If you’re going to slip the word ‘incredible’ into your game’s title, it demands a certain payoff. Pair it with ‘adventures’ and people are going to be expecting all manner of weirdness. NeoCore’s upcoming game is an action-RPG, so surely The Walking a Few Steps and Slashing at some Monsters with a Sword of Van Helsing would be more accurate?
Perhaps so, but during the three hour act that this single player preview build of the game consisted of, I conversed with a werewolf, did battle with mechanical soldiers dressed in Napoleonic era uniforms and chatted about archaeology with an aquatic fellow named Professor Frog. By most standards, each of those events would qualify as an incredible adventure. I got all of them.
Did I mention that your AI companion is a sharp-tongued, aristocratic ghost from a fictional Eastern European nation?
Your AI companion is a sharp-ton … well, yes, you know.
NeoCore did great things with Druidic mythology for the King Arthur series, and seem just as keen to mine obscure fairy tales and lesser-known legends for Van Helsing. Something is afoot in the state of Borgovia; something which only the legendary monster hunter Van Helsing can sort out.
Unfortunately, he’s getting too old for that kind of business, so his son (and travelling ghost companion) head off instead. After being waylaid by pesky bandits and navigating around an exploded bridge, our duo finds a village populated by needy mayors, alchemists and blacksmiths with exclamation points glued to their heads. Nearby is this universes’ equivalent of a useful teleportation device. And thus, the action-RPGing begins in earnest.
There are rum doings in the swamps, and talk of unrest between man, monster and SCIENCE (SCIENCE is almost always in all-caps in this game.) Which explains the mechanised soldiers, at least.
Van Helsing is a title that’s quite happy appropriating the successful parts of other aRPGs and mixing them up with a few ideas of its own.
Those ideas tend to lean in the direction of providing interesting distractions between the click-click-clicking, such as mid-map quests with varying outcomes. The aforementioned Professor Frog was happy to purchase old bone artifacts from me for historical purposes, but it was also possible to feed them to an ancient idol for some additional experience points. In another location, the decision to lead a confused ghost to the site of his hanging provoked an angry response (fair enough, really.)
These sub-quests boil down to simple dialogue tree choices or re-visiting certain areas of the map with newfound items, but NeoCore’s light, banter-tinged writing style, the developer’s flair for otherworldly encounters and the sometimes amusing over-pronunciation of words by voice actors for whom English may well be a second language keeps the diversions entertaining.
“But but,” say the aRPG fans, fidgeting in their seats, “what about LOOT, I want to know about LOOT.” “And Skills!” they add, “Skills and Abilities!”
Yes, it has those.
Look, I’ll level with you here. Hoovering up fifty different belts and painstakingly comparing them to see which one offers slightly better damage boosts to my pistols and a 2% chance of finding gold has never struck me as very interesting. Sorry. If you do enjoy that though, there’s plenty of it in Van Helsing; and the game uses the traditional ‘hover over the new item for a handy comparison to what you’re wearing’ system so it’s about as easy as it gets to comb through your various swords, amulets, trophies, rings, armour, cloak and hats.
For the most part, I just set my dependable AI ghost pal Lady Katarina to automatically scoop up anything non-rare and made sure to send her on regular jaunts back to town. Much like in the Torchlight series, this renders her unable to help you in combat for a bit while she flogs all of your useless trinkets back at the nearest store.
Is it better to be accompanied by an adorable cat or sassy ghost on your aRPG adventures? Trick question: as long as they both know how to barter with wily shopkeepers, it doesn’t matter.
Van Helsing’s approach to skills at first seems over simplistic. For a start, there aren’t any classes. You’re always Van the Man. You can only have a pair of skills active at once (one on each mouse button,) and the skill trees broadly divide down melee/ranged lines. But then you learn that each skill comes with multiple ‘power ups’ (purchasable with skill points) that are linked to something called Rage.
Keeping up so far? Ok, Rage builds as you kill things (naturally,) but can be unleashed with your chosen power-ups for a boost in combat. By the end of the preview, I’d also acquired an Aura (further talents that can be learned from various NPCs and upgraded) which gave me health every time I used Rage. So, my Van Helsing was shooting lightning bolts from his two-handed sword that (thanks to the power-ups I’d opted for) stunned an additional couple of enemies every time I activated the Rage meter, had a chance to kill some enemies outright and gave me health back.
Alongside Auras are ‘Tricks,’ other handy skills Van Helsing can learn and bust out in a tricky spot. These are things like powerful magic shields and time bubbles that freeze foes while our hero can still act.
On top of all that, as Helsing’s reputation grows (I’m not entirely clear what this is based on, it may simply be linked to levelling up) it becomes possible to choose extra Perks. These can give a variety of passive bonuses like improved critical hit percentages, or helpful abilities like ‘Second Chance’ that can help you cheat death for a bit.
And that’s everythi … wait, that’s not everything. Each level gained gives you points to dump into Body, Dexterity, Willpower or Luck and you’re also able to infuse certain compatible items with collected enchantments to boost their effectiveness. Crikey.
In fact, there’s no shortage of ways to customise your version of Van Helsing and turn him into a potentially overpowered killing machine. With so many ways to improve and beef up the main character, I do worry that balance might suffer. Lady Katarina has a skill tree and inventory too, so you can fashion her into a helpful ally (more buffs!) as well.
As I made my way through a lengthy swamp level that concludes the preview build, it turned into a bit of a procession of electrocuting hapless enemies and staving off bad memories of the slightly tedious swamp bit from The Witcher. However, it should be noted this was just on ‘normal’ difficulty, and the bizarre boss fight that concluded the stage was worth the wait.
In any case, punishing difficulty isn’t what everyone wants to see from an aRPG. To many, they are gaming’s comfort food; something to click away at and indulge in a custom power fantasy as your flaming death-circles immolate yet another creature hoard that dared stand against you.
From my time with Van Helsing, it seems as if the game will feature plenty for NeoCore’s talent for quirky, unusual writing that isn’t afraid to laugh at the clichés of the genre. The character customisation is multi-layered and (once you’ve figured out the whole deal with augmenting active skills with power-ups,) provides ample opportunity for cruising through the waves of enemies the game likes to throw the player’s way.
In most structural senses Van Helsing is looking like a familiar and traditional aRPG in the Diablo vein, but it offers a few twists of its own and knows when to ‘borrow’ a solid idea (Torchlight’s sales-savvy companion.) Like Runic’s titles, it’s also being offered at a sensible, budget price. If you can scratch together the coin in May, Borgovia may well be worth a visit.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing will be released on 22 May.