The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing – Review
Back in 1897, Bram Stoker brought Dracula to life, so to speak, and with such a fine fantasy villain came an equally-fine (if oft forgotten) archenemy, and perhaps one of the first monster hunters of modern literature – Professor Van Helsing. Now leap forward a hundred or so years, via countless adaptations of the tale and its characters, to 2013 and a small Hungarian independent development studio with their interpretation of the continuing tale – The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing.
NeocoreGames have taken the story of Abraham Van Helsing, expanding and extending it into a beautifully-twisted 19th-century European gothic-noir setting, bringing us Abraham Van Helsing Junior, the son of the legend who has some very big shoes to fill.
The storyline follows the adventures of the young Van Helsing as he answers a call for help that had been sent to his father from the kingdom of Borgovia. The region is in a state of upheaval, under the influence of a mad scientist and his evil creations. Our young hero is not alone in his quest though; he is accompanied by Lady Katarina, the ghost of a noble woman who was once rescued from Borgovia by Van Helsing Senior and ethereally-bound to serve the family as a result. Lady Katarina not only keeps Van Helsing on his toes with her intelligent banter and wit, but also fights alongside him against his enemies, offering advice and guidance at times, and an alternative point of view on the goings-on throughout the game.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is an action role-playing game that has been crafted along the lines of Diablo III, but one which takes that dungeon crawling premise and refines it wonderfully. The setting is beautifully rendered in fine detail with the world of Borgovia and its surrounding areas springing to life as you follow the story through the wilderness of the Thunderhead Mountains via the Gallowsbog to reach the capital city of Borgova.
It would spoil the experience to say much more about the storyline, but Neocore have made a compelling tale filled with humour and surprises; a story they’ve somehow managed to slip effortlessly into an action-filled game in such a way that it doesn’t feel stilted or slow at any point; it genuinely draws you in, nurturing the desire to see it through. A rare quality.
In the opening sequences that introduce the story, the hero and his companion are so perfectly presented that they need to be experienced, and admired for their simplicity. They set the scene perfectly and you begin your adventures knowing that you are on the path to something special, and potentially life changing for the young Van Helsing. The introduction fades and you soon find yourself beset by enemies a good distance short of your assumed destination, so the combat starts in earnest almost immediately. If you’ve never played this type of game before there are the now-commonplace hints and tips during this section of the game and the controls are explained in detail as you proceed. Your base weapons of dual swords and pistols are not particularly powerful but they are enough to see you through the first few fights until you liberate some better, stronger, bigger and faster items from your vanquished foes or loot them from the chests, boxes and corpses that are liberally dotted around the landscape.
For those who like such things, the variation of weapons and armour (as well as amulets, rings, essences, boots, cloaks and hats) is staggering. Your inventory slots fill up quickly and you soon find yourself having to become choosy about what you hang on to, as you can’t sell anything until you’ve reached some vestige of civilisation. Fear not however; you won’t have to leave too much loot behind as your beautiful, ghostly companion can carry a fair amount and Neocore have foregone the often-irritating feature of over-encumbrance that so many RPGs feel compelled to include. There is also the ability to create your own weapons and armour by taking those you’ve found along the way and combining them to forge new items, with the option of adding essences to different items to enhance their powers – a system that is sometimes a little fickle but worth playing with to see what wonders you can create to help you along your way.
The combat system is simple, while occasionally frustrating, especially if you’re surrounded by enemies and want to retreat. A left click of the mouse is used to both direct your character around the map, and select whichever enemy you wish to attack; a right click is used for your secondary attack/special attack in the same way and can sometimes feel a little clunky when you first start playing. As with any control system, however, you soon get used to it and find yourself flailing away at the hordes surrounding you and effortlessly (almost… depending on how surrounded you are) skipping away to allow your health to regenerate or gain yourself some much-needed room to breathe before wading back in. There is also an option to quickly switch between your melée weapons (a variety of swords and knives) and your ranged weapons (pistols, muskets and rifles) to dish out damage and death to your attackers, as well as invoke the occasional spell-like ability, glug a potion or eventually escape using a well-chosen moment to teleport back to the peace of the nearest town.
The wonderful folk at Neocore have also given you the ability to have two different combinations of attack/special attack ready for each type (melée and ranged) so you can easily switch tactics and damage types depending on the enemies you face. Those enemies are many, and quite tough at times; their sizes ranging from the small-but-resilient Igors through to the larger, massive-damage-dealing Maegisters. Naturally, as you progress, your foes become tougher and harder to kill, and the end of level bosses can be complete bastards at times. You WILL find yourself dead from time to time, and each death presents three options – respawn where you died for a mere 10% of your gold (painful when you’ve hoarded many thousands of coins), respawn at the last checkpoint for only 5%, or back at the town/secret lair with no financial penalty. If you’re anything like me, death is a very expensive experience in this game as I have yet to choose anything but respawning where I fall.
The mapping of the keys for all your abilities and actions is pretty standard fare and can be remapped should you have a particular preference but, in all honesty, the default positions for everything is very intuitive and shouldn’t cause any undue frustrations when getting acclimatised to them.
In an interesting move by Neocore, the RPG element of levelling up has a dual-experience system. Both Van Helsing junior and his lovely ethereal companion gain XP for killing enemies or completing quests. Both are awarded with extra ability points to be used in enhancing their capabilities in areas such as body, willpower, luck and dexterity, as well as skill points to use in building a repertoire of enhanced attacks, passive skills and auras. The skill trees for all of these look a little daunting at first but they soon begin to make sense. There is also a number of perks to choose from as you progress via their own secondary XP and levelling system as well as some extra skills to be learned from NPCs along the way. You pay for the privilege of the education, but it does give you enhanced options for both combat and protection, which I thought was a nice touch.
Lady Katarina’s skill tree is a little simpler, and she appears to earn XP slower than the main character, but that’s to be expected of a character over whom you have very limited control. Those controls are set in her character sheet and include specifying which of the dropped items she can collect on your behalf and whether she attacks up close or at range. You can also choose her enhanced attacks and auras to best compliment your own choices as Van Helsing as well as give her a selection of armour, rings, pendants and weapons to use.
The maps and environments you encounter are beautiful and can be particularly vast. Not Battlefield 3 vast, but certainly large enough to make the many quests and side quests feel worthwhile and require a hefty amount of wandering to de-fog the on-screen mini-map and its larger counterpart. After all, nobody likes blacked-out areas in their maps. Watch out for the frequent trips into The Ink – another dimension where magic reigns and nightmares dwell – as the rendering of these areas is a real thing of dark beauty.
There are a couple of co-op multiplayer options for up to four players, with the option to play your current character, or create a specific one for playing with others, and you can opt to either follow the storyline or pick the newer scenario that was added after release. This drops you into the Secret Lair in Borgova and allows you to choose areas to travel to via the portals dotted around the maps. You can play with your friends or find other players online to join in with, but finding randoms is a little hit and miss I found. The perils of a lesser-known game, perhaps?
All in all, Neocore have done a wonderful job with The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing. They have taken a game style (that of Diablo) and expanded the functionality to suit their own vision. They’ve taken a long standing story and given it a new dimension and setting. But, above all, they’ve taken their vision and presented it to the consumer in a way that shows they care about games, about story, about art, about humour and about bringing those elements together in the most beautiful way they possibly could.Pros
- Beautifully-rendered environments
- Easy-to-learn controls
- Plenty of skills and enhancements to your abilities
- A compelling storyline filled with humour
- Some very, very funny nods to pop culture and classic films (worth playing to try and spot these)
- A multitude of weapons and armour, essences and potions
- Extensive skills and levelling up
- Forging, enhancing and enchanting items
- I am struggling to find real cons for this game. In the interests of balance I'll say that the combat at times does feel a little clunky, but that doesn't detract from the overall feel of the game at all as you soon get used to the way things work and figure it into your playing style.
A year ago, I watched as fellow GL writer Chris was given the chance to play a pre-beta version of the game at E3, and in the following months Neocore have refined, refined and refined their vision to produce something which totally blows away most of the competition, placing their title on a par with the veritable giants of Blizzard and their RPG classic - something which other indie developers can take comfort and inspiration from, I'm sure. Very few games have captured my attention and imagination the way that The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing has, and I honestly believe that it has surpassed Diablo in its execution.
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