The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is a game with a long name and lofty aspirations. It’s also a game that for me, came completely out of nowhere. This coupled with the well-stocked waters of the isometric, ARPG genre makes it a title that has quite a bit stacked against it. Fortunately, the game is a pretty solid budget dungeon crawler, though it has a few features holding it back from being a mega-hit.
The Pretty Exciting Adventures of Randy Van Helsing
TIAVH tells the tale of Randy Van Helsing, the son of legendary monster hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Ok, so you’re not actually named Randy but that’s the name I chose for my character and in a way, it sort of fits with the sometimes silly dialogue in the game. Anyway, you venture to the Eastern European land of Borgovia to investigate some strange scenarios and ultimately shoot and or slash your way through any strangeness that gets out of hand. There is a story there and it is a clever take on the tried and true man vs. monsters theme, but it’s definitely not the strong point of the game nor something you have to actually pay attention to. Besides, the real reason people flock to ARPGs is to collect loot and beef themselves up with experience points, the RPG equivalent to steroids.
I enjoyed the setting as it allowed for the developers to create a game that easily alternated between medieval villages, dark forests and steam punk cities. Visually, the game strikes a balance between a color scheme true to the horror roots presented while throwing splashes of color up to highlight character powers. The levels themselves sway back and forth between being unexciting derivatives and well-detailed pieces, though they all look nice enough.
In terms of character designs and enemies, there isn’t any new ground being broken in those respects but for the most part, everything looks pretty good. The NPCs are pretty flat, which tends to happen in these sort of games. The enemies on the other hand, are all well-animated and are diverse. You’ll mostly being fighting creatures based in mythology, like wolves and harpies during the first parts of the game, but eventually you’re introduced to the wacky experiments of a rogue mad scientist. I probably got the most excited when I was faced with what looked like a cybernetic werewolf as that’s something I hadn’t really ever seen before. The enemies come at you hard and in huge groups, so kiting does eventually become a skill you rely on more often than not.
Level the F*** Up
Van Helsing’s approach to the tried and true ARPG system, while somewhat similar to what you’d expect, will be the aspect of the game that makes or breaks it. You still gain levels and points to put towards both attributes and skills, but TIAVH shakes things up a bit in terms of its approach to combat. Van Helsing’s bread and butter combat options are his guns and his swords, which can be cycled back and forth by hitting the button. Each weapon has a skill tree that contains both active and passive skills. When upgrading the skills, you can either improve it’s effectiveness or add certain effects to it’s use. These effects are fueled by rage, which fills up a meter as you kill enemies. Hit the rage key and you unleash your rage which applies what ever additional effects you’ve added to a move to the next strike. It’s an interesting system, though it dose feel cumbersome as constantly hitting the space key to enhance my attack isn’t something I’m used to when it comes to ARPGs. I ended up acquiring a passive ability that gave me a critical hit multiplier when my rage was filled up, so I ended up using the rage fuel powers sparingly. You can equip two skills of varying uses to the left and right mouse button and while this may seem a bit limited, the fact that you’re able to switch between the guns and the swords on the fly means you actually have 4 powers total.
You also have 2 additional powers (called tricks) you can purchase from vendors and auras (passive skills) that can also be bought from aforementioned merchants (both tricks and auras can be improved with skill points as well). Finally, gaining reputation in the game allows you to choose a number of different perks, which do anything from improving your ghostly companions health and respawn time (more on that later) or giving you additional inventory space. None of the skills/tricks/auras/perks are too exciting as they fall into the usual range of powers we’ve all seen before, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as thinking up brand new RPG skills has to be pretty tough right now. When activated, they do look pretty neat but aren’t as flashy as other games in the genre.
Your Ghostly Companion
One of the big differences in TIAVH is the inclusion of a ghostly companion named Lady Katarina who acts in a similar way as the pets from Torchlight II. While she can fight effectively as well as acting as a pack mule for loot or as an errand runner (you can send her back to town to sell things or pick up items), she actually turns out to be a much deeper NPC that can be customized to fit whatever role you you need her in. She has 3 forms she can switch between (one for melee, one for ranged and one that boosts your resistances) and can be equipped with weapons and armor just like your character (though she has a few less item slots than Van Helsing does). She can also level up has a variety of skills and attributes she can place points into. I ended up using her as a ranged fighter while my character took on enemies up close and personal, which made us into quite the team. That being said, Lady Katarina can be a bit annoying as her comedic styling is quite lacking.
The biggest disappointment in terms of character progression turns out to be one of the main motivators for people playing ARPGs – the loot. While loot flows freely and is diverse in terms of it’s attributes, your character’s appearance stays static throughout the game. Perhaps that’s a bit shallow of me, but I like to see my character improve on the outside as much as on the inside and that doesn’t really happen outside of slight graphical alterations in the weaponry. Additionally, the type of weapons you find is limited to dual pistols, dual swords, long guns or big swords. I realize that Van Helsing’s look is distinct and altering it might take away from the fiction, but gamers are spoiled in terms of this category and enjoy seeing what a new pair of pants or hat looks like.
The Big Picture
TIAVH is a solid ARPG, though not one that’s going to overtake the genre. The multiplayer is pretty weak currently (as in it struggles to work and there aren’t that many people online) and while Neocore did add some additional content in the form of a free patch, there’s sn’t as much there to make you want to dive back into the game. I liked the tower defense aspect that came into play later on, but would have liked to see it fleshed out a bit more and feel more important. I hate to keep making indirect comparisons to the ARPG powerhouses that are currently vying for the throne, but it’s going to take a lot for TIAVH to go toe to toe with them.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is a budget title and players will get more than their money’s worth out of it. It lacks AAA polish, but not in an obstructive way at all. I’ll be curious to see how the devs continue to support it, but in the mean time it’s a perfectly respectable game that does enough different to feel unique without rocking the boat. If you’re a fan of ARPGs, TIAVH is well worth the price though only as a means of taking a breather from the more important pointing and clicking on your schedule.
Reflex Review – Like a memorable meal, some games make a big enough impression that you’ve got to tell other people about them before they’re fully digested.