Platforms: PC (reviewed) | XBLA version TBA
Developer: Neocore Games
Suggesting that The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing shares similarities with Diablo would be like saying that La Tour Eiffel looks a bit familiar after a trip to Blackpool. It's a click-heavy isometric action RPG with an emphasis on combat and loot. Health and mana are represented by red and blue gauges. You'll click on enemies to attack them, hold shift to deal damage without moving, identify items and assign skill points... in the game, not Blackpool Tower. Forget that analogy now. There's nothing wrong with taking inspiration from a good place, but at first glance, the word 'clone' and other slightly less charitable phrases spring dangerously to mind.
Look a little deeper, however, and you'll discover a game that breaks the mold in a number of exciting ways. The studio behind the King Arthur series haven't just honed the loot grinding mechanics to an enjoyable tee, rather they've used it to support a rip-roaring, rollicking adventure with an upbeat tone, likeable characters and truly excellent combat. All for £11.99.
That low price point belies what promises to be a very divisive approach to game length and replayability, but in terms of fun/£, Neocore's ARPG effort is an absolute belter.
Players assume the role of the legendary floppy hat-wearing vampire hunter Van Helsing, who descends into the mysterious country of Borgovia alongside his ghostly servant Katarina. Throughout the course of 10-12 hours, the supernatural pest control specialists hunt their deadly quarry in a realm where steampunk science and magic coexist, battling the forces of darkness as they threaten to overrun an unsuspecting world. This could have been the foundation for a grim, gritty and frankly depressing experience, but thankfully the Incredible Adventures turns out to be an complete and utter romp.
Voice acting is firmly on the hammy side of competent, but it lends the game a charming action movie feel, a bombastic yarn ripped straight out of a gleefully enjoyable summer blockbuster. Strong scripting and some witty back and forth banter between Van Helsing and Katarina make for a intensely likeable pair of protagonists, while stock characters boast some humorous dialogue of their own. A host of cheeky hidden references and Easter Eggs help to create a fun and lighthearted atmosphere, while the breezy yet surprisingly compelling storyline grants the conveyor belt of enemies, loot and experience a much-needed sense of context that we often don't often see from the genre.
In terms of level design, Van Helsing offers some sprawling and dense maps to explore; stuffed full of dangerous mobs and optional subquests to attempt or ignore. Whether venturing through thick forests or scampering over the rooftops of a gothic city, you'll battle some appropriately over the top beasties based on folk mythology, from werewolves to mechanised clockwork soldiers and demons from beyond the pale. Capable 3D visuals portray the action with a pleasing level of detail and smooth animations, especially if you're able to run it on maximum whack. Impressively, Neocore have clearly thought about how mobs enter the map as opposed to simply teleporting them in, as evidenced by the telltale rustling of pines followed by a surge of new beasties into the foreground during the forest sections.
Combat is accessible ARPG fare, in that you'll click to move and attack, heal with potions, trigger town portals and other traditional genre conventions. All the ARPG tropes are pleasant and correct, but a few intelligent tweaks make for a fresh take on the age-old formula. Van Helsing can instantly switch between sword and guns with a single press of the 'R' key, allowing you to mix and match your engagement range to suit the flow of the battle. Since enemies pack a number of different abilities and often attack in mixed groups of heavy melee tanks and ranged snipers, you'll need to tailor your tactics appropriately, allowing a robust selection of (respec-friendly) skill trees to come into play.
Numerous unlockable skills can add elemental damage and debuffs to our broadswords and boomsticks, each of which can be upgraded further with powerups by wisely investing our hard-earned skill points. These temporary modifiers (from AoE damage to health leeching other more esoteric effects) can be activated by spending 'Rage,' a limited resource generated by successful attacks, letting players choose exactly which abilities to trigger using the number keys. Deciding whether to blow a huge chunk of Rage to augment all of your skills, or just choosing a few situational powerups to suit the task at hand, adds another level of depth without becoming inaccessible or overwhelming.
Of course, this being a loot grinder, you'll naturally receive a steady stream of new gear to equip, sell or enhance with
The net result of these familiar yet fresh mechanics is a game that allows you to choose your level of depth and engagement. If you want to equip some straightforward skills and click away, you can do so. More advanced players, however, will find their fingers skittering over the keyboard to equip specific power-ups, change Katarina's AI state and constantly switch between weapon sets, especially when pushed on the higher difficulty settings. It's an absolute blast that's as involved as you want it to be, and crucially, it's always fun.
Katarina deserves special mention as a truly excellent companion. Halfway between Torchlight's pet and Diablo's hirelings, she's both a skilled fighter and a convenient loot bank to store unwanted items. Separate inventory and skill trees let you customise your incorporeal servant for both heavy melee, ranged combat and support (including some neat passive buffs that affect Van Helsing himself), and her rules of engagement can be changed on the fly. Coupled with her acerbic dialogue and quick wit, Kat is by far one of the most memorable and capable support characters we've seen in an ARPG to date.
Van Helsing has some brief tower defence sections. Sorry for being so blunt, but I wanted to rip the plaster straight off, so to speak. However, I'm thrilled to report that they're competent, work well with the existing mechanics and feel like an enjoyable change of pace rather than a low point. Defending your Hunter's Lair (a hub from which you can access merchants and accept optional quests) from hordes of attackers adds a neat tactical gameplay element into the mix, and makes the fame system more relevant since it modifies the chance of you being assaulted in the first place.
It's high time, however, that we discussed what will likely be Van Helsing's most controversial sticking point. There's no easy way to write this, so here goes in the least tactful way possible:
Enemies do not respawn, and there's no end-game content whatsoever. Not even a New Game + mode. Once you're done, you're done.
This isn't a design flaw, rather, it's a purposeful design decision. Neocore Games wanted to create a a solid story that lasts for 12 hours and can be replayed at higher difficulties, and succeed in doing so. XP balance and challenge curve are finely-honed, meaning that you'll rarely wish that you could indulge in some extra grind. However, established genre fans will have to accept this now to avoid some serious disappointment once the credits roll. For the price, it's difficult to complain, and we understand that Neocore plan to create future episodes that will let you transfer characters over.
That said, I wouldn't complain too loudly if a New Game + mode was patched in.
It's possible to get some extra experience by creating a Steam Cloud-based multiplayer character, though, which brings us nicely onto the cooperative options. Day-one adopters discovered numerous issues with Van Helsing's cooperative multiplayer, in that players were frequently disconnected from the host. Some frenzied patching has made the experience more stable, but personally, I'm not convinced that multiplayer is anything more than a fun optional extra here. Sure, running around with three extra Helsings and Katarinas might make for some hilariously hectic encounters, not to mention a blessing on the hardest difficulty setting, but it doesn't really make sense in this story-driven game. Each player is exactly the same character with the same motivations, and often using identical attacks, which is entirely nonsensical in context. Plus, you're probably better off staying solo for your first playthrough so you don't burn through the content too quickly.
At the end of the day, multiplayer is there if you want it - and it appears to work properly now too.
- Witty dialogue, great characters and upbeat atmosphere
- Accessible combat packs surprising depth, versatile skill and Rage system
- Solid action RPG gameplay feels fresh and relevant
- Satisfying length (with plenty of optional quests and multiple difficulty modes), great value for money
- Lack of New Game + and endgame content will enrage genre aficionados
- Combat can lack impact and weight
- Co-op still has a few issues, feels unnecessary on all but the harder difficulties
The Short Version: The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing is a blast while it lasts, a rollicking romp with enjoyable combat and solid Diablo-esque mechanics. Genre purists will balk at its 10-12 hour length and lack of endgame, but for a generous £11.99, it's a great start for what could be an outstanding ARPG series.
I'd take a rip-roaring adventure over an item-hunting slog any day.