Bandai Namco invited speculation and comparisons to Dark Souls when its announcement trailer for Code Vein featured the words “Prepare to Dine”. It was a vampiric play on Dark Souls’ “Prepare to Die” tagline.
At first we weren’t sure if From Software would be behind this new project. Then we found out was from the God Eater team, which makes Bandai Namco a bunch of tricksy little hobbitses. Judging from the (very early) playable version at EB Expo, that’s exactly what it feels like — another studio imitating Dark Souls.
I'm getting vibes of Souls, Bloodborne, and… Death Note? Dine could mean… Vampires? Hopefully not Slashy Souls 2 https://t.co/SAyKOSr1gt
— Jeremy Ray (@TheJunglist) April 13, 2017
But while everyone else follows the laser dot and makes connections to the Miyazaki masterpiece, what stands out to a Souls veteran are the differences.
Those small, incredibly meaningful differences.
Not the Sparkly Kind of Vampire
There wasn’t any storytelling to speak of during the demo, but the dark cave we were in set a suitably grim atmosphere.
Dark, cloaked man-beasts were the typical sword fodder, while hulking, fleshy behemoths crouched in corners feasting on God-knows-what.
The occasional shiny, lootable object or chest would lure you into passageways where conscious slimes would drop from the ceiling and start attacking you.
Moving through these rock passages, the dressings and details were a bit light, but there was no shortage of blood. Spilt blood clearly plays a central theme lore-wise, and that comes through in the combat as well.
There was also a companion travelling with the protagonist which we know very little about. It was more harm than good when aggroing enemies with projectiles, but was invaluable when sharing aggro with the boss. More on that later.
Curiously, when we teleported to a boss arena later on, the environment completely changed. Not only were we outside of the demo’s cave, it looked like a modern day construction site. Crumbling concrete with exposed metal girders surrounded us. Could Code Vein involve time travel? Were we actually in modern day the whole time?
After just a few minutes of watching it played, it quickly becomes clear this is an easier game.
Instead of being forced into a reactive state during combat, players would run up to the next enemy they’d see and spam Light Attack until they were victorious.
One heavy attack or two light attacks was enough to stagger basic enemies, with no diminishing returns.
The controls are replicated from Soulsborne games, and there are similar movesets, but it’s as if the underlying numbers are tweaked for ease. The parry window is extremely wide, sneezing will break an enemy’s poise, and it wasn’t necessary to keep an eye on the stamina bar at all.
Despite all that, I’m hopeful. It was easy, but it controlled well and it worked. These are all numbers that can be changed, and there’s plenty of time for Code Vein to find the right balance and feel.
Animations are where a lot of Souls wannabes fall short.
Necropolis copied the Book of Souls word for word but didn’t come close to nailing the formula. Somehow, ambitious projects like Dead Cells or the husband & wife effort Salt & Sanctuary get it more right, even as (and perhaps because) they add their own spice into the mix.
In this area, Code Vein had some positive signs.
The weight of a weapon as it winds up slowly and then snaps towards its target is important. Not just for the look and feel, but also for the attack timings you need to keep in your head. The time in your swing before your attack becomes “active” plays a big part in how you approach combat situations.
Code Vein does a decent enough job of animating with weight. You do really feel the inertia of that massive greatsword as your tiny vampiric frame flails it about. All of the weapons we saw were of the slashing variety, so we didn’t see too much in terms of stabbing or bludgeoning.
This was an encouraging part of the experience, though. It’s not on par with the game it compares itself with, but for an early build, the player animations were quite competent.
One important aspect was missing though, and that is the subtle telegraphing deceptions from enemies.
In Dark Souls, the difference between a troll winding up its club swing at a 90 degree angle as opposed to a 95 degree angle was massive. The first might be a basic swing, and the second might be a three-hit combo. Or worse, a super-fast suckerpunch.
It’s an important part of the formula in a game demanding you learn enemy attack patterns, and Code Vein had none of it.
That is, until we came up against the first boss…
How to Tell a Mimic
For the purposes of the demo, we were able to warp from the starting bonfire to a boss fight. A dark knight twice the size of the player character, this boss had wide, sweeping sword strikes and a lighting-fast thrust attack reminiscent of Ornstein.
This was the first and only time enemy attacks displayed nuanced telegraphing.
One of the boss’s spin attacks came around three times, which is quite hard to time if you’re rolling away. If you only roll once, it’s very likely to hit you the next time it comes around.
There was another attack which was massively encouraging to see, in which the boss swung its sword to its right, and its cape then reached around for a sneaky second hit. Even after seeing the attack a few times before, it was very tempting to roll to the right, and start digging in.
It’s that moment of “Oh damn, I forgot that second sneaky bit is coming” that Dark Souls is so good at. The kind of move that makes you slap your forehead and throw the controller because you knew you should’ve known better.
All of that said, it was still considerably easier and I was able to down the boss on the 2nd try. That’s not boasting — it’s just information a Souls player needs to know. If you’re well acquainted with the Miyazaki system, you’re going to find this easy.
There’s still a chance the difficulty will be cranked up quite a bit. It’s a good time to reiterate this was a very early build. But it’s also possible that just as roguelikes led to roguelites, perhaps this is the natural evolution into the “Soulslite” genre. Time will tell.