Bandai Namco bravely brings us a new IP in a world of yearly sequels and monetisation. Part of what made my review time with Code Vein feel so distinct was its total lack of monetisation or “long-term plan”. Like the good old days, it offers a bonafide value for money, complete experience, spanning tens of hours. Every item in the game must be worked hard for and none of it is (shudder) purchasable.
As a result, Code Vein’s every gameplay mechanic carries weight and meaning. This is a great achievement for any action RPG. Extra ambition is laid on top, too. Ideas that bring the player some genuinely new RPG mechanics to tussle with. A shame then, that other aspects of the title fail to reach the same lofty standard of design. Whether the quality of RPG systems will be considered enough to redeem it, will differ from player to player.
Code Vein’s story begins placing players into the shoes of a newly awakened Revenant. The side effect of that scenario is that Revenants get memory loss. Not ideal in a world filled with monsters and warring factions! Our silent protagonist is guided through his first waking moments by Io. To start with, he/she (depending on who you create) stumbles about with the scantily clad Io, eventually being drafted into a group of Revenants working for the tyrannical Silva.
The opening moments serve as an interesting perspective on the city of Vein’s desperate situation. Mankind’s weaponised dead, the Revenants, rely on Blood Beads to survive. Yet, they are becoming an increasingly scarce commodity. Soon after, the player and Io make their way to a safe haven which serves as the hub world between levels of Code Vein. Friends are made and the quest is afoot. Players will go from one Bloodspring to another, in attempts to find the source and save all of Revenant kind.
What damages the storytelling in Code Vein badly is the silent protagonist. In certain situations, the player character will be asked questions in heated situations. In response, surrounded by the drama, we get a nod or a shake of the head after a long pause. Plainly -- it’s weird. It’s as if the player character is simply a conduit of arms and legs for us to experience the rest of the story. Character backstory flashbacks can also be unlocked and these would have benefited from a first person style of exploration. Instead, our silent, meaningless character ambles through them while the narrative plays. Regardless, the game is to be commended for offering such deep backstory as an optional pursuit.
It may have been preferable to fill the boots of a character who we see speak. Without this, our player character is a non-relatable pile of stats. Sure, stats in an RPG are great. But where the epic tale is concerned, “non-relateable” is a big red flag. Why do you think Geralt is so likeable? Despite all this, fans of RPG, Souls-like games or even anime as a genre still have plenty of reasons to sign up for Code Vein.
A big part of building out this new universe is the language within it. The same goes for any new IP. Bandai Namco knows this of course, but has risked taking their terminology game to confusing new levels. Many of the gameplay mechanics here are typical of RPG games, have unusual names assigned to them. We have “Blood Code” instead of classes, “Blood Veil” instead of armor, “Gifts” instead of skills. The list goes on to a giddying amount. Once you’ve wrapped your head around it all, sure, it’s pretty cool. Although, every now and then you may be asking “was all this really necessary”? So for the sake of a Code Vein review being easy to read, the rest of this segment will water down the lingo.
One of Code Vein’s most interesting ideas is that it offers different classes that are interchangeable on the fly. These classes can be collected as a result of a complete set of secrets (Vestiges) found. Alternatively, some are simply given to the player. Some will favor the long range game, some -- the short. Some will favor a tanky damage dealing game, some -- the support. Each of these classes (Blood Codes) will affect player stats. In other RPG games of today, these stats are rigid as a result of level-up choices. That’s not how this RPG works.
If you go from heavy armor (Blood Veils) with a Berserker class to light armor and Assassin class, overall stats change across the board. You’re never locked into anything except the amount of health or damage output you’ve gained from levelling up. It’s like loading up a different character without the loading.
See why the watering down of the lingo was so necessary?
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Another novel idea of Code Vein’s, proven to be quite enjoyable, is how different pieces of armor affect finisher moves. Some may combine a parry move with a special dodge function. Others offer AOE attacks for crowd control. By now, you should be getting some idea of the huge amount of mix and match at play here. Seasoned J-RPG fans, accustomed to the torrents of stats in their build, will be right at home. This is a kind of system that respects the intelligence of the player. It gives you all these tools, the freedom to combine them and asks “Right, what can you do with all this?”.
Where players may be surprised is the lack of crafting system. There’s very little diversity between weapon drops and what might be available in the shop. Upgrading is simply down to how much iron you have. Upgrade too much and you’ll need a lot of the next thing -- steel. Code Vein encourages players to grind out these items by offering new characters and side quests in previously cleared areas. Dungeons (Depths) also offer a higher challenge for better drop rates. A smidgen of replay value within first playthrough can be found here.
For the items that will only ever be found once, players must make friends! Valuables can be gifted to NPCs in the hub to gain trading points. Give the right thing to the right person and you’ll maximise those points. Some items can not be found anywhere else in the game. They require a heck of a lot of hard work. This is honestly a masterful rework of how a vendor can operate in an RPG. It adds weight to player decisions and could even be a precursor to similar mechanics in future games.
Code Vein’s Character Creator
A special mention has to be squeezed in here. The character creator is incredibly flexible. Getting my first session underway took a good hour. This was due to my stubborn indecisiveness in creating a character. I was spoilt for choice with a litany of clothes, accessories and skins that I would typically expect to see covered in price tags. Bandai Namco could have very easily turned all of this into a shop. They know full well that we live in an age of profitable cosmetics. Instead, Code Vein’s character creator should be held high as an example of what a “complete title” in 2019 really looks like.
Odds are, this character creator is the reason for our silent protagonist. Being either a male or female character means hiring double the voice actors. Maybe even eighteen extra voice actors, as each gender comes with nine different voices. This is the kind of expenditure that can and will be axed by studios for games in development. In case you’re wondering, those voices are only so your character can yell things like “Damn you!” when they get knocked down… They’re still a silent protagonist, sorry.
As such, this is a great time to chime in with my conflicted feelings on Code Vein after my review playthough. On the one hand, this character creator is basically a suite of reference for any budding anime artist, given just how complete it is. On the other hand, the game’s story would have been considerably better off with a singular, speaking character. Which of the two is more important to you should be factored into your buying decision.
Graphics and Sound
From time to time, Code Vein will feel like it time travelled from the last generation to bring us today’s review. A subject we’ll return to at the end of this review. Although, one aspect of this feeling comes from the game’s graphics. Running this game on max settings across the board on my PC still left me feeling like more could be done. Added bonuses like anisotropic filtering, anti-aliasing and bloom were all implemented. But underwhelming soft textures remained. The beauty of games like this is that they age like a fine wine, thanks to art style. Had the game been anything but anime, it would have likely fallen below the standards of many.
Cutscenes would give rise to unmissable texture popping that went from super soft to just soft textures. Thankfully, the anime aesthetic here gives it a free pass… almost. Where character models are concerned, clothing and armor pops the “loudest”. Plenty of clipping can also be seen as character models’ animations contend with whacky outfits. While the rest of the game of is never visually arresting in any way (ever), it’s all very functional. Technically speaking, Code Vein plays it very safe and my review copy ran like a dream on PC.
Code Vein’s limited color palette works to the detriment of the aggressively mild visuals. There is variation to be had in environments. It’s just a shame that these go from grey, to brown, to dark purple and back to grey. A later snowy area feels like a reprieve but it’s just… a load of white. As a result, it has what I like to call Quake II syndrome. Too much blandness in the color pallet eventually leads to a kind of passive boredom. Perhaps boredom is too strong a word but the world’s color scheme may make long sessions difficult. At least for overgrown man babies like me, who like to see some pwetty pictures now and then.
Sound brings us yet again to another coin of two sides in Code Vein. Put plainly, the music is brilliant. Nothing quite gets you ready for a session in the post-apocalypse like a bellowing choir of doom to welcome you in. Placement of music within the setting is quite tasteful as well. Had it gone the Skyrim route and given us a never ending soundtrack for certain areas, there could have been a real risk of pushing players over the edge. As it stands, musical flourishes are few and far between. When they do go down, it’s orchestral ear candy.
Overall FX make for a different story. World ambience, as niche a subject as it may be to pick on, I believe is below par for modern standards of gaming. Two counter-examples can be Uncharted 4 and Destiny 2. Play either of those games with a headset on and you’ll discover a complex soundscape that morphs around you based on environment. The way echoes work, how footsteps sound, the quality of surround sound, distance FX… It’s all lacking in Code Vein. The music is superb. The sound of the world -- not so much.