Difficulty has always been a barrier for “Dark Souls.” The franchise’s intimidating reputation is a turn-off for gamers who don’t see the joy in “getting good.” That’s a shame really because the series shines once players shatter those challenging roadblocks.
The game reveals its depth and transforms players as they learn the values of patience and persistence. Although Bandai Namco’s latest project, “Code Vein,” has a “Dark Souls”-type vibe, the developer tweaks the formula to make it more approachable. The team removes the rigidness of the systems and mitigates the punishing aspects of the modern classic.
All those changes give “Code Vein” a distinct identity that makes it easier to step into its grim post-apocalyptic world. The campaign takes place after the Great Collapse, a disaster spurred by enormous thorns that ripped apart the earth. Horrors emerged from the event and humanity had to create vampire-like beings called Revenants to combat them. They’re essentially dead people who have been resurrected via a parasite.
Revenants have special abilities and can revive from mortal wounds, but that power comes at a cost: The sci-fi vampires lose their memories and also need blood to survive otherwise they’ll devolve into monsters called the Lost. Amid this bleak environment, players take on the role of a special revenant who has the ability to absorb the talents of other vampires while also clearing the miasma poisoning the world.
The revenant joins up with a ragtag group that is trying to make the fractured world a better place. That involves venturing into dungeons and eliminating the miasma that limits travel and defeating the Lost and Horrors that patrol it.
Compared to “Dark Souls,” the plot is straightforward as players delve into the mysteries of “Code Vein.” They’ll uncover the world’s rich history and the murky past of the protagonist and the companions. The partners who venture with players is a major departure and one that makes the game less lonely.
A partner eases the difficulty and helps players bond with the supporting cast. The companions revive players when they lose their health and they add a dose of damage to tough boss fights. It makes the campaign manageable though “Code Vein” can still be difficult. Bosses still hit hard, and those foolish enough to button mash will quickly be frustrated.
The beauty in “Code Vein” is that it lets players adapt quickly to their situations. Because players can change the protagonist’s class, they can switch roles depending on the enemy. In one fight, melee attacks would open up players to poison, so instead, attacking from a distance would be more effective. Other times, players will discover it’s better to dodge a heavy-hitting boss rather than go toe to toe with it. They may even change their class to work better with a partner.
“Code Vein” offers plenty of opportunities to experiment with loadouts. Players can figure out which abilities work best with a class and companion. The number of options is overwhelming at first, but after venturing through a few dungeons, players will get a handle on what works best.
The only issue is that combat feels too cumbersome at times. Part of that comes from the complexity of the system, which includes light and heavy attacks on top of a parry and block moves. On top of that, players have to deal with a drain button that lets them gain Ichor, which is vital to using powers, and a focus meter that empowers the protagonist and opens up a launching move.
It’s a lot to take in and players will find some moves superfluous in the heat of combat. At times, players can luck into a drain attack or their partner can carry them to victory. This removes the white-knuckle tension of boss fights, but it’s a sacrifice “Code Vein” makes to push a feeling of collaboration and teamwork in the campaign.
That feeling of fellowship shows up in the partner banter as players explore the labyrinthine level design. They’ll call out dangerous areas and offer advice in others. The developers succeed in giving players zones that requires different tactics. Dodging won’t be smart along narrow cliff faces but it is more acceptable in wide-open spaces. Other times they’re presented with big areas but they’re shrouded in fog raising the specter of ambushes. For the most part, the maps are smartly designed and borrow much from the intertwining layout of “Dark Souls.”
Although “Code Vein” borrows heavily from the genre-defining classic, the project does a lot to push a distinct identity. It’s a perfect title for those curious about “Dark Souls” but didn’t want to deal with the frustrating gameplay. “Code Vein” is more accommodating and features story with enough intrigue and a core mystery will keep players venturing into its challenging depths.
3 stars out of four
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
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