There are no vampires in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, well one, but he seems to keep his fangs away from you, and no crossbow stakes through the heart either. This is not the same man of Stoker's legend but instead his son. There is however a slew of monsters, bathed in strange mechanical augmentations, baying for blood. Returning to his homeland of Borgovia the young Van Helsing, along with his pet ghost Katarina, discover that the monsters of the city (supposedly pacified by his father) have erupted once more into violence. Van Helsing must battle his way through wave after vicious wave of these mysteriously machine-altered monsters to discover the cause of the war and, as is staple for such heroes, end it. This vibrant steampunk meets monster fantasy background sets the scene for the intense, if rather generic, action RPG gaming that follows.
There is a fine line between inspiration and clone in gaming and it is a line that developer Neocore Games tread very dangerously. With its floating ball of red health and blue mana anchored at the bottom of the screen the game instantly screams Diablo and the comparison becomes unavoidable as the familiarity of click happy battling is upon you. Numbers explode into the air as your sword (or bullet) slices through enemies and items galore litter the screen. The classic hallmarks of a genre that was once called Diablo-clones, until it became so bloated, are all there and while The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing does not strive to break conventions there are certainly elements it ameliorates. Yet there are also some areas it leaves sadly lacking.
The first issue raises its head almost instantly upon creating a character when you realise there is but one single hero to play. Since the game is about Van Helsing’s adventures you obviously have to play this central character, but there are also no classes (at least in the traditional sense) to pick. Every player has the same set of available skills which severely limits the replayability. That being said there are two main upgrade routes to take, choosing between being a melee and ranged combatant, and even within these styles there are many skill paths that vary the gameplay. It is a shame however that essentially once you have chosen your fighting style you must follow it to the end (unless you invest heavily in respeccing your character’s skills and abilities) since flitting between the two risks diluting your hero. The game is screaming for skills that meld melee and ranged together allowing for more experimentation, but it is an area that is lacking.
And you really do not want to water your hero’s skills down. Perhaps the most interesting choice the developers have made is with the difficulty level, which cannot be adjusted once the character is created. With Diablo III being a dull stroll in the park for at least the first playthrough, Neocore have instead decided that their gamers like action to be a little more tricky. The normal difficulty setting (second of four) sees Van Helsing sprawled on the ground surprisingly often, but put the game on hard and it becomes a death-filled lunacy. And then there’s a further level above that named insane, but since death simply strips you of some cash this may as well be called poverty mode. Fortunately respawn is quick and painless placing you back in the action for a price or back home if you cannot afford the toll. That is unless you are playing on the game's hardcore mode where death is permanent; a mind boggling feat of skill that no doubt one manic fan will one day complete on insane difficulty.
There are balancing issues too with certain packs of monsters, particularly ranged beasts, delivering massive damage leading to instant unstoppable death and others that can merely be flicked aside. However in general the pacing of the game seems to have been well planned with the difficulty scaling at the same speed as your character, an issue that sometimes blights games of this genre. There is also a satisfying sense of accomplishment with the latter monsters of the game being massive in size and spraying damage everywhere, yet still eventually falling to Van Helsing's blows.
Where the game really shines is in its setting. The wonderfully realised gothic streampunk fantasy adds an intriguing element to the gameplay. With creepy monstrous blobs carrying gigantic cannons upon their back, and strange mutilated humanoid creeps trying to smash you into the ground with their ball and chain, the game feels particularly exciting to explore. Meanwhile the city of Borgovia, which like all the terrain is not randomly generated, exudes the dark smelly stale air of an early industrialised urban city. While the lack of randomisation may be a bone of contention for some wishing for greater replayability, here it allows the developers more freedom to create the setting they envisioned and on the whole is very well realised.
The plot and conversations do not quite reach the same standard. Essentially Van Helsing is tasked with bringing down the evil scientists who are creating these technological monstrosities and must go smash. The game makes the same mistake that is so common for the genre making all the NPCs stagnant and dull and reducing the story, after the initial impressive opening video, to a series of to do lists. After a very short period it is very easy for the player to slip into a skipping coma, clicking straight through one way conversations and just wanting to be pointed in the right direction of the next killing field. It is a shame because if time is spent investigating the town areas there are many clever, witty and tongue in cheek references, including a not-too-subtle one to its ancestor Diablo.
The same cannot be said for the real star of the game: this mysterious ghostly companion Katarina, whom is entertainingly bickering with Van Helsing throughout the campaign. Essentially acting as a pet with benefits in the vein of Torchlight, she gains experience, can wear equipment, hold weapons and, essential for the amount of mess that eventually litters the bloody floor, be sent home to sell your loot. But there is a little bit more to her than that. Just as Van Helsing can switch between guns and swords (although rarely do you find yourself doing so) Katarina can also become a master of ranged or melee. Wonderfully her model melds into different shapes as she switches, the melee form in particular looking rather frightening. Again there is the issue with having to pick a direction and sticking with it, but the genius of this is that her style can match Van Helsing’s with the ghost acting as a tank in front of his stream of bullets, or vice versa. It does feel however that her role becomes less and less impressive as the game progresses eventually reducing her to an almost negligible effect on battles towards the end. Battles could have been improved dramatically if she could gain some active skills that would change the tide of fights, but unfortunately all her abilities are passive and generally only improve Van Helsing in some manner.
This is a sentiment that carries through to the fighting in general. It does not have the grace, depth or intelligence of many of its compatriots purely because the skills do not have the compatible elements that allow for combination attacks or intricate timing. Virtually every skill is devoted to causing heavy area of effect damage which, while effective, makes proceedings rather mundane and repetitive. Making it even worse is the fact that Van Helsing can only have two skills in use at the same time (left and right mouse button) and two tricks which generally only heal or buff him for a short period. It is simple to hit the tab button to swap between skill sets, but often you find that a single style is far more effective. There is one saving grace here however in the form of the rage system which feels relatively novel. As you slaughter enemies the rage meter fills and hammering the spacebar releases this into your chosen rage augmentations which are attached to your skills. This essentially means that for the next attack you will unleash a furious rampage of pain which may cause extra damage, stun or perhaps even instantly kill an enemy. It is a system that is easy to forget about but, if used correctly, can change the tide of a fight.
Hardcore Action RPG fans may also baulk at the lack of replayability of the game. Monsters do not respawn as you plough through the non-randomised landscape meaning there is no reason to backtrack, unless you missed areas. It also has a relatively low level cap of thirty (although this may be improved with updates) which is easily reached by the end of the game and is missing any form of New Game+ mode, something that is relatively common for the genre. Once the game is over your character becomes rather impotent, only able to join other player’s games and not restart his own campaign. With the possibility of the game being the first of a trilogy, it may later become possible to resume play, but it seems strange that this option is lacking.
Essential for this style of game is the ability to take your character online and play cooperatively. Up to four players can join, with the ability to have public and private games. The joiners can drop in and drop out, but the game creator (whom is the only one who will progress their solo campaign quest) must stay online. Here the game improves significantly, particularly if you have complimentary styles of characters. Having a tank at the front holding the waves of foes back, with a ranged hero dealing damage from the back suddenly means that the game evolves more tactics and styles that are lacking in single player mode. The difficulty fortunately adjusts to allow for more players but it does feel like the game is significantly easier when played together, which considering the insanity while playing single player may not be such a bad thing. With the promise of several more modes in the future the multiplayer situation could substantially improve the game. Admittedly there has been some difficulty at launch with regards to connecting to the matchplay servers, but hopefully this will be resolved in good time - luckily this is not the error-filled mess of Diablo III’s launch since the game can be played over LAN and offline.
One quick mention should be made regarding the single attempt by The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing to break the shackles of the Action RPG boundaries and sink its fangs into other genres. After discovering his father’s lair in the second chapter of the game, Van Helsing unlocks the ability to upgrade the lair’s defences with traps, the result of which is a strange tower defence game which comes to culmination later on. It is an interesting proposition but one that feels rather poorly fleshed out. Van Helsing effectively acts as a hurricane of destruction, slaughtering all around him, yet the traps have a negligible effect in comparison. Since there are three lanes that the creeps can charge through, in single player at least, the paths left unattended are quickly overwhelmed. While it is nice to see the game making an attempt to bring some originality to proceedings, it should have been implemented with greater confidence. As it is it certainly fails to reach the fabulously manic heights of the king of tower defence: Dungeon Defenders.
Being a budget indie game, at under half the price of a standard release, we can certainly give The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing far more slack than is possible to give to those cold giants at Blizzard, however that being said it is a shame that Neocore have not used their indie freedom to create a game with a touch more originality. With all things considered we can say at the very least that the game is beautifully presented, with a vibrant and stylised world to explore, all of which runs on surprisingly low-spec machines. The characters are intriguing, particularly the role of the ghost Katerina, and the action is challenging if rather repetitive. So, if you are disconnected from Diablo III, destroyed Dungeon Siege III, trounced your way through Torchlight (including its sequel) and are still craving more bloodshed then The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing will provide at least a dozen hours of extra entertainment for a relatively small investment. Sadly however in no way does it redefine the genre.