The action-RPG is having a rather bountiful season at the moment. Grim Dawn is in alpha, Path of Exile has an open beta running, and the recent Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3 are ever-present options as well. Where, then, does the newly-released The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing fit in this melange of button mashing?
It’s a title made by Neocore, the Hungarian development team best known for their King Arthur series. Those games took the broad outline of Total War and mixed it up with a distinctive art style, unusual storytelling and quirks like choose-you-own text adventure quests; so it’s not too surprising to find that Van Helsing takes the basic model popularised by Diablo 2 and adds a few embellishments of Neocore’s own.
Despite the Van Helsing name, you’re actually his son. Old man Helsing is now too crotchety to answer the mysterious letter sent from the fictional Eastern European nation of Borgovia, so you get sent in his place to find out what’s up. As this is an aRPG, what’s up turns out to be lots of creatures for you to left and right click on in rapid succession. And running gags about you not being the real Van Helsing.
Accompanying you on your adventures (incredible and otherwise,) is the ghostly form of Lady Katarina. As well as providing handy buffs and a quick way of offloading some unwanted loot (in the style of your faithful pet in Torchlight,) Katarina is there to trade banter and foresight with our hat-wearing protagonist. She can also be encouraged to pick up gold and the trashier bits of loot you don’t want to sully your delicate fingers with.
Like most of the dialogue and voice acting in Van Helsing, Katarina and Helsing’s is pretty sharp and, at times, warmly amusing. If you’ve played any of the King Arthur titles, you’ll be familiar with Neocore’s tone; heartfelt, often witty, but also a touch on the cheesy side. The acting is rarely bad but it’s very frequently odd, ranging from a sort of earnest, well-enunciated BBC stage drama to … well, the elder chap in the game’s first town sounds like someone doing an impression of Ade Edmonson doing an impression of an old man. As I say; odd.
The verbal sparring of Van Helsing and Katarina, along with a set of weirdo NPCs and a reliably over-theatrical plot about a mad scientist, are what really propels this title along. Its comedy references are hit and miss (we didn’t need another thing doing Hitchhiker’s Guide gags, but an unexpected nod to Blade Runner got a smile out of me,) and Katarina’s character leans a little too heavily on the “oooh I’m a lady so I like shopping and shoes” stereotype; but for the most part it’s an entertaining, old fashioned fantasy caper.
At first, the quest design keeps pace with the tone of the story. You’re chatting with confused wisps, deciding whether to leading a stray ghost into the light or back to his hanged corpse (you dick) and shooting the breeze with a frog professor. The first couple of areas are full of neat little side-quests, encouraging full exploration of the map and employing dialogue choices or optional ways of completion to make them more interesting.
Unfortunately these take a back seat as the story winds on, and the level design begins to stray further away from tight, interesting settings with rewarding side-quests and more towards sprawling areas with huge packs of monsters every two feet. You still get extra quests to do, but they’re of the more traditional (and boring) fetch-me-this-stuff or go-here-and-talk-to-a-guy variety. Early on, my exploration was driven by the desire to find interesting things to do. By the mid-game these opportunities had vanished, and I was just trying to blitz through as quickly as possible.
A nadir was reached when an especially dull, lengthy ‘Industrial Port’ level popped up for a second time with a night-time palette swap.
Happily, level design tightens up again for the game’s finale. There are still mental amounts of adversaries everywhere, but for the last couple of hours maps return to feeling more focused and less sprawling.
Your one and only class in Van Helsing is, well, the clue is in the name. It’s possible to turn him into either a melee tanker (as I did) or a ranged expert who, I can only presume, has to do a fair bit of enemy kiting. By the end of the game, my chap was a health-leaching supremo who could pretty much wail away indefinitely (on ‘Normal’ difficulty, at least) against the rabid hordes.
Skills have up to three power-ups attached, and you get three points to allocate to them. The vast majority of skill-tree abilities can be augmented with ‘power-ups’ like these, which are activated with Van Helsing’s pent-up Rage meter (built up by murderising as many things as possible.)
In my case, I bunged all three points into my life-leaching power-up on the ‘Cleave’ skill. That meant every time I got into a bind, I could press Space to drain some Rage and soak up a bunch of health on my next right-clicked sword swipe. You can change the point-allocation on the fly too, so if I’d wanted to tone down the health-leaching and add a stun effect to my hits, I could’ve switched one of the three points over to that instead.
It’s a system which sounds a lot more confusing in text than it is in practice, but it enables a fair bit of customisation to a set of skill trees that otherwise lean towards the generic side. Melee-focused characters can adopt some area-of-effect abilities based around ice and fire, but once my cleave and strike skills were maxed out they served me through the whole game. Likewise, it seems as if early abilities like ‘Explosive Shot’ will do fine for the ranged builds.
The fact that you can only have two abilities readily available at once (one on the left button, one on the right) encourages sticking to the basics. It makes more sense to max out a pair of abilities (by respec-ing at one of the regular NPCs if necessary) than having points spread between multiple talents that you won’t even be using most of the time.
Rather than becoming a jack-of-all-skills, Van Helsing’s system guides you towards specialisation. This is further emphasised by the addition of reputation perks (which gradually unlock as you take down tougher, ‘named’ foes) and tricks (that can be learned from various NPCs.) As with your skill tree abilities, only a pair of tricks can be active at any one time. So you need to decide whether it’s more important to have a temporary time-freezing bubble twinned with a health aura, or something like a rapid-dash attack mixed up with magical shield.
Whatever you opt for, you can be confident that enemies will be getting flung around and exploded into meat paste on a regular basis. Foes may not have an immediate tactile reaction to being struck with your weapons, but the killing blow tends to be rather spectacular.
Art and creature design is novel throughout, with some unusual mythological choices like Rusalkas and Nutcracker-esque robo-men mixing with more traditional fare like werewolves and horrific amorphous blobs from the eldritch pit. The city of Borgova is a dark, industrial nightmare, full of slums, experimental Tesla-style machinery and Gothic architecture. While a touch of this veers a bit close to the videogame level design graveyard of “some sewers,” it’s original enough to remain engaging.
Speaking of sewers, Van Helsing’s underground lair occasionally needs a spot of tower defence. It’s a bit of a surprise to find that popping up in the middle of an aRPG, but that’s just how Neocore roll. Don’t expect Defense Grid or Anomaly 2, but as a mid-game change of pace it functions quite well. It also ties in nicely with a few additional quests that task you with finding extra traps, generator upgrades and the like.
The game’s online co-op multiplayer is (at the time of writing) receiving regular patches, but still isn’t in a fully functioning state. I’m not sure whether this is down to dubious netcode or other bugs, but when Tim McDonald and I gave it a try we ran into lag and disconnection problems galore. Experiments with a third player proved to be too much for the game, and the lag became unbearable.
There were spells when it was playable with two, but if you’re hoping to pick this up purely on the basis of its multiplayer, you should definitely hold off until further patches have been made. It just about works with two players, but it’s not consistent.
In single player, Van Helsing is a part-traditional, part-peculiar action-RPG with an endearingly silly plot and just enough vocal flair to carry it off. The restriction of a lone melee/ranged class (and the current lack of a ‘new game plus’) means that there probably isn’t a great deal of replay value for those who like to obsess about endless character builds, but for around $15 USD you’ll get 12-15 click-filled hours of substantive looting.