Code Vein (2019) Hands-On Preview

You may vaguely remember Code Vein, an action-RPG that many were referring to as ‘anime Dark Souls’, back in 2017. Roughly halfway through 2018, Bandai Namco then announced that the game would be postponed to give the developer time to “further refine its gameplay in an effort to exceed” fan expectations. With an adjusted release now scheduled for 2019, we had the opportunity to check out the new preview build, which still feels very similar, albeit a far more fleshed-out version of the one we originally played at the end of 2017.

So, what exactly has been added to Code Vein? The first time we saw the game, we were unleashed into a strange world, tasked with defeating almost every other living thing that we encountered, excluding our AI companion. Over a year on, Code Vein’s world is now accompanied by a short tutorial to explain some of the combat systems, a detailed story that breaks up the action with lengthy cutscenes that provide far more context, and two additional builds for your character to switch between. There’s also the all important character customisation menu, though you may want to watch our video about that on YouTube to see every little variable you can adjust.

The tutorial at the beginning of the game explains that you are an immortal creature known as a Revenant. Each Revenant typically only has one set of abilities (known as a blood code), but your character is special because they can change their blood code at will. You start with the Fighter blood code which plays much like a standard Dark Souls character, but you also have the option of choosing between the Ranger (healer) and Caster (mage) blood codes. Unlike most RPGs, you cannot choose where your stats are distributed upon levelling up. Each blood code has its own set build that you cannot deviate from, meaning you are unable to create a hybrid of your favourite blood codes. If you want to use a two handed weapon while sporting a Ranger build, this won’t be possible as Rangers are not built to handle heavy weaponry.

Every blood code comes with a unique set of active and passive Gifts. Activating these Gifts requires a special blood called ichor. The only way of acquiring ichor is by killing Revenants who have turned into monsters, also known as the Lost. Your character is equipped with a Blood Veil, a tool designed to drain the ichor from enemies to power your abilities. The Blood Veil might not sound useful when using a melee only build as you won’t need ichor anywhere near as often as a Caster, but it can be used as a finisher when you’ve built up your Focus Gauge during combat.

Judging by what we’ve already had to say about the game, you may already be able to tell that Code Vein’s story is utter nonsense. Before you leave the tutorial area, you are told to awaken and go save the world… not too much pressure, then. To keep the overall concept brief: a mysterious red mist is turning people into revenants, beings that require blood beads to sustain themselves. Without blood beads, the revenants will turn into the Lost. There aren’t many blood beads left in the world, fortunately your character can bring dried bloodsprings back to life, allowing these springs to produce blood beads. For whatever reason, this is enough to make people believe you can restore the world to what it once was. Again, it’s all utter nonsense.

As we mentioned before, you are not entirely alone and will often venture away from the hidden society of Revenants with a companion. Previously, you could choose a companion to fight alongside you, and while they had a few combat styles to choose from, the companion would only ever serve as an AI helper that could also resurrect you if you happened to die in battle. While this proved to be useful in boss fights, traversing the world with a companion in a game that didn’t support co-op play felt redundant. Thankfully, the developer has changed their mind and has now included co-op support, although we are still unsure how this works exactly as you’ll fight with different companions as you progress and at times, won’t have a companion present at all.

A glaring difference between this preview build and the previous one is the difficulty. While both demos exhibit the same area in the game, the more recent build feels a lot easier than the first one. Previously, we heavily depended on our companion to share their health and keep us alive during enemy encounters, though they feel far less useful now. While these companions are designed to support you, there is no way to set a task for them or direct them towards an enemy to begin a fight. This is extremely frustrating when playing as the Caster build as you need someone to act as a tank during combat. Without the option to command your companion, you are forced to initiate combat first before attempting to fall back and hope your companion has caught the enemy’s attention.

Considering the game has been built with the companion system in mind, we expected the system to be much more sophisticated than it is. That said, with the inclusion of online co-op support, we imagine that the optimal way to play is with a friend, who should serve as a far superior companion. Unfortunately, we have not been able to test the extent of the co-op features, although with the AI companions now feeling far less helpful, playing with a friend appears to be the only viable option.

Depending on which build and weapons you opt for, the demo area is a relatively comfortable arena, despite the barebones tutorial you’re briefly guided through on arrival. While the tutorial does a sufficient job on explaining the basics, more advanced mechanics are overlooked. For example, your character has a Focus Gauge that builds as you fight which, when filled, enables you to perform special combos. In addition, enemies simultaneously build their Focus Gauge, meaning that they can also execute stronger combos. The Focus Gauge and the combo attacks seem as though they’re integral in fighting more challenging enemies, yet the game only briefly acknowledges them once, while you’re exploring one of the early areas.

One of our complaints from the first preview outlined how poor Code Vein’s performance was on the original PlayStation 4. Back in 2017, the game attempted to run at a locked 30FPS but the frame rate would drop constantly due to the effects on the screen after killing an enemy. We had the chance to play the game using a PlayStation 4 Pro which certainly helped the frame rate, though it still isn’t as good as we would’ve hoped. Playing Code Vein on a PS4 Pro changed the target frame rate to 60FPS, though the performance dipped back down to 30FPS and below during combat. As this was only a demo build, there was no quality options to help with the inconsistent frame rate. Let’s hope this is an added feature when the game does finally release later this year.

Code Vein’s story is indisputably deeper than before and while a number of improvements have certainly had a positive impact on the overall product, we’re still not entirely convinced by it. While the story is detailed, it’s convoluted and often detracts from the fun, action-heavy moments in the game. Lengthy cutscenes near the beginning of the demo left us feeling quite impatient and while there are a few occasions where the story is explained more simply, its very easy to lose interest.

As we mentioned earlier, Code Vein’s release was originally postponed so that the developer could refine the gameplay, yet from what we’ve seen, the combat, enemies and environment have changed very little. This is somewhat disappointing as it is quite difficult to pick out striking visual differences between the two builds. Character customisation and the inclusion of a story are noticeable additions, as well as the adjusted character builds and co-op support, although the core aspects of the game feel the same. The new build still feels very familiar and sadly hasn’t succeeded in rekindling our excitement for Code Vein’s release later on this year.

Be sure to check out the videos we’ve uploaded from the Code Vein event on our YouTube channel. From there you can see how the character customisation system works, one hour of gameplay, and this very preview in video form.