It’s got soul but it’s not a Dark Soul.

It’s easy to forget about Bandai Namco’s Code Vein at times. The game was delayed last year, with the early build that Viki and I played being pulled from Gamescom and dealt a murky 2019 release window rather than anything mildly specific. I don’t think it’s ever got to the point where we thought we’d never see the bloodsucking action of Code Vein again and sure enough, Namco recently showed off a new build of the game. We got a fair few hours to play around with it, showing off some gameplay that finds a pleasantly surprising middle ground between the challenge of Dark Souls without feeling like too much of a slog.

You’ll still die and the game doesn’t seem too bothered with however far you’ve got in any said dungeon or sprawling cave system, like the one I played through. And it’s clear to see where Code Vein takes its foundations of surviving from the likes of Dark Souls. Small rooted plants that you wake up are pretty much the Bonfires of the game, and you use these vibrant little sprigs as checkpoints, havens to level up, and perhaps most importantly, gain new skills… wait, no, the checkpoint part is probably most important.

It’s important because combat is pretty much the only pastime the survivors of Code Vein’s purgatory-esque world have at their disposal. We played through a mission that had us going out to collect tasty treats called Blood Beads (mmm, you can really taste the iron!) and as you’d expect, the journey was littered with ferocious demons, which the game calls The Lost, that are trying to murder you. Thankfully, Code Vein has an arsenal of comically oversized weapons to help you when The Lost come a’calling; I quickly found that I favoured the sword during my time with the game, giving way to quickfire combos that you can finish with a heavy swing in combat that feels like a liberated Bloodborne as you tear through one, then two, then three demons. If swords aren’t quite your thing, the game also had a collection of gigantic Battle Axes, Bayonets, and even makeshift weapons like pipes and big ol’ chunks of concrete – though I don’t think those will get you too far.

If I’m making it sound like combat in Code Vein veers on being a bit of a breeze, it’s because it does feel that way at times; enemies might respawn every time you die, but it rarely feels like a colossal effort when you have to go through those same areas a second time. Your run-of-the-mill goons can be dispatched with a fair amount of ease, and while blocking and parrying is a part of the combat, it feels far more secondary to basic dodging. Even the boss fight I played through wasn’t too much of an issue thanks to the game’s companion system. It seems that the majority of missions will have you teaming up with a handy AI friend, equipped with their own abilities and fairly competent when it comes to reviving you; the system meant that I was able to bob in and out of the boss fight, picking my moments to stab and slash at the heaving beast all while it focused its go-getting murderous attitude on my companion.

Mistles work in a similar way to Dark Souls’ bonfires.

It’s a nice change of pace that Code Vein offers up in its combat; the Souls-like (sorry) genre has been associated with mind-mushing difficulty, especially when it comes to boss fights, so it’s a welcomed sight to be able to take down one of Code Vein’s bosses on my first go. I was left with a bit of a high after smashing up the boss, and was told that I could go and explore somewhere called “The Depths,” where, I quote, the “proper boss,” was waiting. Hopefully, some of you can see where this is going.

Code Vein might offer a more casual take on combat at times, but it can’t be an absolute bastard-face when it wants to as well. That’s something I quickly learnt during my time in The Depths, an area that tasked me with finding three keys to open a massive door and suffice to say, I never opened that door. What I did do though was get annihilated repeatedly by those same run-of-the-mill demons I’d cut through with ease before. It seems that areas like The Depths, which look as if they’ll be optional areas, are your go-to places if you want a challenge. It feels like the areas like The Depths is Code Vein’s way of trying to make everyone happy, inviting new players to try out a world that’s not so devastatingly cruel as Dark Souls’ one, while also catering to those of you who, for some reason, go out of your way to punish yourselves. It’s impossible to say whether this attempt to satisfy everyone will work but, based on what I saw, it’s a decent balance that the game has struck.

The combat you use in the game is tied to the different classes available. It’s not a system where you’ll be stuck with whichever class you pick at the start. Instead, you can switch between classes at will by changing your “Blood Core,” with classes that favour attack-minded players, while another turns you into something close to a Tank with a handful of defensive buffs and skills for you to use, and the Ranger class that’s all about ranged attacks which include, erm, shooting blood at monsters. It’s nothing shockingly new for an ARPG, but Code Vein’s class system does have an ace up its sleeve with the way it blurs these classes; the skills that are tied to each class can be mastered and eventually used in other classes, meaning you can have a defensive-heavy fighter that’s rocking some ranged attacks, or an attack-focused class complete with some handy defensive buffs.

Though perhaps the biggest surprise for Code Vein was its plot, one that’s laid out clear as day rather than the smoldering wreckage of something that used to be a coherent plot, and is reliant on fans smooshing any clues they can find together in the hopes of creating a story. The world’s a bit of a mess, apparently, split into two groups, survivors and “The Lost.” The latter is the name given to the monsters that used to be humans and it’s why all the humans wear these stylish breather masks so as not to become part of the wandering demon horde. I’ll be honest, that’s the only part of the story I was left feeling confident about; Code Vein throws out some important plot piece in quickfire bursts during its opening moments and even though not all of it stuck, there are some cool ideas knocking around the game. Your character is able to absorb memories of some enemies, usually bosses, picking up a new skill but also getting a snapshot of the previous life of some monsters when they were still human. I can’t tell you whether Code Vein’s story is a good one or not, but it’s a story that you won’t have to go out of your way to piece together.

It feels like Code Vein has been threatening to release for ages, and while there have been delays, the rereleases of the Dark Souls trilogy and Sekiro’s arrival may have dulled the intrigue surrounding Code Vein somewhat, the time I had with the game has left me wanting more. At the very least, Code Vein looks like it could occupy a much needed space as a soft entry into the genre for new players; if there’s more to it than that, we’ll have to wait and find out.