[Review] ‘Code Vein’ is a Stylish Vampire Action RPG, But Lacks a SoulSeptember 30, 2019
Horror seems to fit the Action RPG genre quite well. Demon’s Souls, and Dark Souls brought grim medieval fantasy worlds to stunning life, Nioh and Sekiro have a focus on Japanese demons and spirits, and Bloodborne gazes deeply into the inky abyss of cosmic horror. So Code Vein, an anime-inspired action RPG with an interesting take on vampirism, slots into this genre quite comfortably. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to its promising premise.
Set in the near future, Code Vein exists in a world devastated by a mysterious disease that wiped out huge swathes of humanity. Hidden among the ruins is a society of immortal Revenants known as ‘Vein’. The survivors of the apocalypse eke out a life for themselves, but the disease that scrubbed the planet near-clean of normality left some nasty after-effects in the form of monstrous mutations of some unlucky souls, and now the only way to stay alive is to embrace dark gifts that imbue Vein with otherworldly powers and an unnatural thirst for blood.
The player is, of course, a mute with an unknown past who is freshly-introduced to this strange world of vampirism, and the story unravels that mystery as well as documenting the Vein’s existence and purpose in the world. This is a surprisingly story-heavy game, with a whole lot of exposition about the world, the Vein, and the player’s past. On the surface, this is encouraging, as you can see the developer is fully committed to telling its own story in its own world. A shame then, that it goes overboard and produces a largely uninteresting slice of anime melodrama in the process.
There’s simply too much dull talking from people who clearly don’t sound like they’re in the same room, and are disinterested in what they’re saying. Even when voices are raised it’s often done with all the enthusiasm of a tired parent weakly telling their child to not smear bean juice on the wall for the thirtieth time. The end of the world and being afflicted with a vampiric gift would naturally make anyone a bit dour, but being so unenthused and detached from emotion means there’s little to invest in from a narrative perspective. It wouldn’t even be much of an issue if it was in the background somewhat, but no, Code Vein wants you to hear it talk, and it’ll damn well trap you in a corner and make you listen.
Still, there’s the rest of the game to be had, and Code Vein‘s ruined world beckons you with its intriguing interpretation of a post-apocalyptic Earth. It’s reminiscent of Darksiders, full of crumbling remnants of humanity, nature reclaiming the Earth and all fused with something quite alien. It’s not an original look (the aforementioned Darksiders, Nier Automata, and The Last of Us have all done this very well), but scrambling through a world that is still in the process of being repurposed tells a more fascinating story than any amount of exposition could ever manage. Exploration is probably the highlight of any action RPG, and for Code Vein, it’s clearly the strongest part because the combat is definitely not.
That’s not to say it’s terrible, but there are several contributing factors to Code Vein‘s gameplay problem. Add those up and they drain the fun out of a lot of the game.
Regular and heavy attacks are mapped to square and triangle rather than the shoulder buttons, but those hold blocking, parrying, specials, and dashing (R1 acts as an attack modifier). In traditional fashion, you have to think before wading into a fight. Time a parry right and you can dispatch some enemies in a single strike, but dodging before hitting a couple of well-timed strikes and/or a special is usually the safer option. You can use your ‘Gifts’, powers that depend on which sort of class (called Blood Codes here) you are (in a particularly good move, you can change between these Blood Codes and Gifts at will). These can be a variety of things, from special attacking moves to buffs. These require ichor to activate, which you can gain from finding vials in the world or by draining enemies.
This is all fine and good, what isn’t is how it is executed. For a start, the targeting system is a constant frustration whenever more than two enemies appear at once. It rarely seems to select the right target, which has a negative impact on several close-range strategies and playstyles. It usually ends up providing a bigger challenge than the enemies themselves. Code Vein‘s camera also can’t handle enclosed spaces very well, sometimes bugging out and obscuring your view.
Throw that in alongside the targeting and you have a recipe for hair-pulling frustration. You also get an AI companion most of the time, and they end up doing a lot of mopping up for you whether you like it or not (though they can be downed, so don’t rely on them too much). It’d be nice too if enemies would feign some interest when you hit them. Very few do anything more than stand and accept your attack as they wind up for theirs. If you’re not into it, why should I be?
the other biggie is the difficulty. Now before I’m inundated with war cries of ‘git gud’, it’s not about the game being too tough, the problem is that the balance is all out of whack. most regular fights do require caution, but honestly, unless you’re being needlessly brash or being hampered by the targeting/camera, they pose very little threat and aren’t even enjoyable to face off against. To offset this, there’s a high number of ‘surprise attacks’ where enemies will pop out from behind things or drop down in front of you. It’s a cheap way to do it, and after the fifth time it happens, it becomes less of a surprise and more of a repetitive annoyance. It just happens far too often.
This all contributes to a feeling of numbness towards threats that throws you off completely when a boss comes along and hands you your backside in ruthless fashion. Suddenly Code Vein doesn’t feel responsive enough and the hitbox of your character becomes consistently inconsistent. In the same fight, a move from the boss inexplicably hit me despite clear distance between us, and yet moments later, I somehow avoided the same attack despite being closer.
To top it off, the ability to have co-op partners online while fun (co-op can make most games fun to be fair), only adds to the issue. Whether the game was designed for co-op or not, it’s clear that’s had an effect on the structure and balance of Code Vein.
The problems are many, yet Code Vein is just about tolerable enough to see through. The visual style, though eye-rollingly predictable in certain aspects of its character design, is captivating, and the customization options for your own character are highly varied, so you can at least look good/ridiculous while stomping through the ash and blood of the post-apocalypse. It’s not exactly the worst Action RPG to play either, despite its myriad issues, having a friend along for the ride also makes it easier to swallow.
Mostly, Code Vein is underwhelming. It’s highly stylish, and has some really good enemy design and gameplay options, but more could have been done with the pitch of ‘Anime Vampire Action RPG’. This effort sadly falls short of its potential and somehow makes a gore-soaked game about vampires a bit boring.
Code Vein review code for PS4 provided by the publisher.
Code Vein is out September 27 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.