a tip, I highly recommend learning and mastering every skill that makes you resistant or cures status effects. Especially since the first two bosses after the tutorial focus on inflicting them.
I want to discuss the endings briefly. There are three main endings to Code Vein. A bad, neutral, and what some fans are calling "perfect true". I got the neutral ending due to a misunderstanding and it is by far the least interesting and most unsatisfying. I feel like it just wasn't bold enough. "Ok, I guess that makes sense but what about X, Y, and Z?" It doesn’t answer, it just ends.
Instead of playing through the game twice more I just watched the other endings. They're both so much better and work well both within the themes of the game and as resolutions. Personally I find the "perfect true" ending to be a bit too hopeful and sequel-baiting for me, but at least it is bittersweet. I think I may like the bad ending most of all if only because it provides some closure for the character Louis.
Regardless of the lackluster ending I got Code Vein remains one of my favorite games of the year, but I must temper any recommendation. This is a “B” game. It’s the epitome of “ambition over ability” (whether that ability was limited by skill, time, or budget, I cannot say). There is a great game with an enjoyable story here if you’re willing to get passed a shaky early game and a bit of a learning curve. I could very easily see it become a cult classic. Not to the degree of Dark Souls or Nier, but probably more in line with Dragon’s Dogma (or, probably more honestly, Dark Souls 2). Though cursory searches show that it has actually sold quite well.