By Humanity 10 Comments
The Souls-like genre has grown into a phenomenon where games from all walks of life are trying their hand at it's specific stylings. It is surprising that it took so long for a full-on anime souls games to emerge but Code Vein is here and is trying to claim it's own little corner of the market. Is Code Vein good you ask right at the top of the blog? Well, it's not terrible would be the most diplomatic answer I can give, but that doesn't mean it's good either.
Code Vein to be extremely reductive is basically Dark Souls with anime characters and a post-apocalyptic vampire motif. The world has gone to hell, people have started coming back to life with a strange blood thirst, and at the root cause of all this is a mysterious red mist linked to a Queen. There is a little bit of everything thrown in here. A decrepit world, people turned to bloodthirsty mindless husks, a strange royal order, a catastrophe no one can explain.. The story makes about as much sense as one of these typically do. You uncover nuggets of info through various forms of exposition but ultimately everything is fairly vague even though Code Vein has a quite hammy way of forcing narrative on the player in stilted flashbacks which you have to slowly walk through again and again. By the end I had already gotten confused by the lore to fully grasp what was going on - so the relics are in the successors to bind the what and the miasma is the where and the what? But thats fine - I actually think a big part of these games is being odd and vague and forcing you to actually do another playthrough and pay more attention to whats going on now that you have a rough outline of the events in your head. I can't imagine myself playing through a NG+ of this but I might be tempted to watch a YouTube video.
Gameplay is where things get interesting and also noticably worse. The structure is familiar enough - you run around hitting respawn points until you reach a boss at the end of an area. There is stamina to manage, there is weight that influences your dodge speed, you have a light and heavy attack, you drop your experience upon dying and all enemies respawn when you rest at your checkpoint (in this case a Mistle). This is all pretty straight forward for anyone that has played one of these games before. Code Veins strength lies in it's flexible approach to classes. As you meet new characters and get to know them better they will give you their "Blood Code" which is essentially their class. At any point in the game, even in the middle of a level, you can change your Code which also changes your stat scaling - so a Warrior Code would scale strength while a Ranger Code would scale dexterity. Additionally all codes have unique passive and active "Gifts" you can purchase that can be slotted in and out freely. Initially you can only use the abilities tied to their respective code, but if you use them long enough - i.e. kill enough enemies with the Gift equipped - you will be able to max out it's proficiency and use that gift with any other code you want. So say the Warrior Blood Code has a passive buff that increases your Health but the Ranger code doesn't. You change to that code, put on that passive buff and kill enough baddies to fill out it's proficiency bar - then you can use that Health buff on your Ranger Code or any other code you wish. This is actually a pretty neat system that allows for great versatility and ensures that you never feel locked into one particular playstyle since nothing is permanent. Leveling brings all your stats up automatically so it's really the blood codes that decide how much health or mana you have or what type of weapon you can use. Each code is like a loadout as the game remembers what active skills you equipped and which passive buffs are attached to it. You can very easily go from a two handed tank to a nimble caster in a few button presses whenever you feel like it - you even don't have to be resting at a mistle.
Unfortunately playing the game itself is a whole 'nother story. Souls combat can be slow and deliberate but it's also tactile. Code Vein feels floaty, mushy, and generally just off. There is great showmanship to everything you do but there is no feeling behind it. Your sword strikes feel weightless and clumsy, and don't feel like they are making meaningful impact on your enemies. If there is one word to describe the general feel of combat it's "inconsistent." Since the whole game has a loose vampire thing going for it all your abilities and spells are fueled by blood. Getting blood can be done in various ways, the most prominent of which is your drain attack that is linked to the type of armor you are wearing. This is a long charge up move that initiates a flashy animation, which you can blissfully turn off, as you tear into your foe and deal damage while also refilling your "ichor" (mana) gauge. Another way to initiate this drain is to parry an attack and Code Vein has the most esoteric parry system I've seen yet. I generally classify counters in action games in two ways - frame specific or animation specific. Or basically good or bad. Frame specific parries are when you're required to hit a button during the brief window before you're about to get hit - this makes sense and is also easy to predict. Animation specific parries are not dependent on when you press the button but rather on the animation of your character executing the move - this I would generally classify as bad. Code Vein mixes the two and makes it twice as risky and essentially unattractive to use. Unlike most games you're not going to be using your weapon to parry but your armor. Every armor type or "Blood Veil" has a special Drain Attack and Parry assigned to it and they all differ in damage and speed. Armors that are the "claw" type will nearly instantly pop out giant claws, while the spear type has a slower animation that whips out a scorpion-like tail from the back. The way the parry works is you press the button and your parry animation winds up, and then inside that animation is a brief window where you flash white and that is what you have to time with an enemies attack. The claws are by far the easiest to attempt this with as they appear nearly instantly along with their specific parry window. The tail is an extremely long animation that is very difficult to time. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that enemies in Code Vein are generally fast and have sweeping 360 degree attacks that would be hard to time even if your parry was an instant button press and the combat already doesn't feel particularly great to begin with.
Thankfully each weapon drains blood from regular attacks as well so that you're not forced to engage in the insanity that is trying to parry anything in this game. But wait, there are more weird systems! There is the focus state which for nearly half the game I complete misunderstood. The more you get hit the higher your focus gauge grows until you reach a focus state in which certain passive buffs activate and you also have the ability to initiate a special launcher attack on enemies. For nearly half the game I thought you gained focused from successfully dodging instead of receiving damage so imagine my surprise when I actually re-read the tutorial.. I can proudly say that I never once used this launcher as my natural cowardly inclination is to retreat when taking damage rather than execute a move that can easily be interrupted by swarming hordes. I assume this system is meant to mimic the rally from Bloodborne that gives you a brief window of time to recover a portion of lost health by attacking, but it's awkward and dangerous to attempt considering how easily you can be stunlocked from enemy attacks in the middle of any longer windup - the latter portion of the game especially has you facing off against entire mixed groups of baddies that all aggressively swarm you at once. Many times I had died by having some lowly grunt hit me once, causing a stagger that cascaded into being knocked about like a tennis ball, unable to roll, heal or do much of anything, much less try this fancy focus attack. The scaling is also odd since armor scales to your stats but it only affects your drain attack and nothing else. There is a whole intricate gift giving system with your allies where you earn favor points thats you can exchange for unique items they offer - specifically resources that grant your weapons unique augmentations. There are abilities that are locked and require you to find a "vestige" memory and then go through its corresponding interactive cutscene to unlock. Ability proficiency can level extremely slowly but can be bypassed by yet another weird currency... Theres a lot of systems and honestly you don't have to engage with a lot of this stuff, but it does offer something to aim for.
By far the biggest shortcoming of Code Vein lies in the level design which is uninspired and bland from start to finish. Most zones consist of tight corridors made up from the same few assets repeated over and over again giving off the feeling of being constantly trapped in a maze. Thankfully there is a minimap with a cookie crumb trail showing where you've been which is essential for getting around as entire sections tend to look completely identical. It is not uncommon to completely lose your sense of direction as you exit a combat encounter since both the entrance and exit to any one place looks exactly the same. It also doesn't help that none of it looks particularly good either. While the Dark Souls games generally feature dilapidated worlds they have, with some exceptions, unique touches that serve as both markers and interesting set dressing. What happened in this castle? What is this library? This dungeon? Code Vein has crumbling buildings, grey walls and one area that consists entirely of white walkways hanging in the clouds. There is no mystery as to what this place was, or what happened, as none of it actually feels like anything. Once you leave the drab city scape behind, it is all vague crumbling walls of blue or yellow depending on what biome you're in. The white walkways of the Cathedral are just a plain maze that doesn't try to be anything more than that. You're not asking yourself what deep lore took place here, what does it all mean, because it's just walkways that turn at right angles - nothing could have lived here because it's not an actual place. Other memorable locations are: an underground swamp, a cave, a mountain, another cave, another ruined city area but this time it's constantly on fire, a city area that is covered in sand.. an underground city area that is vaguely purple. There is something to be said about visual storytelling and Code Vein absolutely has none. Each place serves as a mechanical extension of funneling you forward and making you feel lost. It is by design, as every new area you enter is clouded in a fog of war until you reach a mistle, but it's bad design that only serves to frustrate the player without offering anything positive in return.
There is a skeleton of an interesting game here. A fun take on an existing formula with vampires and an anime touch. Deck13's The Surge suffered from similar issues as Code Vein, but ultimately was saved by its amazing gameplay that was further refined in the sequel and is in my opinion one of the more exciting takes on the Souls genre. It also doesn't hurt that I greatly prefer sci-fi over fantasy. I think with some gameplay tweaks and a whole lot of work put into building a coherent and interesting world, Code Vein 2 could actually be another great offshoot of a formula that we seem to know so well by now. The game is decidedly very anime for better and worse featuring a lot of flashy spectacle during fights and cutscenes, with plenty of talk about believing in yourself and fighting for others. Most of the female outfits are so absurd you can only just shake your head in wonder, but there are some really cool enemy designs as well. Code Vein features an incredibly detailed character creator but unfortunately is subsequently let down by the lack of outfit variety (although this can be solved by mods on PC). As it stands it's not a terrible game but one that is mired in awkward design. I wouldn't say it's worth the time to finish but if you're bored and you have Game Pass then it's worth checking out just to see how someone else tried to go about this whole Souls thing.