I didn't know what to expect before playing The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. I've seen the movie, but I don't remember much from it other than Wolverine fighting a lot of monsters. Luckily, that basic knowledge was all I really needed in order to understand what was happening in Van Helsing.
I believe the now common term to describe this genre is an Action RPG (ARPG), or in other words a "Diablo-like." These days ARPGs are fairly common: the divisive Diablo III, the mod-friendly Torchlight II, the free-to-play Path of Exile, and the upcoming Grim Dawn are all possible alternatives, so entering into the genre isn't exactly filling an empty void. Van Helsing definitely sticks to some of the core elements players have come to expect from an ARPG, and at least tries to spice things up along the way, even if it isn't successful.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing (PC) Developer: Neocore Games Publisher: Neocore Games Release Date: May 22, 2013 MSRP: $14.99 Rig: AMD Athlon 7850 2.80 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 560 Ti GPU
If you didn't see the 2004 Van Helsing movie, allow me to get you caught up on all the pertinent information: Van Helsing is a monster hunter. Alright, now that we're caught up, there's not much more to go on about for The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. You play as Van Helsing's son, who I think is also named Van Helsing? I'm not really sure.
Anyway, Van Helsing Jr. and his ghost-sidekick Katarina are going to a town called Borgova, but must kill monsters first. Then, when they get to Borgova, they have to kill more monsters. Then NPCs say "Hey, can you kill these monsters?" and they have to kill those monsters. The plot isn't remotely interesting or engaging, and there are way too many non-contextualized real-world references to make it believable.
For example, at one point in the game I thought I heard a voice-over of an actually-not-terrible impression of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Sure enough, it was a small goblin-like creature with "Baggins" as its surname, spouting line after line about "my preecccciiooouuusssssss." Not only did this come off as incredibly lame and forced, but he constantly runs away into groups of enemies, forcing the player to hear his near-constant voice work while fighting the other enemies. Blech.
As an ARPG, Van Helsing doesn't do too much to stray from the "standard" control scheme. In other words, you will be clicking the mouse buttons a lot in order to kill enemies. Mr. Helsing II has two combat modes: ranged and melee. Each has its own skill tree and while the game seems to want the player to level up both, in order for either to be effective some bias is needed.
Leveling up will grant stat points and skill points, to be distributed as the player sees fit. The game does do a pretty great job of providing hard numbers for each statistic, ensuring that players know exactly what they're getting when committing points. There are plenty of options available to make sure that players can tailor their character to their playstyle.
Skills can be upgraded by either spending skill points on them directly, or on up to three power-ups that will alter the skill in small but important ways. These power-ups could be as simple as "50% extra damage" or adding life leech to a skill, but they aren't active unless the player wants them to be. A Rage meter, separate from Mana or Health, builds when an enemy is killed, and it's with this Rage that the player activates power-ups.
Pressing the 1, 2, or 3 key will spend Rage points on the corresponding power-up for a skill. So if the first power-up is "2% life leech," and the player presses the 1 key followed by the skill, that skill's life leech will be applied and Rage will be spent. The interesting bit is that the player can press the 1 key three times, turning the 2% life leech into 6% life leech at the expense of triple the Rage. It's an interesting mechanic that keeps combat a little more active than clickity-clickclick-clickity.
Katarina plays a similar role to that of the player's pet in Torchlight II. She can fight, buy potions, level up, and equip her own items. She can be set to ranged, melee, or a ghost form which cannot interact with enemies but instead buffs mini-Van Helsing’s defenses. The player can even set her targeting priorities, making her far from useless in battles. Her constant and repetitious quips, however, could have been left out.
Reputation can be gained from slaying the biggest and baddest of monsters, which is measured by a separate bar than the experience players get from killing the not-so-big and only-sorta-bad monsters. Leveling up Reputation grants a Perk, which can range from permanently buffing Katarina to adding inventory slots for Van Helsing 2.
Naturally, there is a Town Portal button, though it's a free one-way trip instead of the item-based "goes both ways" version most people are accustomed to. Some items will also need to be identified, though that is also free and not based on Identify Scrolls or anything, so really it serves no point whatsoever.
Speaking of loot, surprise! There is loot in this game. It isn't the uncontrollable driving factor that many ARPGs pride themselves on, but it is still really great to see rares drop. The bigger issue is that there's no originality to the items. Most swords have the same names, instead of the crazy adjective-laden ridiculous names that make each item unique typical in other games.
There's also an ill-explained tower defense element that's thrown in later on in the game. It comes out of nowhere and isn't all that interesting. If you happen to talk to the right NPC before taking the quest, you can lay down some traps before taking to the maze yourself. Otherwise, you will not be able to add any traps at all, thereby missing out on a huge opportunity to dispatch the monsters before they get to the base. There is no primer for this and it definitely feels out of place and confusing, which is a shame since it could have been a cool addition to the game if it were done properly.
I died a lot playing on Normal difficulty, but the game managed to not feel challenging in the least at the same time. Early on, the enemies have some decent variety as they get introduced to the player, but after a few hours enemy types seem to stagnate. Instead of throwing in foes that behave in interesting and unique ways, Van Helsing simply bombards the player with a veritable crap-ton of enemies constantly. Fighting group after group after group after group of the same enemy types gets boring really fast.
There is a multiplayer mode, though I can't personally speak for it. You see, launching the game through Steam results in the game running at an unplayable framerate. I'm talking freezing for 3-5 seconds constantly during battles. Running the 64-bit version through the Steam directory works fine, however doing so forces the game into offline mode, restricting multiplayer. I chose to actually be able to play the game.
I'm not completely certain why the game's performance tanks while running through Steam, but if the forums are any indication, it doesn't seem to be affecting everyone playing the game. Regardless, people who have way better machines than I are reporting the same exact issues and solution, and the developers are very aware of the problem. In fact, the development team has been very vocal about acknowledging the various problems players are having, which is always a good sign.
The game looks really good on high settings, and some of the enemy design is terrifically horrible. After all, this is a game about slaying monsters, so these monsters better have some good designs. Granted, they're not all winners, but the "abominations" in particular are great. The voice work is okay, which is all you could really ask for here, considering the story is completely forgettable. As a colorblindie, I did have some troubles seeing some of the greenish-brown enemies from the greenish-brown environments, but mindlessly clicking my way around ended up working just fine.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is a little more uninteresting than the title may lead some to believe. Power-ups add a bit of activity to the otherwise boring combat, though the game prefers piling up the sheer number of enemies instead of providing interesting ones. A forgetful story, performance issues, and an unexplained tower defense element hold Van Helsing back from living up to its true potential, and what's left meanders the line between standard and boring.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing - Reviewed by Patrick Hancock
Average - Like a meal of lukewarm water with white bread. It filled my time and my belly, but lacks any discernible flavor or nutritional value. A game that left me no different than it found me. Just passing through.
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destructoid's previous coverage: The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing