Van Helsing plays it safe, but a few risks taken with setting and dialogue pay off in this engaging Action RPG.
Isn’t it funny how expectations can affect how you appreciate things? Diablo 3 was meant to be the Action Role Playing Game to end all ARPGs but, DRM issues and some questionable gameplay designs meant that Blizzard’s Diablo sequel was crushed under its own hype. Cue Van Helsing, a veritable Diablo clone that, despite following the ARPG formula to the letter, manages to excel in a way that the over-hyped Diablo 3 could not.
Rather than controlling the famous monster hunter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula himself, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing casts you as his son. Though you technically create your hero as a result, this basically means picking a colour for your cloak and an appropriate name. More customisation would have been appreciated, but Van Helsing places more of an emphasis on your combat abilities, with plentiful skill trees and unlock paths allowing you to make plenty of gameplay related choices for your character’s development.
Gameplay is very similar to other ARPGs such as Torchlight and Diablo, complete with copious clicking on enemies and more skills than you can shake a stick at. Van Helsing allows you to switch between ranged and melee weapons quickly, though you can’t use both simultaneously. Each weapon type has a large list of abilities for you to acquire, each possessing lots of different power-ups you can choose to invest in. Power-ups are manually activated abilities that modify a particular skill, so pressing the 1 key a couple of times can turn your standard sword attack into a life stealing menace. You build up rage as you fight that must then be spent to use these abilities though, so it never becomes overpowered but still adds a layer of depth to an otherwise conventional combat mechanic.
The problem with having so many skill variants is that Van Helsing stumbles in letting you control all of them. You can only assign two skills at any one time and, though you can swap between two skill banks with a press of the tab key, this still only means you have four skills available at any one time. Control issues get worse when you consider the potion shortcut keys. Q and W are used to activate health and mana potions but, being so close to the tab key meant I wound up wasting more potions than I care to say. Granted, this is more me being clumsy with a keyboard than anything else, but it still highlights a few problems with the default controls. You have some control over key bindings to alleviate this problem, but you can’t assign skill hot keys in the same way you could in Diablo 2, meaning I always felt I couldn’t quite engage my enemies in the way I wanted to in Van Helsing.
Outside of a few control issues, Van Helsing’s combat is intense and rewarding. The game does have a tendency to spam hordes of enemies at you, but with these large numbers comes a great sense of satisfaction when you best a tricky horde. The monster designs themselves are also a cut above other titles in the genre, with the 19th century European setting carving out a pleasant niche for The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. The Gothic themes shouldn’t put you off though, as the game never takes itself too seriously. This is best shown in Katarina, Van Helsing’s ghost sidekick. Having been bound to the Van Helsing family by your protagonist’s father, she follows you throughout the game almost unwillingly, regularly throwing in a quip to undermine your progress. The script is tight and playful, with Katarina’s dialogue eclipsing her questionable voice acting. This sharp wit is a high in Van Helsing, always offering a nice break from the intensity of the shoot and loot gameplay.
Katarina also acts as your partner in combat. You can equip her with much of the same loot as your hero and, as you can level her up in any way you please, it allows you to specialise both characters into any party composition you see fit. Having Katarina as an off-tank allowed me to DPS range the crap out of my Van Helsing but, if you find yourself making mistakes with your levelling, you can find one of the many vendors who will reset your skill points for a small fee. Van Helsing’s lenient checkpoints also allow the game to remain accessible in this fashion without compromising the difficulty of combat. This is what Diablo 3 should have done. Take note Blizzard.
It is a good thing Katarina is present as, without her, you’d have to rely on the game’s multiplayer to get any help in combat. Sadly, the multiplayer in Van Helsing is a poor mockery of a genre so geared for cooperative play. The server list is painfully sparse and, even when you do get a game, glitches never present in the single player mode suddenly appear. I don’t know if it’s a problem with Steam or the game itself, but getting kicked back to the desktop so regularly was a pain I could’ve done without. Even if you can get over the glitches and find a great game, the lack of player definition makes hectic battles turn into a complete mess of indistinguishable character models. At least the Van Helsing models have differing colours and weapons, whilst each players’ Katarina joins in looking identical, often creating heaps of confusion.
Online faults aside, Van Helsing is plenty of fun when playing solo. The quest for random loot is always engaging, even when new gear doesn’t quite have the diversity of the arsenal found in Torchlight and Diablo. Still, a snappy script and well paced progression allows Van Helsing room to become suspiciously addictive. It also helps that it sells for a budget price whilst offering stores of content for the dedicated. A big game for a small price makes everyone a happy gamer.
The main thorn in Van Helsing’s side is a lack of ambition. Certainly this matches its budget price tag, but you can’t help but feel Van Helsing could have been something really special if a few more risks were taken. The combat is fun and addicting, but hugely by the book. The graphics are polished and the setting unique, but much of the screen real estate is taken up by a somewhat clunky interface. If Van Helsing played a little less by the book these things could be totally forgiven. As it stands though, the only risk taken is with the script, a self aware and clever affair that never intrudes too much on the successful blend of loot and combat. Even with its flaws, NeoCore Games have achieved what Diablo 3 really should have done. No expectations lead to no disappointment in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing and, whilst it is a safe game, it is still a very enjoyable one.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Cool Eastern European setting, Entertaining script, Oddly addictive, Engaging power-up system, Lots of content
Mixed voice acting, Questionable controls, Tends to spam enemies, Weak multiplayer
A safe and by-the-numbers approach to the Action RPG formula, Van Helsing's unique setting and witty writing eclipse a few poor design choices.