Game review: Code Vein for PC (Steam)

Two years ago, a teaser trailer dropped for a game from Bandai Namco with a bloody theme that caused lots of folks to guess it was Bloodborne II, but which turned out to be Code Vein, a work-in-progress described by both the director and producer as “anime Dark Souls.” At the time, I had just finished the Souls trilogy and Bloodborne, so that elevator pitch worked for me. It also helped that the director was responsible for the God Eater series, and so it all sounded like a great idea to me.

In delivery, it’s just as good as I expected, although I would describe it more as “anime Bloodborne” for several reasons, some good, and some bad. The simplest way to explain is that Bloodborne is a game outside of the Souls series, and yet shares some ties to the undead world while using a new blood-based theme and a story about werewolves. In the same vein, pun intended, Code Vein also has a link to the God Eater series while using a new blood-based theme and a story about vampires.

Before I get to the gushing praise, let me warn you, this is a very anime game, meaning there’s a lot of fan-service cheesecake to the design of characters. If you find huge jiggly boobs or clothing that defies the laws of physics to expose as much flesh as possible offensive, this is DEFINITELY not the game for you. And, I respect your desire to avoid that. Personally, I was more in the “taking the piss” camp while playing this, every time shouting something like “Woohoo, boobies!” whenever a cut scene somehow landed on a jiggly pair of impossible gravity defying mammaries.

Much like the God Eater series, with Code Vein you have to be okay with anime fashion and some of its writing quirks. I’ve been an anime fan since a very early age, so all of this was fine with me, even if some of the more ridiculous fashions made me roll my eyes. The story starts out with a fantastic character creator that let me go crazy making a thick-thighed vampire goddess in black leather, who is then dropped into a limbo-like place for a quick tutorial section.

It’s really too quick, though, failing to mention some important options available to you. The only way to find these is by going to the Hints menu, and for me this was a tad annoying. God Eater games make the first several missions tutorials, covering a lot more of the controls, and then later on they introduce new concepts and ease you into how they work. Code Vein opts instead for the Soulsborne method of tossing you in with only the barest understanding of how any of this stuff works. Which I suppose is the point, but I do prefer the God Eater method. It’s not exactly hand holding, but it does let me know more clearly what my character is capable of.

The newly arisen vampire is thrust into a prison world, a devastated city surrounded by a red mist that will cause vampires to frenzy from blood thirst and become Lost, monsters who slowly mutate into larger and ever more dangerous monstrosities. The first area, taking place mostly underground in hunt of “blood beads,” sets up the player with Oliver, their first traveling companion.

This is a good way to let players decide whether they want to have a wing mate for the rest of the game or not. A lot of folks don’t like having an overly chatty partner in the field, or they just like being mauled by everything and want the full “hurt me good, baby” experience. And, I respect your masochistic urges. Personally, I like having someone there to bail my ass out when fights go south, and I found it funny how often my partner would say exactly what I was thinking, or was saying at the same time. It’s funny to get wrecked by a boss and both real life me and my in-game partner shout in stereo, “Are you kidding me?” They DO tend to repeat certain inane things over and over, so even if I like the idea of having them talk to me during our missions, at times it can be grating.

With or without a partner, your character must wander maze-like levels searching for items while keeping an eye out for the ever ubiquitous ambushes from monsters. It’s a tried and true part of the Souls formula, where if you see a twinkling item in the distance with no one guarding it, you can expect an ambush. In Code Vein, many of these ambushes involve lots of enemies, and they have that annoying video game quirk of not needing to worry about hitting allies, swinging weapons right through their fellow Lost. They also can hit through walls, because of course they would, and this means that you can be fighting one enemy, only to be attacked by a longer range weapon you couldn’t see behind your camera locked opponent. Or you can be approaching a door and suddenly someone is smashing an axe through the wall and into your face.

Which may make the game sound very hard. It is aiming for that Souls formula, so “difficulty” is a selling point to most folks interested in it. You fight tough enemies while trying to find shortcuts or save points. Each time you rest at “mistle” (AKA: the bonfire), all the enemies respawn, and there actually is an in-game explanation for this. When you die, you return to the last mistle you rested at sans your “haze” (AKA: souls), which you then have to go back and recover. (There is an option to go back to the home base and recover half your haze in a bathhouse, but I never really used it. Because I’m apparently also partly a masochist.) Once you have the save points and shortcuts mapped, you make mad sprints to the boss of the area and do battle, dying repeatedly until you either nail their patterns or give up and summon an online companion to help distract the vicious bastards.

But, it’s not really as ultra hard as it sounds. If a boss fight isn’t working out, there’s usually an option to go do something else and gain some levels or upgrade your weapons. Or you can swap companions and find a partnership that makes most of the fights less taxing. (I say most because certain bosses laughed at whoever I brought in with me, until I relented and sought help online. These particular bosses have virtually no tells on their attacks and are capable of dashing across an arena in half a second, so dodging is nigh-impossible.) Also, if a boss has two phases and you die during the second phase, relax. You don’t have to do the first phase over again. That’s a huge relief with some of these bosses, who otherwise would have been much, much harder.

As for the rest of the enemies, they’re much less tough once you’ve had some time to learn their attacks. In a way, you’re building up a mental map of each zone, learning where to expect trouble, and then learning how to trivialize the threats.

I haven’t even touched on most of the story. Your character is contacted by Louis, who along with his small crew of revenants are investigating blood beads, which are the only source of food for most revenants living in the city. During the first boss fight, your character reveals the ability to absorb memory fragments from fallen revenants, allowing them to access other Blood Codes (character classes) and Blood Gifts (spells and special melee attacks that use Ichor, or mana in magic RPGese) as well as share the memories with others in a virtual plane similar to how The Memory Den worked in Fallout 4. But where as that gimmick was only used twice in Fallout 4, here it’s an ongoing method of telling side characters’ histories and gaining new powers. It’s often fascinating, but inside these simulations, your movement is dropped to a slow walk, and running is disabled. (I can’t wait to see the speed runners decide what powers to pick up so they can skip a bunch of these cinematic walking simulators.)

(Edit: I’m on my second playthrough now and have discovered it’s possible to skip the memory sequences by pressing Start or Options twice. Definitely a nice feature when you’ve already seen these memories before. But, if you do play the game, let these scenes play out at least once, as they help fill in a lot of backstory about how everyone is connected, even if they don’t remember how.)

In addition to these chimeric powers, your vampire can also make blood bead trees bloom anew and cleanse areas of “miasma,” allowing other vampires to return to the area. In short, you’re vampire Jesus. Again, very anime, so if you just rolled your eyes so hard they fell out of your head, pick your eyes up and go look for a different game to play. But if you just said something like “Oooh, sweet!” then this could be the game of the year for you.

For a moment, I want to split from the story and talk about the world itself. Having played all three of the God Eater series, I couldn’t help but feel the damage of the surrounding buildings looked very familiar. I admire the creative team’s skills in making this apocalypse look very pretty while at the same time making it so broken and ruined. In many places the graphics are so good that I might be running to my next boss fight, only to stop and spin the camera around because I just suddenly noticed how amazing a certain level looked.

This kind of pretty does come at a cost, though, and I frequently had both visual and control lag while my computer struggled to keep up. Visual lag meant stuttering or even a complete freeze on the action for one to two seconds. Worse than that, though, were the moments when I had controller lag, hammering the same button three to four times before the input finally got through. My system is now on the lower end of most games, though, so your mileage may vary.

On that note, let’s talk about controls. You’ve got a setup very similar to God Eater, with the upper face buttons used for light and heavy attacks. Depending on the weapon you choose, there are combos that best use all of the features of that weapon. For example, with a giant two hand sword, swinging the sword with a heavy attack back and forth requires hitting the button for one heavy attack, and the the light attack button to sweep it back. Hitting heavy twice will have the same swing in the same direction, and with a long time between swings, leaving the character vulnerable.

There’s the parry on the left trigger, while the left shoulder button is used for blocking. Using the right trigger in combination with the D-Pad or face buttons allows for activation of eight blood gifts, while the right shoulder button held in combination with light or heavy attack pulls out a special attack. You can also hold down the right shoulder to “dash” while moving, and after executing any attack holding down right shoulder and A or X (depending on your controller type) will launch a quick drain attack, allowing you to drain ichor from enemies. Holding down A or X results in a charged drain attack, pulling more ichor from enemies, and pressing X while behind an enemy unleashes a backstab drain. (Oh, and for all these drain attacks, go into the settings and turn off the cinematic drain. Trust me, you’ll get tired of all that camera panning and swooping roughly half an hour into the game.) It’s not the worst control scheme I’ve ever used and I didn’t suffer as much from wrong button syndrome, though it still happened. But it’s serviceable and doesn’t make my hands go “owie.”

BUT, and this is a big but, the way in which the emotes menu is pulled up is infuriating. In theory, it’s clicking the left analogue stick twice, but I could never get it to work when I wanted to use it with an online partner. On the other hand, every fourth or fifth time I’d circled an enemy for a backstab, the emotes menu would pop up, preventing me from using any face button until I backed out of the menu. That usually meant I took a sword, axe, or hammer to the face, and in a game where even the smallest minion can wreck your shit in a few hits, this happening so frequently is…it’s just awful. I even tried to remap the button so it wouldn’t keep happening, and it still was a major issue throughout my playthrough.

Getting back to the story and the world, as you cleanse areas, NPCs begin showing up with little fetch quests and their own side stories to tell. This is very much like Bloodborne in execution and in terms of the stories told. I had a mission to help a man find his friends, and without exception, they were all dead. Which is a bit of a bummer. But it’s a common trope in side quests, and in addition to Bloodborne, I also found it a bit irking in Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s an apocalypse, I get it. But at least make some side stories where people get to have a tiny ray of happiness before you squash them under your narrative thumb, okay?

In the same vein, pun intended again, (sorry, not sorry) just like Bloodborne, completing these side quests can often be very convoluted, so it’s hard to know if I’ve finished any given NPC’s story or if they’ve just moved somewhere else and I’ve yet to relocate them for their next mission. This is important because some of the rewards from completed side quests are maps to “the depths,” a special dungeon crawl where players can find more memory fragments and upgrade materials.

On that note, The Depths is basically the Bloodborne Chalice dungeons, for better and worse. Yeah, it’s nice to have some shorter levels leading to faster boss fights, but in both cases, the rewards for beating a dungeon are skimpy. Code Vein suffers more for this because once you complete a dungeon, the rewards don’t reload. So don’t expect to go into them and grind up materials for all your weapons. They’re not bad, but every completed dungeon left me wanting something more substantial.

I feel I’m neglecting to mention more about enemies and their variety. There are copy-pasta monsters who will be found in every area, but most areas also introduce something new to keep players on their toes. I’d say it’s a good amount of variety, though it would have been nice to have even more mutant Lost. They made a smart choice to very sparingly use recently frenzied revenants. This makes the world feel more “real” to me as I encounter other vampires who are likely just as powerful as my character, but have tragically failed to keep their sanity.

I can’t explain much more of the game without getting spoilery, and how you go about collecting memories and dealing with the bosses will ultimately change which ending you get. (Obviously, not knowing this, I got the bad ending on my first run. I’m cool with that, and I’ll try to get the good and supa-secret endings very soon, possibly in New Game+ or in a fresh start.) I will say there was a certain point near the end of the game where the link between Code Vein and God Eater is revealed, and it was so sudden that I shouted “Oh shit,” and then spent the next minute covering my open mouth. It’s all very anime, so again, you either love it or loathe it. I loved it. (Also, if you’ve never played God Eater, this scene will be meaningless without proper context. In which case, I feel bad because you won’t get the same thrill out of one cameo as I did.)

In the end, I’ll give Code Vein a very solid 4 stars. There were enough quirks and flaws to keep it from earning that last star, and I admit this is a very specialized cup of tea that won’t appeal to everyone. But if you love God Eater, the Soulsborne games, anime, or all three, this could give you a hundred hours or more of fun time. (And also maybe a dozen of hours filled with agonized screaming. Which is very fitting for a game about vampires, I think.)