We've known about Code Vein for a while now, a title from developer Project Vein that throws us into a dark and bloody world filled with vampires, and it wouldn't be remiss to say that it's attempting to emulate the appeal of Dark Souls (its tagline early on was 'Prepare to Dine', after all). When we played the game at a recent Paris event for Bandai Namco, then, we went in with high hopes and readied ourselves to be punished.
The demo we played was actually totally separate from the full game, as we learned from producer Keita Iizuka, and threw us in at the deep end... as if Souls-like games have a shallow end. As fans of From Software's action-RPGs, diving into Code Vein was like putting on a familiar pair of trousers - albeit an itchy and painful pair - as a lot of the content felt very familiar, except with subtle tweaks. Bonfires are now Mistle, for example, and heavy and light attacks are now on triangle and square rather than R2 and R1. These changes might jar with muscle memory, sure, but all in all it should feel very welcoming for Souls fans.
Our demo started us off in a very dark area without much context in terms of narrative. Our goal was to progress, kill things, die, and try again, so we got very little detail about the lore from our hands-on time. What we did get to see, however, was the world that Project Vein has crafted. The studio has cleverly interweaved the two differing styles - fantasy and post-apocalypse - but married them together in such a way where it feels like something fresh. Neither side contrasts with one another, and the fact that both are painted in such a dark and bleak way means that you never feel like you're moving distinctly from one side to the other; it always feels seamless and satisfying.
We started our time in Code Vein in a dingy cave, for example, but as we progressed and defeated the horrors in front of us, we moved into a collapsed building and eventually into the outside world, itself a crumbled metropolis. Even when the sun shone brightly outside, there was still this unmistakably heavy atmosphere of dread, especially since the only living things we could see were the monstrosities looking to have us for lunch. Even the outfits in the game are all either pitch black or blood red.
Level design is something that feels very much like Dark Souls as well, and we were told by Iizuka that the game takes place in various 'dungeons', meaning there's a linear path to follow, but with plenty of branching pathways and secrets to discover. As you'd expect with a game as unforgiving as this, if you're not careful you'll be punished mercilessly by the various traps and ghoulies lying around. For example, one time we found an interesting chest only to turn around and find that slime creatures had all dropped from the ceiling and cornered us. As with the Souls games, you learn from your mistakes and do a little better each time as you figure out who and what to avoid.
We have to say however that we felt the combat was a touch heavier than in the games Code Vein is drawing inspiration from. At times it felt a little frustrating as our character would spend just a touch too long in a rolling animation or getting up from a blow, and with the enemies as quick and deadly as they always are in these sorts of experiences, this can be the difference between life and death - victory and defeat. A little more refinement in this department wouldn't go amiss, but we should stress that this was only a small gripe, albeit one we noticed a few times.
While we were dodging and rolling and jabbing at our adversaries, we were also joined by an AI ally with a rifle, who proved very useful. At first, when she died quickly to an enemy, we were quick to criticise during our session, but we grew to realise that it's all about how you use her. If you run off and leave her to face the brunt of the enemies on her own she'll quickly die, and while this might seem like a fun idea for her to take the heat off you at first, it's all about balance. She can take the aggro for sure, but she's more effective doing damage from afar while you get up in enemy grills, and what's more is that she can even revive you using some of her own health if you get killed. With so many games having useless or frustrating AI companions, this one was a breath of fresh air and one we appreciated having our backs.
It's a shame we didn't get a little longer with the game in our hands-on, as we were greeted with a rather intimidating list of controls that we could use, but we spent the majority of our time just getting to grips with the basics of movement and light/heavy attacks. As we mentioned in our TGS hands-on, magic abilities are going to be vital in the main game, as will choosing your weapons right. We opted for a combination of a small sword that nicely balanced speed and damage, as well as a bayonet we had picked up that let us do damage from afar and pull enemies away from crowds. There are also horrendously oversized weapons as well, such as giant swords and a goliath sledgehammer, so there are options for those who prefer a meatier, slower alternative.
As one might also expect from such a game there are a combination of small(ish) grunts that you can disperse relatively easily, as well as bosses, and at the conclusion of the demo level, we got to meet one such boss for ourselves. This humanoid creature was some sort of knight with a ruthless spear, and we were brought back to Bloodborne more than anything when fighting it due to the quick pace we needed to maintain. Staying at a distance allowed him to use his running/teleporting attacks with devastating effect, so we had to constantly dodge towards and around him to stay under his feet, while our buddy shot at him and occasionally drew the heat away from us when we needed to heal. In this way we struggled to eventually defeat our foe, but not without the usual amount of cursing and sweating along the way.
We've mentioned From Software titles quite a lot in this preview, but with good reason. Once we stepped into the world Project Vein had created, we were immediately reminded of our times facing adversity in Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but this was more in terms of the combat and the structure than anything else. Make no mistake about it though, Project Vein has crafted a unique world of their own here, one with oppressive darkness and sleek style combining the gritty realism of the post-apocalyptic world with an extravagant anime-esque vampiric fantasy. It's stylish, slick, and a lot of fun, and we can't wait to dive into it again.