Van Helsing is an old, familiar name. Since his debut in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, the professional vampire hunter has appeared in over 20 films and across the breath of the entertainment medium, often killing more than his original prey. Neocore Games, the developer responsible for the King Arthur strategy series, brings the character alive once more in a new, action RPG adventure in the style of Diablo and Titan Quest.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing features the original character's son, carrying on name and tradition, traveling with his ghost companion Katarina to sever limbs and solve mysteries through the fictional Eastern European kingdom of Borgovia, a land under siege by monsters and tyrants. And as an action RPG, monsters are in no short supply.
However, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing's emphasis is seemingly with its protagonists and its setting. That emphasis is reinforced as Van Helsing is the only playable character - offline and online - and with the lack of any new game plus options. But as disappointing at that may sound to some, Van Helsing and Katarina bring a lot of charm to a game that's lengthy, costs little, and features more content than others three to four times its price.
And those characters certainly have a lot to say. The two comment on their journey often, with Katarina's sarcasm bouncing off Van Helsing's somewhat professional attitude. Their conversations are endearing and fun, and I appreciated the infusion of life in a genre generally about causing a lot of death. But don't expect any character development nor a deep plot. The focus is instead on their banter, which is perfectly acceptable for an action RPG about killing werewolves, British automatons and frog men.
Of course, it wouldn't be a game about Van Helsing if it didn't feature some amount of hunting. Across the relatively large maps are numerous secrets to find and special monsters to fight. Neocore manages to make those discoveries more interesting than just the unearthing of generous treasure chests, as well. They are often multi-tiered and fit well into a world of grim fantasy. One involved finding a strange well and later using its grease to remove Excalibur from its stone. Others involved following a strange wisp, finding a red button eager to be pushed, aligning ancient frog statues or being unexpected transported to a strange dimension, with delightful commentary from Katarina through them all. These amusing secrets, and the ensuing dialogue, made me engaged to scour each corner.
Equally engaging were the rewards it gave me for being an accomplished treasure hunter and killer of nasty beasties. Van Helsing's leveling system is reminiscent of Titan Quest, my all-time favorite action RPG, with the option to freely spend ability points between the melee, ranged and magic trees. This offers a lot of a choice in how to build a character, but Van Helsing takes it one step further by adding several powerups to unlock for each ability and a reputation system for earning perks. Those perks have to be earned not just by increasing one's reputation level, but through discovery.
Unfortunately, while the game's protagonists and world have character, its combat has little. Standing amongst the horde as a one-man army is on such draw in action RPGs, but Van Helsing takes this quite literally, occasionally the n-th degree, and without much nuance. The result is something that feels bland rather than exciting.
Or more specifically, it feels quite a bit like Painkiller. What worked in that first-person shooter doesn't quite meld with Van Helsing's designs in a way I particularly found enjoyable by game's end. Enemies constantly move and attack in large swarms, to the point where I couldn't even see my character amongst battering foes and large damage numbers. And with limited crowd control options, ranged weaponry that only thinned the swarm instead of stopping them and with only four ability slots, most engagements were fought hugging the hordes while I stood stationary, holding down the right-mouse button for the effective area of effect ability I found as I struggled to see where I was until I could see again.
There was little intelligence to that madness. When death came during times I couldn't abuse potion spams - it wasn't uncommon for me to have and use hundreds of health potions on my person, as gold was abundant, the potions cheap and their cooldown low - I got the impression it was difficult not because I was underutilizing my abilities or from varied enemy tactics, but because the only tactic they had was the zerg rush. Eventually I settled on the melee tree with its Cleave ability, health leech powerups, increased parrying chance and higher defense to survive rather than using the weapons and abilities I initially found interesting. Other abilities, including the higher tiered ones, didn't seem to have the same level of effectiveness for keeping me alive. For a skill tree that offered a lot of options, it was disappointing to find that not many of them worked as well as I'd hoped. And in the end, not only were my fingers growing tired from the monotonous repetition, but so was my patience.
That problem may be minimized in multiplayer through the cooperation of other players, however, but at the time of review that feature was broken. All I had by my side was Katarina. Not surprisingly for an AI companion, she wasn't very good at taking hits nor dealing them. Leveling her with combat attributes and skills did not keep her from constant death. It was often best to set her to the Ghost mode via the wide range of behavior options, a form where she can't be attacked and one that provides Van Helsing with resistances, and to utilize her as a pack mule instead of trying to get her to pack a punch.
For 15 dollars, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is a large package. I enjoyed the playful dialog between Van Helsing and Katarina, the search for secrets across a grim fantasy setting with strange beasts and dangerous machines. But while some may enjoy standing amongst several dozen enemies, trying to find the right distribution of attributes, abilities and equipment in order to survive, I found the lack of nuance and strategy tiresome. Van Helsing's incredible adventures simply became incredibly tedious.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing: 7 out of 10.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.