Preview: Code Vein may not wow, but there’s plenty going for it to keep players interested
Anime Souls. That’s my mental shorthand for Bandai Namco’s Code Vein, the upcoming action-RPG that takes more than a few cues from FromSoftware’s cult series. It was announced when the general public was starting to tire of Souls-likes, but a “polishing delay” has seen it pushed beyond its planned 2018 release and into 2019.
Suddenly, things have gotten interesting, primarily for the fact that FromSoftware themselves have graced us with a brand-new game: the phenomenal, if short-lived, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. With that and the equally-excellent Nioh already on the scene, where does Code Vein fall on the figurative stack? More importantly, can it peel away the dismissive attitudes many will harbour for an “anime-styled clone”?
In what turned out to be a series of closed hands-on sessions worldwide, fellow members of the regional gaming press and I shuffled into a dimmed meeting room at Bandai Namco Entertainment’s Singapore office. Taiko no Tatsujin mascots Don-chan and Katsu-chan plastered one end of the wall, overseeing a row of PlayStation 4 Pro consoles loaded with the latest build of Code Vein. All screenshots and videos are taken directly off the console.
We’re told what we already know, that the development team spent an additional year for polishing, and that they’ve expanded character customization while also shoving in an introductory tutorial. Pertinently, this offline build should be “much more different’ than what was previously shown, and that – for all you readers out there – a closed network beta test will be available. As for the game’s release date… who knows? They certainly weren’t ready to announce it, and chances are BNE are protective of their new IP after FromSoft closed their lid on Dark Souls. They want this to work.
Code Vein stars Hiroshi Yoshimura on the development team, the same director responsible for God Eater. That explains the elaborate aesthetic, full of gothic inspirations and oversized weapons. We’re in a dreary post-apocalyptic world all the same, but this one has less clothes, more colour, and plenty of unapologetic style (my significant other loves the trailers). It’s as if someone installed an anime overhaul mod, only with more polish and customization. The cosplayers are going to go wild.
So let’s start with customization, because it’s easily one of the game’s biggest strengths. As much as I love Soulsborne, I’m forced to admit that the characters can look like ass. It’s wholly intentional and fits the world they’re set in, but it does feel limiting after your third or fourth run (thank God for armour sets). In Code Vein, you’re given a range between impossibly pretty and inhumanely attractive. You get the point.
There are loads of presets for either gender, but once you’ve decided on one you can really get in close to personalise: hair, iris, clothes, each with varying styles, colour, and corresponding options. It’s frankly amazing, and even more exciting to imagine this playing out in a live multiplayer environment. On that note, you get to customize emotes too, combining different stickers, animations, and sound files to better portray what you’re trying to say. And unlike Souls, you can easily switch things up after unlocking the headquarters.
What’s not so great is the actual introduction. Get past the character creation and you’re greeted by a sombre voice that should conjure mystique and adventure, but the atmosphere is immediately shattered by a game-y tutorial section that not only spells things out for you – change classes at will because you’re special! – but even spawns dummy mobs to practice basics on. After seeing training NPCs like Sekiro’s Hanbei the Immortal, this feels incredibly lacking. A game like this should teach through gameplay, not static tutorial stages.
The game’s overall handling feels very much like the Souls of old, which can feel dated at times. The bigger topic is it’s odd difficulty. There’s a stamina bar but you’re rarely punished for mismanaging it; there are Ichor skill consumables but I’m almost never out of it. I’m embarrassingly terrible at Souls-style parries, but even I found the window forgiving enough for a few deflections – the parry animation is super cool, by the way. But despite all these options, I swiftly learned that the opening moments of Code Vein are easily solved by liberal application of ‘light attack’.
Even your Blood Codes (classes), which can be switched out mid-battle, didn’t feel like much of a necessity. There’s one that enhancies your parries, and another with ranged abilities, but I stuck through the entire demo with only two melee variants. What does hurt, and does so with a sting, are the enemy attacks. Getting hit takes a hefty chunk out of your health, so back to the dodge-rolling patterns I go. Some classes do have flashy teleport abilities, but the combat experience feels largely rote at this point.
Those doormat mobs make the first enemy boss a huge difficulty spike, though it’s somewhat mitigated by the presence of a companion NPC. You can choose not to have one, of course, but this seems to be Code Vein’s way of easing new players into the genre without the use of summons – a great way of letting you experience the world at your own pace. That said, the largely linear level didn’t have much in the way of rewarding exploration.
It’s hard to judge a game’s difficulty at preview events – values can be easily tweaked, and the progression curve may not be similar at release (hello, Sekiro’s Corrupted Monk). What throws a spanner into the works is a later, optional area called The Depths. This feels like the extreme opposite of the intro level, so I’m lost as to how hard the launch version would be. The Depths reminds me of a dungeon run, in that you need to speak to an NPC to access the area, and then progressively clear the area out. It isn’t randomized and, like the event materials promised, was far more challenging.
Enemies in The Depths are more aggressive and greater in number, nudging Code Vein closer to the frustration and despair we’ve associated Souls with. The enemy attacks are all still well telegraphed, but these deadlier encounters highlighted how out-of-sync I can feel with my character at times. It’s hard to pinpoint on what the problem is without more time with the game, but I felt slower than I expected. These weren’t down to tanking framerates – those were obvious, and pretty serious during the effects-heavy boss fights – but maybe it’ll get fixed or figured out when review copies come around.
I hope The Depths are a better representation of Code Vein, as it has just the right amount of exploration and challenge that makes me, and many other Soulsborne fans, hooked for hours on end. The bosses here were sufficiently intimidating too, though they didn’t inspire the same edge-of-your-seat tension the way some Souls/Nioh/Sekiro bosses do. We got our only taste of a multi-phase boss right at the very end: a statuesque Blade Bearer that juggled elements and a decent variety of attack patterns.
I’m not going to dwell on what little story I’ve seen since it’s mostly predictable and, dare I say, uninspired. Your amnesiac character wakes up with a mysterious partner, who’s just as in the dark as you are, though your blood is different from the other “vampires” stuck in this little slice of hell. Hence, you’re the token messiah. It’s serviceable, with the overt delivery of an anime series, so there’s not going to be plenty of parsing or puzzle-solving needed on the player’s part. Like the tutorials, everything is given to you.
That said, there seems to be an intriguing amount of equipment customization to let you wield your preferred combination. Weapons fall into various types and have different stat requirements, largely determined by what Blood Code you have active — the game has character stats, but you can’t assign points when levelling up since its an automated increase. I managed to find some duplicates so the weapons aren’t exactly unique like in Souls, though there are upgrade and fortification paths to make them better. The same applies to your armour, which unfortunately falls into only one slot. That may sound counter to the game’s idea of customization freedom, but you are free to alter patterns and colours in the character appearance menus.
Code Vein isn’t going to wow the Soulsborne demographic, especially when there are alternatives and cousins like Dragon’s Dogma or Monster Hunter. However, it will appeal to those who want to experience the thrill of challenging combat (well, for the later bosses at least), and enjoy the high degree of character customization that surpasses others in the genre. The aesthetic alone is enough to draw attention from Bandai Namco’s primary audience, and there’s certainly enough bite in here to make me want to come back for more.
Code Vein is in development for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.