When Bandai Namco brought an English language build of Code Vein to the Kotaku UK offices earlier this week, I went in bracing myself for anime Dark Souls. It’s published by the same company, it used a variant of the Prepare to Die tag line in its initial teaser, and the little bits of footage I had seen showed a game aiming to mimic some of the Souls formula.
After playing multiple hours of Code Vein I have to say that, unlike SoulsBourne imitations such as Lords of the Fallen or The Surge, this has its own ideas, and might be able to handle the comparison. Code Vein feels closer by far to Dark Souls than those games ever managed, without losing its own sense of identity. It’s Anime Dark Souls, really, and I am okay with that. The inspiration is obvious but, unlike so many others, it feels like this can keep pace with the source material.
Much of Code Vein's rhythm of play feels near identical to Dark Souls, from the pacing and timing of moves to the button layout used for them. Any weapon you equip has a unique light attack and a heavy attack, with both altered if you perform them while sprinting. You’ve got a block, a parry, and a dodge roll to avoid damage, and everything is governed by a stamina meter. You have limited doses of not-Estus that refresh whenever you return to a not-bonfire, enemies respawn in a given area when you ‘reset’ it in this way, and upon death you leave a not-bloodstain (a little flame lantern thing in this case) that can be reclaimed to recover lost experience/currency.
There are thankfully a few additions to the combat, but they all feel very in-keeping with Souls-style battling. Each weapon has a launcher attack, which can either give you room to back up and get some space, or prepare a charged attack uncontested. There’s also a charged melee move that, when successfully pulled off, propels you forwards, dealing damage to the enemy but also restoring and increasing your total Ichor (magic gauge). In turn the Ichor enables all sorts of tricks: from straight-up boosting your defence, to electrifying your weapon against heavily-armoured foes, or pulling a single enemy from a group towards you.
Also, it has guns! I got my hands on a bayonet, where the light attack button was a melee blade swing and a heavy attack shot a bullet, but used up one point of Ichor to do so. It meant that if I wanted to keep using the gun, I had to occasionally get close and melee attack at least one enemy to generate more magic ammo fuel.
The biggest shake up Code Vein makes to the Soulslike formula is that, at all times, you can be accompanied by an NPC companion in battle. This NPC has their own attacks, their own limited Ichor bar, and can do things like cast defensive spells, draw aggro, or even revive you — if they have enough Ichor available and can get to your body fast enough (and without dying themselves).
This NPC companion meant the boss fights could be faster, tougher, and a little more intense. They still always felt fair, but the fact there’s two of you is a bit of a safety net, allowing you to take a few seconds of space to assess movement patterns, set up flanks, and let rip with the slower and more powerful attacks.
The AI on the NPC I fought with seemed very on-point, with revival always a priority. I did have to think about them in combat; considering their revival ability is so useful, I often deliberately went and drew aggro to give the NPC time to heal. But generally they felt like a welcome presence, and balanced in the risk and reward they brought to combat.
Fighting alongside my in-game partner felt a little like fighting alongside summons in Dark Souls, but where the difficulty and challenge was more carefully scaled to the pair of fighters — rather than, as often happens in Souls, bosses being rendered trivial by your supports. Difficulty is scaled up to account for two targets, and the game is still damn hard even with a virtual player two.
I do really want to know if, in the full game, we will have any narrative plot threads involving growing closer to these NPCs or not, as that feels like one element of this NPC companion system missing from the demo .
Overall, I was really impressed with Code Vein. It’s tough in a way that feels very fair (it took me an hour to successfully beat the boss in the demo), it seems like it learned all the right lessons from Dark Souls, and the change to a more anime inspired art style really has me invested. I can’t help it, I just have a love for weird flowing one sided capes and spiky hair that medieval fantasy will never scratch.
The only real issue I have right now is that, as is visible in the above boss fight footage, the game slowed down to a near halt when the boss used a full screen area-of-effect attack. Obviously this is an early build, so the developers get the benefit of the doubt; it isn’t due out until sometime next year.
The trailers didn’t do Code Vein justice. Anime Souls is now pretty prominent on my radar for next year. All I hope is that, alongside the NPC companion, it has a few more new ideas to spice up its excellent imitation of Fromsoft’s work.