For the first few hours of Code Vein, you don’t really play anything at all. No, instead you create your character. With one of the most robust character creators we’ve seen since City of Heroes was a thing, Code Vein lures your inner weeb into a chocolate factory of choice and customisation. Marry this with its anime gothic horror aesthetic and Code Vein positively exudes style. No wonder the developers strategically placed perching spots at Home Base where your character poses for the camera.

The formula for this game has been well covered prior to launch, but, forgive us for saying so, it’s a bit like Dark Souls and Bloodborne. We just needed to get that out of the way. This means you have a similar interlocking level design, resurrection and penalty system, and, to some extent, difficulty. However, Code Vein brings along some unique combat elements and increased focus on narrative and character design, and generally speaking, is a touch more accessible.

The character creator is indicative of intent. Code Vein is all about choice: how you look, how you play, what you wield. With all of these points, you’re not tied down to what you choose at the outset – your character’s body stays the same as it does at “birth”, but you can create as many outfits as you like, or even change their hair and accessories and alter between them at will. You can switch your combat role on a whim, and you’re able to transition between weapon types without the pitfalls of lacking the required experience.

This is a key differentiator to some of Code Vein’s forebears. Your character is able to switch blood codes at any time, and their stats and gifts (skills) alter accordingly. For instance, the Fighter blood code is a good strong and dexterous all-rounder, while the Caster is less hardy but benefits from a high ichor count which aids the use of gifts. Your character can become proficient with gifts the more they use them, and when they do, they can be used at any time regardless of your chosen blood code. This encourages you to switch regularly between them and experiment. There are countless blood codes, many of which are shared by your comrades and acquaintances, with more of their gifts unlocking the more you get to know them. So, this means there’s an element of Persona in here, too, where the more you get to know your friends, the more options you have in combat.

The combat therefore has a lot of potential and freedom. However, this system has its weaknesses. The game has to accommodate for your experimentation which means you don’t encounter the same level of balance and difficulty you might expect in other titles of its ilk. Aside from the occasional enemy, we didn’t find Code Vein overly difficult in general exploration, but some of the boss fights can repeatedly punish you if you enter the fray without consideration. The thing is, we found this challenge can often be caused by your preparation and choice of blood code rather than your level of skill, which means we spent a great deal of time dying, resurrecting, switching blood codes, and then trying again. In later bosses, the stat differences between each role is significant enough that using the wrong one can be enough to make you fail, no matter how good you’ve gotten at the game. We also think the feedback in combat is slightly soft; it’s just a little bit too floaty to feel like your well-timed dodge was effective.

There’s a finely poised balance to be met here between customisation and skill, but Code Vein potentially just misses the mark. Overcoming the difficulty is one of the most rewarding elements of a game such as this, but when you succeed here, it’s watered down – as though it wasn’t your skill that really made the difference. It’s worth noting, however, that many players will be happier with this setup, especially those who bounced off the difficulty of something like Nioh or Bloodborne. But don’t think this makes the game easy, there’s still a challenge here.

Other elements also make Code Vein a more welcoming experience. You almost always have a companion by your side. Each of your comrades at Home Base have their own styles, strengths, weaknesses, and extra powerful communal gifts. Simply having someone by your side makes the game more approachable, especially if you let them tank enemies while you keep your distance. Should you die, you drop all your haze – this game’s primary currency, which is used for levelling up, learning new gifts, and buying just about anything. As is now the custom, you can get it all back if you return to where you died in one piece. Only here we have another option: head to the communal hot spring and you can recover half of your haze in exchange for permanently losing the other half.

All in all, it makes for a more approachable title. It does this, however, in exchange for the sense of accomplishment you might otherwise have attained. In Code Vein, you never truly feel alone, with your teammates shouting out repeated lines like Donald Trump’s “fake news” isn’t going out of fashion any time soon. And you can teleport back to Home Base at any time from any mistle (this game’s version of bonfires or lanterns). This takes a load off. Home Base is littered with cute characters, record players, shops, and a bar. Struggling with a boss? No problem, we’ll just go and take a bath first.

This all ties nicely into its aesthetic, of course, but it does take away some of the tension that its difficult moments create. To some players, this might be a godsend; others might feel it undermines what makes this style of action so good, what makes the standard bearer in the genre so utterly compelling. But let’s look at it on its own merits: this is an interesting take on the genre and it feels like a natural progression for the traditional Japanese RPG. With its story and character, it feels like a darker version of a Tales game, but coupled with a more involved combat system that has a lot of potential. We think JRPG fans will find a lot to like here.

Conclusion

Code Vein is a stylish JRPG with an interesting combat system that just falls short in a few areas. Its inspirations are clearly worn on its sleeve, but it brings enough to the table to stand out on its own. This title has promise, and we think the developer could iron it out into a worthy franchise if it’s given the chance to make future instalments.