"...with such polished and well-designed champions in the ring, this quality contender may only be recognized for its hat."
Most sub-genres offer a variety of titles in terms of quality. The hack-n-slash realm departs from this typicality, especially as of late. With games like Path of Exile, Torchlight II, and Diablo III battling each other at a rather competitive level, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing has its work cut out for it, especially hailing from a small studio like NeocoreGames. Does Van Helsing saturate this niche area of gaming with yet more high-tier quality, or does it flesh out the continuum?
First, do not be confused: this is not Van Helsing, but his son, though they're functionally the same person aside from a few run-ins with friends of his father. Joined by his ghostly compatriot, Katarina, Van Helsing scours the dark, ever-murderous lands of Borgovia as a do-gooder who hopes to rival dear ol' dad's reputation, though little is made of how he actually feels. In fact, aside from the occasional witty banter between him and Katarina, all we know is that he is possibly the most altruistic person to ever live, constantly putting himself in danger for the sake of victimized townsfolk. The occasional renegade-esque decision is available, but Van Helsing exists almost singularly to fight evil. In this way, the game lacks a central thread. Instead, players may feel as if yanked from one fetch or assassin quest to another. Side quests offer much of the same, as well. Although the voice acting is absolutely top-notch, actors can only do so much with the script they're given. This isn't to say that the game lacks imagination. Quite the contrary, actually: the impetus and result of the quests flesh out the kind of world we momentarily inhabit. The problem lies within the general aim — kill this guy or get these things.
Quests are granted in a fashion most players are familiar with, which essentially means talking to the person with punctuation over his head. The map clearly marks objectives, making navigating the intricate landscape a simple feat, though getting lost can uncover some fascinating puzzles or easter eggs. Of course, completing quests is its own reward, and money and other resources are relatively useless, as in most games of this ilk. Each town has a shop, means of learning new auras and techniques, and crafting areas, but the sheer quantity of gold casts an enormous shadow on any blacksmith's wares. Some equipment contains "essence capacity," which is this game's version of socketed items, gems, whatever you want to call them. Unfortunately, the frequency of slightly better drops is constant, the game is so easy (on standard difficulty), and the means of imparting essence on an item is so cumbersome that taking the time to add insignificant bonuses renders the system unnecessary. Perhaps on higher difficulties this may aid in some way, but even the rare essence drops don't offer much.
But what equipment does Van Helsing Jr. carry? Unlike most hack-n-slash titles, this one doesn't include classes. Instead, every iteration of the game includes the same character with the same three brief skill trees for swords and guns. Players may wish to focus on spells or physical abilities, but the ultimate difference lies in size, ailments, and graphics. None of the abilities in Van Helsing stuck out as particularly unique among the rest. I chose a simple life-stealing cleaving method using swords almost exclusively. This got me through 90% of the game until the punishing end-game when I had to pursue more abilities. I ended up investing most of my skill points in passive buffs and pumping the percent of damage my skills did. In this way, leveling up was never a joy, but rather a reason to pause, open up my menu, and click plus signs until I was out of points. I felt as if I was in a Skinner Box. Actually, scratch that — that would imply that I felt some reward, but the supposed "empowering" of my abilities never seemed to help, since the game didn't feel particularly challenging for the most part.
That wasn't always the case, though. Initially, I died a couple of times, since I approached this game as I had its brethren: run in and click on stuff until stuff comes out. Not here. Van Helsing forces players to strategize right from the start, and therein lies the hook. I haven't been completely honest, readers. Though I have stated that the game isn't particularly challenging, that is primarily because I established a certain strategy to overcome most foes, which kept my health orb relatively full. Unlike the other hack-n-slash games, running around the map, switching weapons, and using the companion wisely are essential to success. What NeocoreGames seems to expect is that players can't burst down enemies or stand in one spot so easily. For this reason, a new approach is required, but once players have adapted, the game becomes an easy, yet satisfying romp.
Although The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing offers few abilities, these skills have buffs that can be activated using rage, which is something Van Helsing earns during battle over time. These perks add to the strategy a bit, but once players find something that works for them, they will likely stick to it; I certainly did. Katarina's AI behavior can be changed during battle, as well, but players will find that her mini-skill tree is more or less another buffing tree for Van Helsing. Katarina can focus on ranged or close combat, or simply sit in the background and offer passive buffs. In my strategy, I used Katarina as a means of taking out certain foes through her ranged specialty (my Van Helsing focused on close combat). This strategy, while repetitive, still felt clever, and kept me going due to its originality.
Unfortunately, the lack of customization leaves the game with little replay value. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing ran me about fourteen hours with absolutely no post-game content. In fact, the only incentive to have another go at the game would be to try out a Van Helsing that focused on spells or physical abilities depending on the player's first go. For this reason, the game felt a little sterile. While the atmosphere felt genuinely noir and unique, the lack of anything "extra" left me wanting. The game includes a sort of tower defense, trap-setting side quest, but little explanation is given, making this seem added on last minute. Actually, the last 20% or so of the game felt rushed. For most of the game, I couldn't stop playing, as the progression kept me just challenged enough to keep going, never able to rely on mindless clicking and potion quaffing. This ended abruptly during the last chapter of the game, wherein the enemies' stats seemed to jump and the mix of enemies required a sort of kiting approach that was more taxing than entertaining. What I mean is that fighting certain clusters of monsters together was nigh-impossible — at least with my strategy. Instead, I had to trick certain types of slow-moving enemies to stay put while the faster enemies separated themselves from the herd. This slowed the game down to a screeching halt, and the formula irritated me. At the end, I was rewarded with a lackluster ending that left the game open for sequels, but the present experience felt unfair for all that I had been through.
Technical difficulties reared their head eventually — around the same time as the game design faux pas. Suddenly, my game took five minutes or longer to load new areas. This means that when I went back to town quickly to do something and had to go back to whatever location my quests were located, I had to wait five minutes each way, totaling around ten minutes of idle time. My research indicated that others shared this same experience. Additionally, my sound began to cut out for seemingly no reason, requiring me to reload the game.
Van Helsing controls about as fine as anyone would expect a game of this style to flow. The menus are easy and clear to navigate, and no mysterious landscape ever kept me from getting from one location to another. I had some difficult targeting with the gun on occasion, but that might be more my fault than the game's. While the game didn't have a great deal of abilities, having more hot keys available for any and all abilities for a weapon type (gun or sword) would have been desirable. Aside from these nitpicks, the game played well.
In terms of presentation, Van Helsing's voice acting and music profoundly characterize Borgovia, offering an authentic atmosphere. The music isn't particularly memorable, but it sets the mood quite well, complementing the experience. Match this with the beautiful graphics and animations, and I truly believed that Van Helsing was the only person who could save these people who somehow lived in this deadly world full of sinister machinations and fanged monstrosities.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing has several highs and lows. Although certainly of a breed with Diablo and others, it offers a genuinely unique experience that isn't entirely meaty, but will keep players entertained for ten hours or so, save the disheartening final bits. I'm glad I played Van Helsing, and I'd recommend it to any fan of the hack-n-slash sub-genre if they've exhausted other entries. Unfortunately, with such polished and well-designed champions in the ring, this quality contender may only be recognized for its hat.