Van Helsing is a rather fun ARPG that has a lot going for it, that is if you want to play on your own.
I’ll be honest with everyone reading this review: I don’t know much about Van Helsing. The limited knowledge I have is that the character was created in Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel and is known for hunting down vampires and other monsters. Oh yeah… He was also played by Hugh Jackman in that okay Van Helsing film, but I couldn’t help but notice he was missing those hairy sideburns and was sorely lacking adamantium in his hands. Jokes aside, I wasn’t sure what to expect from NeocoreGames’ first attempt at an action RPG. Last year, there were some big hitters in the genre, with titles like Diablo III and Torchlight II sapping a lot of daylight away from me with their addictiveness. It’s a new year, so does The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing set the same standard as those two games did last year?
There isn’t much customisation in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. One model is all you get, and the only thing you can change is the colour of his cape and his first name before you’re sent to help the people of Borgovia from its invasion of various vile beasts and monsters. As far as the genre standards go for action RPGs, Van Helsing has them all. Normal attacks are done by clicking the left mouse button on enemies, and magic skills are done on the right mouse button. There is no magic linked to shortcut keys, which is what you often find in action RPGs. Instead, you can switch your magic by using the Tab Key that swaps between the ones unlocked and assigned to the right mouse button.
Rather than offering two weapon builds to allow players to switch between weapons with ease,Van Helsing adjusts this by granting the ability to fight in a melee stance or a range stance with a simple click of a button. The character’s build needs to be focused on what your preferred method of killing is. I went for a melee build, so I barely used my rifles or pistols, instead opting to get face-to-face with my enemy and slice them to pieces. When you level-up, you are granted the capability to place stat points in one of four categories (body, dexterity, willpower and luck) and are also given skill points to place into a melee-focused (called Mystic Warrior) or ranged-focused (called Occult Hunter) skill tree. There is one other section called tricks and auras, which is for additional active and passive skills that are learnt from NPCs.
It’s not a super in-depth skill tree, but there is enough here to twist Mr. Van Helsing into your own killing machine. Skills also have branched-off power-ups that can be activated with the use of Rage points. Rage builds up from hitting enemies or getting hit by enemies. When you have enough, you can activate these power-ups with a press of 1, 2 or 3, each one representing one of three power-ups that can be activated on that one spell. For example, one of the power-ups for my ice ring spell was to increase its damage output by 50%. If I was to use a Level 3 version of this move (by pressing its corresponding button three times), it would then offer 150% damage for my next attack. These are very handy when you find yourself in places where the enemy completely outnumbers you – which in an action RPG is usually all the time.
Van Helsing takes Torchlight’s concept of a pet companion and turns it into a fully-fledged AI teammate. This partner is Katarina, a ghostly spirit that always hangs around with Van Helsing. She has the ability to fight alongside him, gain experience so she can level-up, and place her own skill and stat points into her own skill tree and categories. She can also be your shopper by sending her off to the store to sell items and buy potions to bring back. NeocoreGames have done well with the implementation of Katarina. She can change states between attacking with her melee weapon or standing back and dealing ranged damage, just like Van Helsing himself. Her AI can be tweaked to pick up specific items, focus her fighting by limiting what Katarina should emphasis on in battle, and you can even make her use potions when her health hits a targeted percentage.
Having companions seems to be becoming an increased feature in games. The Last of Us was the last title to do this exceptionally well, with Ellie being a fantastically-built character who I loved having around with me. While Katarina isn’t as well-developed as Ellie (to be honest, she doesn’t need to be), she is still a fun girl to have around. The banter between her and Van Helsing is one of true friendship, as Katarina will throw insults and jokes for some quick laughs. The best thing from all of this is she can fully look after herself – Katarina never had problems getting stuck in walls or doing things she wasn’t suppose to. An AI partner that can do that is a well-crafted one in my book.
The world of Borgovia is a dire place – which fits with the theme of the game – but includes a lot of locations that are stereotypical in such titles. At the beginning you arrive at the traditional village, then go to explore a forest and a swamp, before making your way through a mine and arriving at a steampunk city. The steampunk setting, which features heavily for two of the game’s three chapters, is the more refreshing part of the game, but you are there so much that it becomes a tiresome location. In whole, the world isn’t one that you’ll probably care much for but are happy to just walk around in and smash monsters – which are well-designed and capture the essence of mythological beasts that we all have come to know in the lore.
One thing you will surely find in Borgovia is loot, lots of loot; that’s what makes an action RPG appealing to play – mostly anyway. While it’s great that there is plenty to discover, it’s all a bit generic with its naming and attire. Rather than go all-out with bizarre names for a weapon or a piece of gear, you get more conventional titles that will cover the same type of gear but include different statistics to make it unique (think Earth Defence Force 2017). On appearances, this doesn’t alter all that much. The hat might be a different colour or the sword might have some slightly jagged edges, but overall, a player’s avatar will look very similar to another’s.
That moves me into my next section: the multiplayer, which is often a joyous part for the genre. Boy, oh boy, what an experience this was; an experience I don’t want to go through again, because the online in this game is one broken mess. It’s one of the reasons why I delayed this review until now, because I wanted to see what the development team would fix after being given time. I felt enough time has passed since the game’s release to explain my story to you and why you shouldn’t buy the game for the multiplayer.
During the first week, my fellow colleague and I tried to play online in Van Helsing. At that time, the game was a complete wreck – we couldn’t play for more than 10 minutes a session without the game crapping out on us. This would involve time-outs, severe lag, mouse clicks not working, broken scripting and AI, and complete crashes to desktop. We tried for two hours, to the point we got fed up and stopped. We tried again after three patches… It was still just as bad. Finally, we gave it another shot a couple of days before I typed this review up and it was better, but I wouldn’t call it functional for retail release. The problems were far less, often getting to an hour before hitting a crash to desktop, a character freezing or the AI scripting messing up. We even managed to break the quest system by missing out a few quests and finishing a tower defence game – which I might add is never fully explained – without any help from additional towers placed by me. I can’t get across how frustrating this whole experience was, and I wasn’t the only one (by the look of the Steam forums).
It’s a complete shame that The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing has such major problems with its multiplayer, because the core game itself is good. It pains me to have to score it as low as I have, but I need to review the product as a complete package and not just the single-player portion – which works perfectly fine and is a blast to play.
I can give a recommendation for The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing for any fans who love action RPGs and are looking for a new fix for a short amount of time, but only if you plan to play it on your own. If you’re looking for a multiplayer fix, then look elsewhere, as you will be solely disappointed with the wreckage of online cooperative play – a mode that spoils this otherwise solid video game.