Bandai-Namco’s upcoming action-RPG “Code Vein” makes no real effort to hide its obvious inspiration. At first, it comes off as “anime Dark Souls,” emphasis on the anime, complete with a brooding ashen-haired antihero whacking cartoonish demons with an impossibly-huge sword. And, to be clear, the winning die-forever formula is replicated here to a frankly shameless extent: the series’ trademark life-sustaining bonfires are now otherworldly plants called ‘Mistle,’ which restock your limited healing charges at the price of respawning every enemy in the level, and even garden-variety ghouls can wipe out a third of your health with an sudden swipe. But like the oni-slaying “Nioh” and the limb-lopping “Surge” before it, “Code Vein” has a few tricks behind its billowing veil that separate it from the pack of Souls-imitators lurking in the shadows.
In “Dark Souls” many players carved their way through the gloomy majesty of the Undead Burg by cloistering themselves behind a giant shield and turtling their way to victory. Such a defensive approach produces far different results in Bandai Namco’s decayed world – its enemies express their wrath through quick, prodding combos that quickly overwhelm your guard, forcing you to rely on the dodge-and-slash routine familiar to veterans of the genre. Luckily, your AI companion – who always follows in your tracks, seemingly if you want them to or not – can help take some of that pressure off, drawing the enemy’s focus while you cower and heal in a nearby corner.
While “Vein” is undoubtedly a hardcore RPG, it delights in providing the player with multiple paths to deal with its punishing combat. For example, instead of locking your character into a specific build that you must painstakingly construct yourself, you can simply slip into an archetype on-the-fly that best suits your playstyle, called “Blood Codes.” Though I first opted to try out the agile Assassin, I eventually switched to the Brawler when I discovered that it allowed me to wield an even more ridiculous anime-greatsword that could wipe out my weaker foes in just two or three hits. Your Blood Code doesn’t just shift some numbers around on your stat sheet – it also determines what all-powerful vampiric ‘Gifts” you have access to, which often make the difference between an overwhelming victory or a crushing defeat.
These Gifts are essentially Bandai-Namco’s take on magic – you sacrifice some of your enemy’s blood, called “Ichor,” to throw a powerful projectile, or temporarily boost your attack power. “Ichor” is a discrete resource, like your XP or vitality, and there are a few ways to get it back: you can perform parry and riposte or backstab, or you can pull off an unwieldy claw attack called a “Drain” that sucks some essence out of your unlucky victim, though I found it difficult to land on any enemy that was actually aware of my presence; instead, I relied on good, old-fashioned chain backstabbing to restore my vamp juice. Once I got the hang of tapping my Gifts and pumping my enemies for Ichor, I began to fathom the unique tactical flavor that ‘Vein’ brings to the “Souls” blueprint, one that gives you options to deal with particularly tough enemies besides painstakingly memorizing their entire moveset roll-for-roll. When the boss at the end of the demo began to swirl around again and again, covering the entire arena in tendrils of dark energy, I ran away and started pelting him with Ichor-balls – perhaps not the most dignified strategy, but certainly better than succumbing to his assault.
Overall, “Code Vein” didn’t set my heart aflame, but it provides a crunchy take on a well-regarded micro-genre that still hasn’t quite reached the point of absolute saturation. For those who are tired of wearing a path from the bonfire to the eldritch monstrosity as you fall to his one-hit KO for the thirtieth time, perhaps “Vein” might come off as a bit – if you’ll pardon the pun – soulless. But, for those with a soft spot for enormous eyes and baroque, vampiric apocalypses, this is one imitator worth paying attention to come September 27th, when it releases worldwide.