It would be easy to fire up Code Vein, run around some of the early game areas, and conclude that it’s a Dark Souls soul in an anime body (amply bosomed ladies and androgynous boys with spiky coifs and freakishly large eyes). You wouldn’t be wrong. But to appreciate Code Vein, you have to wrap your head around something that’s initially confusing. Obtuse, even. Certainly not like anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not going to be easy to understand, and before you fully comprehend it, you might have decided to just return to whatever other Dark Souls clone you prefer. Its inscrutability in Code Vein won’t stop you.
But it’s the main reason I’ll be playing this weird little thing long after I would have given up if it were just a Dark Souls clone.
Leave it to a JRPG to come out of left field with some weird RPG character scheme. Because that’s what you’re getting in Code Vein. I would argue that’s the main reason to play Code Vein. Because it’s so steeped in its cloying JRPG aesthetic, you don’t get any of the atmosphere, tone, or worldbuilding you might expect from a Dark Souls. The stakes aren’t as high for a few reasons (Code Vein is actually pretty easy). It doesn’t look particularly good. The monsters are generic. But what it offers is a unique character development system. It’s nimble, flexible, wildly varied…and really esoteric. So I’m going to explain it to you, because it’s what makes Code Vein special.
The most relevant parts of your character are, in order, your blood code, your gifts, your blood veil, and your equipment. First, you choose a blood code. That’s the “code” part of the game’s actual title. The ingame fiction suggests codes are DNA you get from other people. Your NPC friends in the hub lend you their codes. You can find more codes out in the world. Your chosen code is like your class. It determines your basic statistics: strength, dexterity, and so on. A hunter’s blood code has a lot of dexterity, whereas a berserker’s blood code has a lot of strength. This will set the baseline for the character you’re playing.
Then you equip gifts. Each blood code comes with its own gifts. Gifts are your special abilities. You have eight slots for active gifts, and four slots for passive gifts. As you find upgrades to the codes out in the world, you’ll unlock more of its gifts. The active gifts are like spells, and you’ll need mana to cast them. Except that mana is called ichor, because Code Vein is blood themed.
But now I have to explain how ichor works. Each code determines your starting pool of ichor. The berserker only gets 10 points of ichor, but the caster gets 30 points of ichor. The more powerful abilities naturally cost more ichor. When you spend ichor, it’s gone. It’s not going to recharge over time. You only get it back by draining it from monsters. Again, there’s that blood theming. As you fight, special moves drain ichor from a monster, replenishing your pool. A lot of Code Vein is managing fights to make sure you get enough ichor to power your abilities. This means maneuvering for backstabs, parrying, and combos. In other words, getting good.
One of the cool things Code Vein does is raise your ichor pool as you harvest monsters. You not only replenish your ichor, but you can now accumulate even more! However, the extra capacity only lasts until you rest at a campfire. Of course, Code Vein is also doing that Dark Souls thing where you collect money from defeated monsters, which you lose if you get killed. And you can only spend your money back at the campfire, which will reset all the monsters. So there’s a constant tension between collecting more money and resetting the world to spend it. But on top of this monetary risk/reward, you’re building up your potential ichor pool. You’re giving yourself more room to use your gifts, but it will reset when you go back to a campfire.
And now here’s where your blood veil comes into play. A blood veil is a piece of clothing you equip in your clothing slot. If you don’t study up on how Code Vein works — everything I’m telling you here was learned by poring over the help files — you might think your blood veil is just your armor. But it’s not. It’s pretty much the primary factor in determining the effectiveness of your gifts and your drain attacks. If you’re just tooling along in Code Vein, wearing whatever looks cool, you’re liable to be doing 8 points of damage when you could have done 100 points of damage. Your veil is the piece of equipment that implements the gifts you choose.
Your veil also determines the fancy animation you get from drain attacks, as well as how close you have to be to your target. The lighter veils shoot out a spiked tendril that has quite a bit of range. The heavier veils just give you monsters claws, so you have to be within arms reach. Some of the veils have sleeves that magically turn into monster dog heads. You’ll see these animations a lot because if you’re playing Code Vein the way it’s supposed to be played, you’re draining ichor. Fortunately, there’s a setting to just let them play in the course of battle instead of taking over the camera to show you how cool they are. Yes, yes, my magical monster dog heads again. I’m familiar with them. I’ve seen them several times before, but I don’t need a cutscene anymore, thank you very much.
(By the way, I think the title of this game is a typo. Because of the significance of the blood codes and blood veils, I’m pretty sure the game is actually called Code Veil. You’re welcome, Bandai Namco.)
Finally, you choose two weapons. They do varying amounts of damage. They have different types of attacks. Their weight determines how well you dodge. Along with the blood veils, they’re the primary focus of the upgrade and crafting system. They’re weapons. You don’t need me to explain them.
So you’ve got your blood code, which is your class. You’ve got your gifts, which are your special abilities. You’ve got your blood veil, which sets how much damage your special attacks are doing and refuels your mana. And you’ve got your weapons, which determine how your character plays. This is all really gratifying stuff to put together as you learn the design. There are a ton of potential interactions and synergies and trade-offs to play with. And here’s the kicker:
You can change this stuff at any time.
And I mean any time. I don’t mean you can visit some NPC to respec. I don’t mean you can refund points and respend them. You can literally call up the overlay in the middle of battle and quickly swap out to another code, complete with a whole other set of gifts. I imagine shifting gifts in the middle of battle is a power move, way above my paygrade. But more to the point, this means if I’m getting frustrated, or if I find a new weapon, or if I start to fight things that apply venom, or if I start to fight things vulnerable to fire, or if I need to play it safe because I’m in uncharted territory, or if I’m just grinding for resources, then I can dramatically change the character I’m playing. Again, my character doesn’t even have stats! They’re all in the codes. When was the last time you were asked “Hey, what’s your character’s dexterity?” and you said, “Whatever I want it to be…”?
Part of what’s punishing about Dark Souls games is the feeling that you’re beating your head against the same boss fight over and over again, or repeatedly dying to the same difficult enemy, or you’re unable to make much progress in a new area. So you’re stuck trying the same thing, again and again, until you finally get better and break through, or give up, or maybe grind enough to brute force it. But Code Vein lets you be eminently reactive. If I’m having trouble with a boss, I can try a new type of character. If I’m repeatedly dying to the same difficult enemy, I can create a character reacting specifically to how that enemy is killing me. If I’m unable to make much progress in a new area, I can set up a blood code to advance more carefully. If I find some cool new item or ability, I can immediately build a character around it. Or if I just feel like playing a caster or a ranged attacker or a brawler, I can change it up at any point.
And Code Vein gets absurdly flexible the more you play. As you use a gift, that gift’s progress bar fills up. And actually, you don’t even have to use the gift. You just need to have it equipped as you kill enemies. When the bar is full, the gift is unlocked from its code. Now you can use it with any code. So you no longer have to equip the Hunter code to use the Hunter’s cool ranged gifts. You no longer need to equip the explorer code for its exploration gifts, or the assassin code for its poison attacks, or the caster code for it’s fireball spell. Now you can really go crazy.
This gives Code Vein an incredible amount of flexibility that ramps up the more you play. You can, of course, just settle on a single build and work your way through the content that way. Or you can approach this as a game about amassing a giant box of tools, and using them to build whatever character you want, whenever you want. This is what sets Code Vein apart from other Dark Souls, Demons Souls, Bloodbornes, Niohs, Sekiros, and so forth. I just pull up the real-time overlay, click around a bit, and now I’m playing a completely different type of character. When you’ve got this kind of flexibility and variety constantly at your fingertips, when this sort of intricate interactivity is always available to distract you from potential frustration, a Dark Souls game isn’t quite so soul crushing anymore.
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What if there were a Dark Souls for people who want something to do instead of play the same boss fight over and over until I get lucky and don't die? Well, this is! And this is it!