Code Vein Review – Bleeding With Potential

A game is rarely so influential and industry impacting that it creates its own genre, but that’s what Dark Souls did when it released back in 2011. Despite having another title similar in style before it known as Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls marked the start of something much bigger than itself throughout gaming. Countless studios are developing games with comparable mechanics and design philosophies, lovingly dubbed as, Souls-likes. Gaming is full of them nowadays, but a vast majority fail to resonate with players in the same way Dark Souls does. Code Vein wears its inspiration on its sleeve, but that doesn’t mean it has no originality to offer, even if the execution is somewhat botched.

Code Vein is set on a post-apocalyptic earth where an event known as Thorns of Judgement has ravaged the world, leaving in it a hostile and desolate state. You play as one of the inhabitants of Vein, an area of land closed off from the rest of the planet, which also happens to be the epicentre of the event. The people within Vein are known as Revenants, who must consume blood on a regular basis to avoid falling into insanity and becoming a part of The Lost. If that sounds like Dark Souls, that’s because it basically is. There’s no denying the similarities between The Hollowed and The Lost, but where Code Vein differentiates itself, is in its direct storytelling.

After creating a character with extensive customization options, you’re dropped into the world of Code Vein as a Revenant. While the questions posed about what happened to Vein and why your character is linked to the events are interesting, it does little to keep you invested across its almost 30-hour runtime. I never found myself caring about Code Vein’s plot like I did for its unexpectedly deep and nuanced characters, or interesting world premise. The narrative seems more interested with delving into the psyches of these characters and exploring why they are the way they are, which makes for a memorable cast of misfits that give each other hope in even the bleakest circumstances. It can be cheesy at times, but Code Vein has been referred to as Anime-Souls for a reason.

Where Code Vein might not be entirely original in its core narrative ideas, it must be given credit with the innovations it makes on the combat systems that are typically associated with these kinds of games. The most interesting of these is the Code mechanic. Codes are Code Vein’s classes, but instead of picking one and rolling with it at the start, you can freely switch between the Codes you unlock as you play the game. It provides endless amounts of player flexibility and build paths, never roadblocking the ability to play around with other weapons or magic that would traditionally require you grind countless levels so you can level up specific stats. It’s a refreshing and smart system that goes hand-in-hand with the game’s core combat.

 Each Code specializes in a playstyle, and get more complex the further you get into the game. One might focus on quick strikes, while another implores you to use ranged weaponry and magic to best your foes. This is further reinforced by the unique Gifts that you can purchase and upgrade across each Code. Gifts are actions you can use in combat, ranging from small status buffs like increasing your damage to employing a blood shield that bolsters your defences. These all require a resource known as Ichor, which can be gathered through combat and special draining attacks. It creates a strong combat loop that never gets stale, as you can change up how you fight whenever you want. 

Exploration is also a big part of the game, but there isn’t as much present compared to other titles of its kind. Code Vein is a noticeably linear experience in terms of how you progress from area to area, with most exploration taking place within these unique environments. Shortcuts loop back to earlier checkpoints, and there’s plenty of hidden challenges to find, but don’t expect the grand interconnectedness of a game like Sekiro or Dark Souls.

Where Code Vein drops the ball a bit is in its partner system and difficulty, which are more interlinked than you might expect. If you aren’t playing multiplayer, you can choose to bring one character to fight with you, each one sporting their own Code and bringing different things to the table. Unfortunately, the AI is very inconsistent when it comes to bosses and large enemy encounters. Sometimes they’ll play exactly how you want them to and pull through fights just fine, other times they’ll drop not even 30 seconds after walking into a boss room, which sometimes felt unfair, and often left me frustrated. 

As the challenge is such a stark focus for these kinds of games, the balance between being fair and hard must be met. Sometimes Code Vein is excellent at holding a middle ground, while some other occasions, it can feel too easy, or unfairly hard. There’s one particular fight at the end of the game that seems to completely ignore all the design philosophies set forward by other Souls-likes, and the amount of time I had to spend on this encounter put a real damper on my experience. Once I finally beat it, it wasn’t a sense of accomplishment I felt, but a sense of relief. 

Technically, Code Vein is also quite a mixed bag. General textures and environments look good and are detailed enough, but that isn’t where the focus is. Character and enemy models, look gorgeous, and the anime-inspired art style translates excellently to a 3D space. Likewise, backgrounds have some of the most stunning vistas I’ve seen in recent memory, and there wasn’t one where I didn’t stop to take it all in. This does come at a cost, though, because the game suffers from regular hitches and frame drops that can throw a wrench into the flow of combat.

The Souls games are some of my fondest gaming experiences ever, and while I never expected Code Vein to surpass them, it’s hard not to be disappointed by its middling results. It’s far from a bad game, it has systems and ideas that push the genre forward in exciting and innovative ways, but fumbles on the execution on some of the others that are core to the experience. If you have an interest in Code Vein’s world or characters, or can’t get enough Souls, you might find that the positives outweigh the negatives, but I can’t recommend it to someone looking for the next transformative Souls-like experience.
Memorable characters and interesting world
Extensive character creator
Flexible playstyles and build paths
Gorgeous models and vistas
Underwhelming narrative
Partner AI is inconsistent
Poor difficulty curve
Regular hitches and frame drops