"...I kept getting pulled back into [Code Vein] whenever I failed, to the degree of it almost feeling addictive..."
One would have to turn a blind eye, bite their tongue, and develop some kind of strong conviction to resist the urge to utter "Anime Dark Souls" based on the aesthetics of Code Vein alone. If you've been following the hype leading up to the launch of the game, you could assume this is just another Souls-inspired romp, seeking to be the cool kid everyone wants to gawk over. Surprisingly enough, the more I played Code Vein, the less I thought of it as a Souls game and more of an action RPG where I didn't mind getting my immortal butt handed to me several hundred times.
Bandai Namco doesn't shy away from showing familiar undertones of their successful God Eater series, almost as if they're deliberately flaunting it within Code Vein. Given the oversized death weapons you may see throughout the journey, much of the world's design almost feels too familiar. While I believe the developers took heavy inspiration from their previous creations, as evident from the color palettes and dystopian setting, it feels like it's been spun from a different spindel. Part of me expected some kind of cameo from one of their characters, but alas no joy. Yet, If there is one thing that they did incorporate and vastly improve on, it's character customization.
Pray that you don't have a weakness for making your own custom character. Even knowing my own tendencies in that area, I somehow lost up to 2 hours on some of the most minute details while creating my character. Inasmuch as this might seem like a struggle to me, I absolutely love how the game gives the player such an arsenal to make a character truly unique. I gushed over the overwhelming number of options they provide, ranging from making your clothes and personal accessories to granting color selection that would make a mantis shrimp foam at the mouth. The process can get so engrossing it would be in your best interests to save a current look then modify without having to fear losing the final product after so many alterations. In lieu of all the talk surrounding the maddening character customization, this only accounts for maybe 5% of what this game has to offer!
After settling into your new anime-inspired persona, you are reborn into the world of despair and ruin. Your kind is known as Revenants, a group of humans who are infected with a parasite which gives people immortality and unique powers at the cost of your memories. Revenants remain immortal so long as their heart isn't destroyed, but if they fall from grace in seeking out precious blood, they turn into "The Lost" where all of their remaining bits of humanity are stripped away. When this happens, they morph into the hideous creatures that wander the land.
Even though the game tiptoes around the details of the Revenants at first, Code Vein slowly reveals more and more about them in an intriguing way. As the narrative sets up the slow-building mystery, it dives head-first into its own dark tone and vampiric lore. It achieves something that I believe the Soulsborne games didn't easily accomplish at first: a gripping and clear story. Now, the flow of how this is portrayed can be considered cliché, but something that I appreciate in Code Vein is how they want you to know who you are and what this world is. At first it appears to be a bit hazy, but then it opens up with snippets of detail which the player can piece together.
Through your misadventures as an eternal being with a severe case of memory loss, you're paired up with other characters who assist you during your journey. Feeling like a ragtag group of comrades, you initially pick one, but as the game progresses, you have the opportunity to switch your buddy out with others who match your playstyle or are appealing to the eyes. Given their type of roles, as each of them attacks the enemy in their own ways, they will seek to divert hate from you as well as bring you back from a fatal blow by giving you some of their life. This seems to lighten the load in terms of difficulty, yet you can't completely rely on their skills as a crutch. I started to see it as a metaphor for the game, as you're never alone in this world, and it added another level of attachment which was comforting to me.
As kind of a quid pro quo, your companions will ask to seek out special vestiges containing fragments of different Revenant memories. Even though death is an inconvenient lifestyle, the more your companions die, the more memories are lost. Unlocking these gives flashbacks, similar to how Lost Odyssey employed their Thousand Years of Dreams sequences, allowing the player to witness lost moments within that specific Revenant's life. While some are not as heart wrenching as others, it deepens the story and paints a grander picture of what was lost to them.
You also get your own home base. Here, you can do multiple different things, like interact with your fellow Revenants, buy items and upgrade equipment, as well as trading old world relics found on your journey to obtain rare items that cannot be found or bought. You can also change your appearance as long as it's not related to attributes you were born with. There is also access to additional dungeons you can explore until they're complete. They act as challenge maps, giving you a chance to combat harder versions of bosses and obtain better items. Lastly, and possibly seen as an act of fan service, you can reflect on your experiences via public hot springs. Leaving little to the imagination, you use this as the game intends and totally not just as a way of seeing some of your favorite buddies enjoying a steamy bath.
Getting into more of the ebb and flow of the game, the character you play is more of a "special" Revenant, centering on the notion you are an enigma of sorts. Implementing a loose class system, known as Blood Codes, the player can choose from a few fundamental roles, as well as gaining access to "gifts" which will assist with buffs, debuffs and various skills that further combat. Some of the gifts are available as soon as you pick your code, while others need to be unlocked through haze — the game's currency and leveling system. One of the bothersome things about gifts is they need to be mastered if you plan on using them outside their respective classes. Even though you can switch blood codes on the fly, it feels like you're restricted until you become proficient with the gift. I don't see this as a handicap, especially if it could be beneficial to one of your builds, but rather a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things.
While having a good amount of flexibility is wonderful for different roles you can fulfill, weapons play a critical factor in mowing down enemies. The system comprises five different types of weapons: the range-focused Bayonet, the overall balanced one-handed sword, the AOE centered spear/halberd, the rather large and high damage output two-handed sword, and the blunt mass of the two-handed hammer. Each weapon has different looks, attributes, abilities, and even parameters for which can be utilized. A surprising note about these weapons is there will be different types of the same classification; meaning, you could have three different one handed swords, each with separate types of attacks. While there may not be a combo system involved, you do have normal and strong attacks depending on the button being pressed or held.
Aside from the Blood Codes and your weapons, you also have access to what is called a blood veil. These act as your parrying mechanic, under the guise of jackets and coats, and I cannot tell you how satisfying it is when it connects. There are five different styles of blood veils; these enhance your stats the same way armor does in most RPGs, while also governing how you handle your weapons in terms of dodging speed and overall performance. The best parts about these are the hidden death appendages they conceal. To elaborate, you can charge up the veil as your character readies the hidden power, and it can be released to cause major damage to the enemy or enemies. While it doesn't allow you to recover HP, it will expand the number of times you can cast your gifts if the attack connects.
This is where the game starts to get more strategic, as well as forcing you to find the best setup within the confines of the character. Yes, one could complete the game by going with the highest stats and swinging around their favorite hunk of murder metal, yet the game will find a way to force some sort of change within the player in the form of the environment, a shiny new item, or an enemy which occupies your life for the time being. Enemy combat is fairly straightforward in the sense you target something and then go wild on it. Your combat style will determine if you can stagger them or cause enough damage to kill them off quickly before they can take a (cheap) swing at you. The camera could be considered an enemy in itself as it can be frustrating to control. For example, it can get caught on a wall when toggling between targets, forcing the player to either shift around excessively or drop the lock-on to enable the free camera, only to get hit by an off-screen attack. Outside of anything else, bosses will scale differently in difficulty so be prepared to constantly change tactics if death is too welcoming.
Exploration can be a fun, yet dangerous means of getting around. The area layout can take a "point A to point B" approach, or change to branching paths. The good news is that, aside for a few spots, all areas are connected to each other, giving an impression of scale. The developers did a good job in keeping things different so that everywhere feels unique. The game handles remarkably well, as many game actions are fluent and quite responsive. There are an odd few moments where if there are too many things active on the map, it might lag a little but not enough to get you killed. You also have to be careful when traversing many of the laid out environments. While I cannot praise the minimap enough, which shows your previously walked path represented as a dotted line, it fails to give an effective layered topology of floors. Unless the pathway is straightforward, be prepared to visually seek out landmarks and take your time: otherwise, it will blend together, as you may miss your area of interest.
You may think the familiarity could bring a staleness to the sub-genre, but surprisingly reinvigorates each of the mechanics. Rest points don't feel disjointed from the environments as the developers found a way to incorporate it as a necessary heaven for Revenants which I thought was fairly clever. Dying, which is bound to happen a lot, feels less humiliating and acts as more of a redeeming. Out of some kind of conviction, I kept getting pulled back into the game whenever I failed, to the degree that it almost felt addictive as a wave of accomplishment surged over me. It's entirely possible Code Vein does this on purpose to encourage you to keep on trying without hopelessness settling in.
Overall, Code Vein is a refreshing take on the genre because, while it does a few things differently to similar games, it's not trying to reinvent the wheel. While it has its easy moments, I think this is because the developers want you to enjoy their game rather than display overwhelming frustration. Taking advantage of the online multiplayer will help even more, but it seems almost unnecessary with your AI partner unless you are seeking additional manpower or companionship. With multiple endings to unlock, tonnes of customisation options, as well as a higher difficulty mode for New Game Plus, it's almost too alluring to push forward to test how far Code Vein is willing to drain you.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.