Van Helsing has his roots in Stoker’s classic work Dracula – and, if you’re fond of lacklustre films, a thoroughly mediocre Hugh Jackman vehicle released in 2004. In 2013, Hungarian studio NeocoreGames sought to use the name for something different, and they strive to make a good impression.
It is the 19th century. The exploits of renowned vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing have passed into legend. He receives a letter summoning him to the Gothic-noir nation of Borgovia, but having already hung up his hat the responsibility of setting the house in order, saving the oppressed and stopping all manner of nefarious schemes falls to his son – a born hunter and globetrotter, following in his father’s footsteps. Accompanying him on his journey is Katarina, a phantom bound to serve the Van Helsing family. Together they must venture to Borgovia, and put a stop to scientific misdemeanours of the mad variety before the situation gets out of hand.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing – or rather, the Extended Version with all the add-ons, sequels, bells and whistles attached – takes a page out of the books of games such as Blizzard’s Diablo series and Torchlight. While it isn’t quite as memorable as its predecessors, it is a delightful and competently-made ode to the aforementioned giants of the genre while still striving as best as it can to have its own identity, and nowhere can this be better seen than through the way the game presents itself.
Artistically, the game does excel in some respects. Its user interface is adorned with pipes and gears, playing into the odd "steampunk" aesthetic the game attempts to push. Some of the environments on display are captivating, particularly the Gothic-flavoured heart of Borgovia itself, and a great many of the game’s locales do a good job of immersing you in its surroundings. Some of the regions you trek though, however, chiefly those around the game’s beginning, are disappointingly drab, a mess of greens and browns that get in the way of better locations.
It also attempts to veer away from conventional designs so often seen in ARPGs, and while it has less luck with human enemies the range of designs on display for the more monstrous nasties that you will encounter – especially the abominations – are remarkably more diverse. The variation gives some spice to the rigmarole of cutting down monsters, but their typing is not as diverse as their appearances, and there comes a point where you are facing the same sorts of enemies in abundance as opposed to foes who can really keep you on your toes, detracting from the experience.
From a writing standpoint, for the characters at least, the game is surprisingly solid. Despite following in the footsteps of games that revelled in somewhat grim subject matter the tone of the adventure and the dialogue remains firmly tongue-in-cheek. Van Helsing Jr. goes about his way with a devil-may-care attitude and Katrina, often injects copious quantities of dry wit and sarcasm into conversations between the two, or between her companion and other NPCs. The dialogue is serviceable and although the story doesn’t particularly stand out as anything unique the character interactions and general tone bestow some vim and vigour on the otherwise rather plain narrative – even if, on occasion, Katarina’s unceasingly wry delivery may grate upon the nerves of less receptive players. It is commendable for what the story is worth, but to enhance its overall quirkiness the script is peppered with anachronistic references to other properties and franchises.
With regards to the mechanics the game itself is relatively robust, an easy to grasp action RPG that sees you controlling your character from a top-down perspective. Like other games of its genre there are all the accoutrements associated with the role-playing genre crammed in, from a small selection of player classes to sate your desire to shoot, stab or throw magic at things depending on your preferences to an upgrading system that enables you to boost your stats or those of your ghostly companion and unlock abilities along the way. Along with your regular smattering of abilities they are complemented further by Auras and Tricks, secondary powers that can be both passive and active which cover a wide range of uses from healing to damage boosts. Perks add yet another layer, with some of them being unlocked once certain prerequisites are reached and with a small handful being available from the start of the game.
Putting that all together, the mere act of combat itself may come across as a daunting task, but the game makes sure not to bombard you with information outside of specific menus. The UI is surprisingly streamlined, with everything being given its own window and the assorted meters neatly arranged at the bottom of the screen to minimize any clutter. Its relatively simple outward appearance, however, belies a surprising level of complexity particularly with regards to combat.
To ensure that battle sequences do not consist solely of mindless button-mashing and occasional twitches of the left analogue stick, there are multiple skills at the player’s disposal that can be used through the consumption of ‘rage’ which is built up in a meter as you kill enemies. Pressing corresponding buttons allows you to use those abilities in conjunction with your chosen class’ regular skills. However, the abilities can also be triggered more than once to stack up in a variety of ways at the cost of more rage. This, combined with the varied number of skills, Auras, Tricks and perks at your disposal, allows for a wide range of potential character builds and playing styles. The game outlines statistics, too, so players know exactly what they’re getting with their choice of upgrades.
Katarina can also pull her weight in combat as well – there are a range of upgrades that affect her, and she can adopt a close-ranged, long-ranged or spectral form with the latter serving as a defensive bulwark. It’s things like these that encourage experimentation, and with a wide selection of options to choose from such an approach is very much commendable. Combat in and of itself can become somewhat repetitive after a while, at least against waves of regular adversaries, but the encounters with larger beasts are always a treat.
There are a few questionable elements that exist, though, chiefly with regards to game modes – there is a multiplayer mode that is regrettably riddled with bugs and not terribly worth trying out unless you want to bear witness to the odd sight of four Van Helsing the Youngers and their entourage of ghosts running around whacking beasties to death. The game also chooses to try and implement some aspects of tower defence into its design, and instead of coming across as fresh and novel it instead appears clumsy and half-baked, as though it were crowbarred into the final product at the last minute. It is something that cannot be ignored, too, so players may well encounter some frustration with it.
Despite these cons, however, it is, all round, a solid and inoffensive game that stands well on its own two feet. The result is something that is universally serviceable. It ultimately finds itself vastly overshadowed by games within its genre that have more staying power or are simply better made, but it is a genuinely enjoyable experience even if the ARPGs are something of an acquired taste, and there are elements that do detract from the overall experience – the plot isn’t really worth caring about even if it’s buoyed up by the interactions between the lead characters, and along with the potential drawbacks with the game’s combat and some of its environments and a rather extraneous multiplayer mode that is regrettably riddled with bugs, it does dance with dullness and derivativeness every now and then. Nevertheless, this is at least worth an honest play through – it’s not likely to be something you’ll complete more than once, but it’s an entertaining romp that doesn’t try to overstay its welcome. If you ever feel like putting monsters to the sword and managing skills, it’s no Diablo, but it’s a respectable second choice.