Here in 2019 I am no less enthused by hype than I was back in 1991 when I picked up a video game controller for the first time and demoed Super Mario World in a department store. Magazines have been replaced by shitty Patreon-funded YouTubers, hanging out at friends houses and watching them play new games has been replaced by tired and uninterested Twitch streamers, and cracking open the shrink-wrap on a freshly bought box has been traded for a quick direct-to-console download at 10:00pm in my underwear… but, it is all somehow the same exciting loop of ‘discovery and acquisition’ that drives me, the idiot. Despite the ongoing bulldozer of soulless corporate monetization that’d successfully demolished the once-thriving ‘middle class’ of video game experiences last console generation, the B-tier game yet persists as some of the most fun to be had, jank and all. In fact I must have been really high off of The Surge 2 and needing a Souls-like fix to keep it going when I bought Code Vein. Back in 2017 when this game was announced I knew it wasn’t going to be for me yet I’d still compulsively grabbed at my computer screen like a needy infant when I saw it. In 2018 when it was delayed for missing quality checks I absolutely wrote it off at that point, red flag noted. Nonetheless, the machine did its job even after all of my spider-senses had me cringing for weeks before Amazon delivered this Anime video game to my door. Anime… I know better than this, really. I’m an adult.
This purgatory of impersonal existence is only torture for those who know better, right? Purgatory is great place to start, actually, as the world of Code Vein and its weirdly convoluted young adult vampirism represents the hollow hopelessness of a world held in stasis after an apocalyptic event. The threat of insanity by way of primal, bloodthirsty urges creates a mountain between the afflicted and their goal of personal freedom, or ultimately happiness. The most blandly overused apocalyptic tropes of post-World War II Japanese literature can’t hardly be explained away as ‘deep cultural meaning’ when the actors are naked, giant tit-flailing idiots who’re about as mentally present as a teenager discovering Xanax for the first time, right? But hey, I’m not here to throw shit at anime’s increasingly vapid transformation over the last three (or so) decades, I’m here to throw shit at Code Vein‘s bungling maze of mediocrity.
Two major points of inspiration fuel this new intellectual property cooked up by Bandai Namco Entertainment‘s own in-house development studio, Bandai Namco Studios: The popular anime aesthetic and storytelling of the God Eater franchise (specifically God Eater 3) and the structure, gameplay, design, etc. of From Software‘s popular Dark Souls series. You could point directly to bosses, locations, and weapons within the original Dark Souls and Bloodborne specifically even on the most casual playthrough of Code Vein but in no way does this game ever touch upon the esoteric high-fantasy/horror setting and ambiance of those games. The blandly mechanical loop of the game, its segmented leviathan of a false ‘open world’, and tragic inability to communicate the path of progress add up to a cheap and dead-eyed video game with some of the most mind-bogglingly tedious storytelling gimmickry I’ve ever encountered. It is undoubtedly one of the absolute worst Souls-like games from a major publisher to date. That is to say that the Dark Souls formula is still satisfying, even when the game itself does everything it can to be a (very playable) vomitous pile of alt/nu-metal soundtrack’d blood-chugging tween tripe.
You’ve lost your memory. A woman with breasts four times the size of her head softly wakes you up and asks you to bleed onto a white tree so it’ll fruit a blood droplet that’ll satisfy your vampirism. No. Skip, skip, skip, ok you’re in a hotel? Nobody trusts you yet, but you’re the fucking ‘chosen one’ with magical fucking vampire powers! If a Revenant (vampire) lets you suck their blood (the screen goes black, and a nastily loud squelch follows), you will receive their Blood Code (Job Class) allows you to use, learn and master Gifts (Skills). The game uses its own esoteric language to poorly communicate that this is an action RPG that uses a system of learning not unlike Final Fantasy IX (or V, basically) where equipping a certain ‘Blood Veil’ gained from a Blood Code allows you to learn those Gifts in two different ways. You can Master them by equipping that Veil and fighting enemies or doing certain tasks until it pops, or you can pay a certain amount of currency along with specific items to Master each specific Gift so it can become a permanent option for loadouts. This is the best part of Code Vein‘s systems because it allows the player to experiment with different class variations early on and basically allows different combinations of (limited) weapon types and armor sets. You’re given eight slots for Active Skills that you pop at the cost of Ichor (Mana) and Blood Codes determine your base Ichor pool. The ‘Caster’ type might start with 20 Ichor as a base stat whereas the Warrior type only allows a max of 10 Ichor. Ichor is earned back from successive attacks and certain weapons build Ichor faster, if the pool is too low you can do an attack specific to your Blood Veil , a parry, or a backstab to increase your Ichor pool by 2 points for each successful; This resets to your base Ichor stat when you rest at Mistles (Bonfire, Save Point). This isn’t far from what Bloodborne did with its visceral attack systems and it builds momentum/tension in difficult fights in much the same way. For all of the gripes I have with this game, it is all superficial because the actual act of combat, exploration, and the RPG elements are perfectly fine… Everything else just, gets in the damn way of the actual video game.
The greater loop of the game isn’t entirely what you’d expect, though. Sure you’re exploring maze-like environments, fighting bosses, gaining levels/weapons/gear but the when a boss fight calls for advancing the story it’ll be time to slowly walk through an (often unskippable) cut-scene detailing the backstory of the boss before they were corrupted (Lost). This is always -very- slow paced and sentimental with softly spoken voice acting, a Vaseline smeared lens effect, and a walkway that only appears after the lines of dialogue have finished. For a game that was in development for as long as Code Vein was you’d think they’d enlist animation studio Ufotable (who did the opening cinematic) for this rather than force the player to sit through these weird dream-like sections. These sequences are also collectibles within each area that are shattered in pieces you must unite and bring to the braindead mountain-chested naked woman (who is… always in bed?) so that she can place you in those memories of the fallen. What for? This is the only way to unlock roughly 20% of the abilities that are gated by memories, since Blood Codes are tied to individuals who might have a block in their deceased state. Conceptually this works into that Purgatory angle, you’re more or less resolving the haunted remains of the fallen so their loved ones can move on but oh boy… is it pure suffering to sit through. The majority of these events serve to flesh out the characters you’re co-habitating with at base and only a few of them directly tie into the larger explanation for the microcosmic world entrapment Code Vein suffers within; It is all blandly maudlin and drawn out as character-building lore, often taking well beyond 5 minutes to resolve each. I skipped every one I could and skipped every cut-scene I could and still didn’t miss the greater arc of the story, it all repeats itself so often you’re not going to miss anything even if you put on a pair of headphones and look at your phone during 90% of the cinematics.
So, I’d pushed through the bland lore, the uninspired level design, the dull palette of the anime art style, and found a decent action RPG with a lot of customization options beneath it all. What is the problem? As you’ll see in every Let’s Play, video review, and whatnot most players get the impression that the options are vast but eventually falls in line with the same ‘highest stats’ build with the heaviest two-handed sword and same Atlas blood code and end up playing most of the game with Yakumo’s weapon once it is possible to get it. The cast expands to around ten folks as the game progresses and most all of them can be (optional) companions, all of which have fantastic AI for the most part and each has their own useful set of specialization in terms of skills (healing, combat, etc.) or resistances during boss fights and/or traversal. The more you hang out the more they like you and you can eventually trade ‘old world’ items bought from an obscure vendor from the first area of the game for currency you can cash in for their weapon, or for consumables and crafting/weapon modification items. Split damage is generally worthless in this game, often trading half of your physical damage (or a loss of scaling) for ~100 elemental damage. None of this was worthwhile outside of getting companion weapons. You’ll upgrade weapons with tiers of materials in a system that is more or less a carbon copy of Dark Souls except without the ‘slab’ tier items, everything is generally easy to farm and if you’re deficient in any particular type progressing to the next area will usually solve this.
Multi-tiered boss fights with elemental damage and increasingly savage AI all crumble quickly beneath your two-handed sword which you can buff with a percentage-scaling DMG skill, several strength upgrading passive skills, and several different elemental/status effect buffs. I was hitting for well over 2000 hit points for each swing against the final boss and had about 9 ‘regeneration charges’ plus up to two revives from my AI co-op partner, who also did massive damage and provided a shield that negated hits (which I could also cast). You’ll have to make the game harder on purpose to find any real challenge later on and the game realizes this, resorting to throwing up to ten enemies your way at once and they’ll generally keep chasing you unless you jump on a ladder or off a cliff. It starts to feel like the game realizes that the loop of the game becomes unsatisfying near the end, dragging on for the sake of letting you explore combat options, and ends somewhat abruptly without a satisfying epilogue. Great.
Code Vein is yet a skeleton of a game that is literally no deeper than its ‘anime Souls-like’ tag. A host of illusions just barely hide its inadequacies, just as the costumes for female characters barely hide their grotesquely protruding honkers, and its design aims to cover up those flaws just enough to justify its entrance in the higher range of budget-priced titles. The same way you could compare God Eater 3 to Monster Hunter World, a soulless and drawn-out machining of a more detailed and characteristic original series, you could compare Code Vein to Dark Souls. It is a niche product and despite all of the wildly inappropriate daggering I’ve been doing in its face, it is an average B-tier game that fulfills the “What if…” for folks who would include “…Vampire anime Dark Souls boobs?” I primarily play this type of game for the sense of exploration first and then mastery of the terrain/combat second, they’re always a lot more fun to actually play on New Game+ but there are a few design choices that inhibit a second playthrough for my own taste: When you’re down to about 30% health the music fades, the screen turns black and white with a bloody border as it thumbs to a slowing heartbeat. This had an intensifying effect the first one hundred times but across a 30-40 hour playthrough it becomes a massive annoyance. Secondly, there are ten enemy types in the whole game and nine of those are ‘turned’ cannibalistic humanoids (Lost) who generally express variety by using the same set of weapons you have access to. Not only are they repetitive to fight ad nauseam but they don’t fit into the environments in any meaningful way. These were big enough gripes for me to feel like a starving rat in a truly drab maze while I played Code Vein. I will not likely ever pick the game up again and I’d only recommend it on sale as the experience is fully worth about 19.99 USD.
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