Code Vein is a surprisingly fun Souls-like with giant anime swords

Here's what I can tell you about Code Vein. It is very much a Souls game, with parrying, backstabs, and an obnoxiously rejiggered button layout. On the PS4 controller, light attacks on square and heavy attacks on triangle might be standard for an action game, but my Souls muscle memory can't stand it. Code Vein is also extremely anime.

I was playing a petite, spiky-haired vampire(?) dude who was brandishing a sword that was… quite literally twice his size. Big enough to make Cloud's sword feel insecure, is what I'm saying. It's also very much a Japanese game, in the sense that when I paused to evaluate what the eight items and powers on my quick-select bar actually did, I was assaulted with a mess of inscrutable status effects, numbers and off-kilter translations. I almost had a panic attack, right there on the spot, in Bandai Namco's E3 press area.

But here's the other thing about Code Vein: it works. I did not play nearly enough to get to the finer points of its combat, or its story beats, or its overall big-picture flow, but I have to admit that Namco has cooked up a totally serviceable Souls clone. The narrative has something to do with a cataclysm that has left the world in a state of alien, post-apocalyptic decay, which means that you need to cut through a legion of gas-masked bogeyman standing between you and the next bonfire. Except they're called "mistles" in this game.

Swords.

It's sort of like having Solaire or Siegward with you at all times.

Honestly, there's something kind of funny about using that gigantic anime sword with careful, measured swings that seems completely counterintuitive when you consider every other game in history featuring giant anime swords. The combat here is a tad faster than vanilla Dark Souls, but slower than Bloodborne's lightning-fast dodges. As in either of those games, button mashing without paying attention to enemy attacks is a sure way to get wrecked.

You're still doing all the stuff you'd expect: managing stamina, rolling out of the way of well-telegraphed attacks, downing health potions and refilling your supply the next time you rest. But there are some smart wrinkles here, too. You're accompanied by a fellow anime vampire, who will do modest damage to the enemies you meet, and more importantly, distract them from your character. It's sort of like having Solaire or Siegward with you at all times.

The Namco rep at my demo told me that there are a variety of different partners you can bring into battle, each with their own specific skills, and that at launch, you'll be able to play through Code Vein's campaign co-op with a friend, which sounds like a great way to undercut the nonstop dreariness.

There are also these things called Blood Codes, which allow you to switch your character's stat sheet on the fly. That means when you pick up a new, slightly heavier Funimation-ass weapon, you won't have to spend the rest of the game eyeing it from afar in your inventory because you decided to dump points into dexterity instead of strength. Nope! Just switch your build, and you're off to the races.

It's a more traditional action game approach to combat, like switching styles in Devil May Cry. If you're a hardcore RPG lifer, maybe you'll think that's too casual—how can you retcon your own character! Gary Gygax didn't die for this!—but I love that change. Life is better when respeccing is easier.

Towards the end of my demo I noticed that when I rested at a mistle, I had a button in my menu that simply said "Teleport to boss." I pressed it, and suddenly I was facing off with some sort of demonic pole dancer with a nasty AOE blitz. I died. Quickly.

But still, it was really nice to know I could go back whenever I wanted. I don't know exactly how that teleport will work in the full game—presumably you'll have to reach a boss once before you can teleport to it—but if Code Vein allows you to skip the corpse runs inherent in From Software's boss encounters, that is a goddamn revelation. I still have nightmares about having to walk all the way through Central Yharnam just so Father Gascoigne could rip me in two again. To me, that gauntlet always the part of Souls games that seemed needlessly abusive, and I'm glad that Namco seem to agree.

Of course, Dark Souls is a classic for its exploration, its overwhelmingly gloomy tone, its length, its way of hiding these incredible, ultra-specific questlines, factions, and easter eggs out of plain sight in ways that made Lordran feel impossibly alive. That is obviously a tall order, and it is far too soon to say if these vampire kids can approach those heights.

But Namco clearly has the basics down. Code Vein is still that anime Dark Souls game, but after playing it, I mostly mean that as a compliment. It's out September 28 on Steam.