Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Code Vein was on my wishlist for so long that I forgot what the game was about by the time I bought it. I was very pleasantly surprised when I got into it, but as the game got deeper, its flaws became harder to ignore. I would have thought it had very little fluff in its storytelling, addicting gameplay, and fast paced and efficient design choices, if it were about 75% of the length it is now.
You start off in a very short tutorial level where you learn the combat basics and while it might seem overwhelming, the game is very forgiving, so you don’t need to absorb is all right away. You have Blood Codes, which are essentially different classes, and they all have their own Gifts, which are essentially skills that each class starts with. Every Gift starts off tied to a single Blood Code, but if you kill enough enemies while having the skill equipped, you can use it on any Blood Code you like. It’s such an interesting and rewarding system that gives you constant progression and incentive to use many different classes.
From there you jump right into the story. The story itself is sort of convoluted and out there, but they tell in a very plain yet engaging way. It is rife with cliché, but the soundtrack and character interaction really keep you moving forward in spite of the overdone simplicity. I’m completely fine with a retread story since they focus on the relationships and its mostly used to facilitate cool gameplay features. You create the main character in a very in-depth character creator, but I just picked the first random preset because I normally don’t care. I wish I had put more time into it because it is third person and your character gets a lot of screen time. Your character wakes up with no memory and is being guided by a hilariously large-chested and scantily clad woman. She uses your blood to quench the thirst of something called a “blood vein,” which is basically a white tree that grows bloody teardrop capsules that everyone wants. The main gist is that a queen went crazy and destroyed the world, and all that is left are some humans but mostly immortal revenants that live on blood. From there you go on a quest to try and restore the world to a better place. There are memory vestiges you can find that help you unlock new Gifts for your Blood Codes. I find these especially cool, because to unlock them, you have to walk your character through short little memory cutscenes that play out in front of you. It is a unique way to tie character building together through story, gameplay, and earned abilities. It is such a great way to have you learn about all the supporting and minor characters of the game by making you learn about them to unlock more skills. I really appreciated this method. However, there are quite a few blood codes, and a bunch more vestiges, so, with everything else in the game, the further you go, the less fun it becomes. The story will have long, painful, poorly written sections, and then really wonderful moments out of nowhere. These breakthrough moments when the trite and cliche plot points make way for compelling and touching segments honestly make up for most of the boring bits.
The memory vestiges and the initial gameplay were fun and engaging due in part to the awesome soundtrack. The title screen had a great track to captivate you from the get-go, and while some of the songs get a lot of play, they are still quite moving and they certainly enhance every scene. It’s less happy-go-lucky adventuring and more somber ambiance interspersed with big symphony pieces. I liked the title screen so much that I put it on the music players they have laying around in the Home Base so I could listen to it more often.
It borrows the main gameplay loop from Dark Souls. The enemies are quite strong right away, and they respawn when you die, or get to the safe point. The safe point, or this games “bonfire”, is in the form of mistle, which is some weird glowing plant. You use the resource, Haze, that you get from defeating enemies, to level up your character and to unlock more Gifts.
The map system is designed expertly. The map is there, but must be uncovered. It tracks your movement on the minimap, so you can easily navigate before you uncover the actual map. It allows for exploration but removes the tedious nature of getting lost and labor of wondering if you’ve gone to a single nook in a location. It is a streamlined and smart addition. Aside from gameplay, there is also a very interesting photo mode. It lets you take a variety of stylized photos of your character in their wonderful looking settings. I didn’t play with it very much, but its a welcome addition for people who like this sort of feature.
The abundance of Blood Codes, the ability to switch on the fly, and the stats scaling to each Blood Code with your level, is its shining achievement. The diversity granted to you by being able to change classes on a whim and still have it be viable is a powerful and incredible feeling. It’s rich and deep in the way that it functions, without being punishing or convoluted. It does all the work on the back end for you, so you can focus on killing monsters. When you spend your haze to level up, it tailors your stats to your current Blood Code. If you switch, the stats switch to accommodate. I started with casting and got tired of it and felt weak, so I switched to a melee class. You are able to bring some skills across classes if you defeat enough enemies, so I had a few “spells” when I was a melee fighter. It was diverse, but not overpowered. The Blood Codes become diverse later, so it is not strictly “fighting” class vs “melee” vs “ranged” and instead a bevy of classes tailored to individual fighting styles or weapon groups. This further allowed me to experiment with different weapons constantly. I started with a pipe, switched to a hammer, then a sword, a bardiche, a giant two-handed sword, a big axe, and then back to a hammer.
When it started to lose its luster, I only continued because I felt compelled to finish. Once I got deeper into the game, the polish wore off and it felt repetitive. The areas got smaller and quicker to complete. As I started gaining haze in the hundred thousands, there was less to unlock, and the core feel of the game became wasted. I wasn't scared to lose haze or die because there was nothing worthwhile to spend it on. I wasn't rewarded for living longer and defeating many foes. I wanted to spend all of my currency on fun resources, but there were none. I was running around battling bosses with 500k+ haze and not worried if I would lose it all. The gameplay might have started to lack overall, but it was still a fun central element. The actual killing of monsters and exploring new worlds was a treat until the end.
There are things that could be improved upon. The target lock on system is bad. It's hard to cycle through opponents, it's slow, and it's haphazard. In a battle system that requires you to be quick and punishes you strongly, there were far too many situations where I felt like I was losing because of the wonky targeting.
There are "side quests" of a sort throughout the game if you visit areas you've already been. They are mostly pointless, requiring you to tediously teleport back to old locations, and then go fifty feet to collect an item or kill a single monster. One of them is mandatory, and it doesn't tell you this, so you don't know you need to do it until you've gotten the reward for the quest. Very poor design and ruins the allure of a side quest altogether when they are this boring and not optional.
There is a boss fight later of a duo called cannoneer and blade bearer. I had little to no trouble with bosses thus far, and if I did, it took a few repeated tries to figure out their patterns and execute properly. This boss fight bucks the trend in the worst way possible by throwing two extremely powerful enemies at you at the same time. I tried everything. I switched Blood Codes, trying out the best builds I had access to so far, even going back and inheriting traits to use on different Blood Codes in an effort to try different styles. I had minimal success with the new styles, so I elected to switch again to a full frontal melee style and try to brute force my way. That also failed. After going back to my main class and beating my head on the wall for another hour, I decided I was done with the game. I was already getting fatigued from the repetitiveness of the main plot line, and I no longer wanted to spend several more hours building a character to get past this fight when I was ready to be finished. Some may find it fun to be overwhelmed by a strong enemy, but having to change my playstyle to a very specific setup to defeat a boss when that was previously not required left a bad taste in my mouth.
That’s about the whole picture with Code Vein. I so badly wanted to like it, and the initial impression it left was wonderful. The animations are fluid, comfortable, and responsive. I never felt sluggish or weak. The art style is modest yet stylized. They focus more on characters and certain locations than making sure every blade of grass moves independently, and they succeed for it. The story is simple, but threaded with character interactions and development. There are a lot of options, fun gameplay, and difficult, yet rewarding enemies. I still find myself wanting to like it, but once you hit a point in the story, the progression stops. I couldn’t get past the tedium of slogging through areas just because I wanted to finish it, combined with the extremely punishing later boss fight. If this game was cut down by a quarter or a third, I would be relentlessly singing it’s praises, as I was when I first started it. You might like this style of game, but it just made me want to play a game that does what it does but better: Dark Souls.