If you’ve seen a trailer or any preview footage for Code Vein
, the elevator pitch is clear: It’s an “anime Soulslike” – an action-RPG that promises the steep challenge and cautious combat that we’ve all become very acquainted with in recent years. Code Vein doesn’t simply layer generic anime style and storytelling on top of a Souls clone and call it a day, though: its unique post-apocalyptic sci-fi-meets-anime horror atmosphere stands out, and its flexible class system and an AI partner distinguish it from its peers mechanically. Some of those ideas make things more frustrating than they need to be at times, but in this kind of game, a healthy dose of frustration comes with the territory. Code Vein deserves some credit for experimenting with this firmly established formula in ways others often don’t.
True to its anime inspirations, Code Vein has a lot of story. Your custom character awakens in the ruins of a city as an undead “revenant” who feeds on blood in a wild, Mad Max-style, ghoul-eat-ghoul world. There are more revenants than people, which means food is scarce. The story itself is deadly serious, but there’s a bit of a wacky streak – including white trees that literally grow “beads” of blood. That makes the world interesting, but the wild designs sometimes felt out of place with the story’s bleak tone.
You quickly link up with a likable but two-dimensional crew of allies who realize you have special abilities, sending you on a long and winding quest that’s equal parts saving the world and figuring out what the hell is going on. The story kept me involved (even when it goes off the rails) by unfurling details about the world as you go. It seems like everyone has amnesia, so every story thread has a mystery of some kind. While the revelations are never as powerful (or as clarifying) as those in, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn, the slow drip of information filled in my understanding of what has happened and how it connects to the people, places, and things I’d seen.
While the main plot relies on cutscenes, many of the individual characters’ stories play out through blood echoes, slow-moving story sequences where you walk (very slowly) through corridors with still images that sync up to audio logs. I don’t have a problem with this kind of secondary storytelling, but I wish that more of these more interesting stories could have been better integrated into the main plot, rather than bringing the pace to a crawl to develop its characters and deliver important details about the world.
For all its twists and turns, most of the story in Code Vein feels very separate from what you actually do. You spend hours and hours exploring the labyrinthine caverns and city ruins of the revenant world, cutting through enemies (referred to as the Lost) in typical Soulslike fashion. If you’ve played any of these games – Dark Souls, Bloodborne, The Surge (or The Surge 2, which also came out this week) – you know the drill. There are save points called Mistle that recharge your healing item; Each twisty, turny level has shortcuts that allow you to bypass certain sections when you have to work your way back to where you died; combat demands precision, requiring you to play cautiously, dodge often, and choose your moments.
That said, your options extend far beyond the average stick-and-move tactics I’ve cultivated from years of playing similar games. Your character has an effectively unlimited capacity to invent and reinvent him or herself by changing their class, called a “Blood Code,” at any time. Each one has its own profile with stats that scale to your level in different ways, proficiencies for different weapons, including old standbys like heavy-hitting giant swords and polearms, as well as some unique options like the Bayonet, which has a magic-powered gunshot as its heavy attack. Each class also offers a set of special abilities called Gifts that, when paired with a certain set of specs, create a relatively distinct spin on your character.
While the 25 classes I found don’t feel all feel unique – truly, they boil down to magic-users, rogues, and tank archetypes – by mastering their gifts you can mix and match skills and stat variations, turning each Blood Code into a unique loadout. Active Gifts run the gamut of typical RPG abilities, from buffs like Iron Will (which enhances your defense), situational skills like Venom Trap (which poisons enemies), and attack spells like Draconic Stake (which launches a spike made of blood at your enemy): As your repertoire of Blood Codes grows, you build a sizable array of options.
Though you can often get by with focusing on just one or two, I found it essential to change Blood Codes and strategies to beat certain tough enemies. After going toe-to-toe with an early boss in a heavy armor class and getting crushed consistently, I was able to quickly dispatch it simply by switching to long-range class with support skills and a gun to keep me away from its poison-laced attacks. Switching tactics, especially when you’re figuring out how to apply said tactics to the attack patterns of a powerful boss, can be really tough to wrap your head around, but it’s often a puzzle worth solving. Above all, I found it freeing that Code Vein gives you permission to try lots of different options with no penalty.
It also helps that you have a partner to take the edge off. Code Vein’s other primary innovation is its reliance on playing with an AI-controlled partner, one of the other revenants from your team with their own Blood Codes and fighting styles. Since you can’t control them, I found it better to think of each one as a complement to your own loadout. When using a heavy class, for example, I preferred bringing along the team’s leader, Louis, who uses quick attacks and magic. But when I switched to a long-range class, I liked fighting alongside Yakumo, the resident brawler. In combat, each fighter’s unique skills feel more or less compatible, which makes me feel more or less connected to them. It’s on you to figure out how best to take advantage of their skills, though often it’s okay to simply let them keep some of the enemies off your back while you fight.
Having a partner changes the flow of combat, usually for better but sometimes for much, much worse. The good part is that because you’ll often fight groups of enemies – three or four at a time is pretty common – having a second character on your side makes each battle feel more epic as fighting goes on around you too. At the same time, once you get the hang of the controls, most fights are less stressful because you have a bit of a safety net.
When the going gets really tough, though, things fall apart. Most of the AI partners are relentlessly aggressive and can’t really read enemy attack patterns, which means that in boss battles they will inevitably die if you don’t protect or heal them. And once they die, more often than not you’ll end up dying as well without their help, even if you were just using them to get a little breathing room. That means your capacity to defeat many of Code Vein’s harder bosses comes down to how your inconsistent partner happens to perform in a given attempt, which adds a frustrating amount of randomness to a game where combat otherwise emphasizes skill by asking you to time your attacks and dodges perfectly.
You can take the AI ally out of the equation entirely if you want, but that makes things so much more difficult that I think the tradeoff is ultimately worth keeping them around. Technically you can play through the whole 30-hour campaign solo, though I wouldn’t recommend it. Given the number of enemies and the speed of some of the bosses, I found playing alone far harder than dealing with the AI’s issues. Companions are also part of what makes Code Vein interesting, and if you care deeply about the story, your partners will keep you up to date on what’s going on even after long stretches without a major event or cutscene.
There’s also a limited, Dark Souls-style co-op option where you can summon another player for short-term support. That said, without any real matchmaking or even the ability to sync up with friends, I wouldn’t expect to play the whole game that way.