The world of exemplary downloadable titles has been unstoppable lately. Last month's Don’t Starve, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon – three equally attractive bargains more well received than most triple-A releases – plundered wallets. Now gamers can add The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing to their wishlists. By all estimates, we were overdue for another action RPG, and with its invaluable companion system, Van Helsing closely resembles Torchlight II. But what appears to be just another Diablo clone would be a disingenuous label. Neocore Games' pairing of gothic, steampunk noir with pop culture innuendos captivates the player more than Diablo III’s world ever could.
I, however, will not defend the skeletal plot. These adventures do not star the Van Helsing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Instead, players don the cape and stetson of the retired professor’s son, who receives urgent news from Borgovia’s waning resistance about an evil scientist doing evil things to evil monsters. It’s underwhelming with the limited context, but even before the journey begins, Van Helsing narrates his past travels with companion Katarina, which all sound more enticing than what the actual story offers. What happened with the Crimean War Dragon? Did they slay the Kraken on the Pirate Sea? How did they elude the Sphinx and her riddles?
At worst, none of those quandaries detract from the world that Neocore lovingly crafted, even when sharing nineteenth-century Europe with werewolves, ghouls, and banshees has its drawbacks. For one, many of the land’s inhabitants would sooner feast on you than with you, and while mobs that include two dozen harpies, floating brains, and mechanical tin men also become the haunting norm, you – the progeny of the great Abraham Van Helsing – are no uneducated bandit. Trained by his father, Van Helsing wields a collection of pistols, swords, and rifles between ranged and melee stances, and with every new level comes unlockable elemental attacks. Players may equip two of these abilities per stance, and it wasn’t long before I was channeling icicles, flames, and poison through my pistols while casting earth-quaking shockwaves and lightning with my claymore. It’s all familiar yet pleasingly foreign.
This would not be an action RPG without floating numbers, enchanted weapons, or perma-death difficulties.
Rage further augments the player as a force of medieval reckoning. The longer you go without accruing damage (quite easy with high dexterity gear), the more rage Van Helsing builds, which fuels three temporary upgrades unique to each active skill. You may strengthen your paltry pistols with volatile shrapnel and slowing effects, or make your blades arc lighting to additional enemies with a chance to kill them instantly. If managing your rage, health, and magic meters becomes too taxing for your fingers, the spacebar queues up preset power-ups, and Van Helsing will auto-consume potions after checking the appropriate menu option. It is a welcome concession indeed. How often, when playing action RPGs, have you been too focused on who you were targeting and not who was hitting back? The ignorant perish at the drop of a hat here, so letting the game handle several critical functions freed up my attention elsewhere.
Tricks and auras round out the statistical number crunching, then. Auras are state-dependent – you only receive that 20 percent boost to your critical damage while at max rage – whereas tricks require a cooldown. A quick teleport through and away from adversaries may save your life, for example, if you can survive the next 30 seconds – a veritable lifetime when enveloped by teeth and claws.
To actually pull off the combos I described, you will need a well-rounded character with plenty of mana regeneration. But the game’s 30 levels limit the extent to which players can shape their characters. It’s not that you can’t experiment (you can reset your skill points for a nominal fee), it’s that doing so usually gets you killed. If you truly want to see what the final tiers of ranged or melee combat unleash, you need to commit fully one way or the other. Neocore still breaks from the rigid mold (completing quests awards spare skill points), though players will never max out their champions, since the developers refuse to include New Game+ options.
Let your OCD tendencies go. You will never max out your skill trees.
Lucky for you, Katarina can fill several gaps left by your tank or DPS stratagems. Of former nobility, beheaded, then turned vengeful spirit, Katarina ensures players will never brave mountains, mines, and ghost towns singlehandedly. You might think her ethereal situation would be an impedance, yet the buxom baroness would simply scoff. She can hold her own against the forces of darkness while also assisting the heir to the Van Helsing bloodline. As such, Katarina’s skills aid her living, breathing companions through passive perks that minimize injuries, replenish Van Helsing’s health and mana after each strike, increase one’s attack speed, etc.
Truly, Katarina remains vital to your survival. Whether she fights alongside you in suffocating close quarters or lends buffs to your physical and magical resistances in her normal, ghostly state, Katarina remains a better co-op partner than most online gamers. But stat increases are not the sole benefits she provides. Even with her undead worldview, Katarina never misses the chance for sarcastic retorts. From her jokes about abandoning Van Helsing to buying a pony and stealing his gear, it is apparent the two adventurers share a mischievous history together, a history I would love to see made public. All their compelling chemistry appears to have sparked early on, off camera, because Van Helsing and Katarina never grow as characters throughout the game’s story.
Still, Incredible Adventures draws parallels with Torchlight II’s pet system, as Neocore borrows one more favorable feature from Runic Games. Although Europe’s nightmarish creatures hoard untold amounts of gold just begging to be pilfered, Van Helsing can only carry so many weapons and armor. Given her netherworld powers, however, Katarina can effortlessly teleport home, sell all your unwanted inventory, and buy more potions while you continue your quest unabated.
You do not mess with Lady Katarina.
Players can do so much more with Katarina, too. She will instantly gather gold and armor from decomposing enemies, though you can set the rarity of the loot Katarina recovers and have her ignore items that sell below a certain threshold. Players can even select how aggressive she behaves in a fight. You could make her assist you with the same creature you’re currently pummeling, attack the weakest beast of the bunch, or assault the monster most vulnerable. While I initially thought of her as a floating backpack, Katarina really does come into her own, and I always regretted sending her away.
At least when I died repeatedly, that is. When you reach that inevitability, you can resurrect in one of three places: in town for free, at a checkpoint for a fee, or in the exact spot you perished for slightly more gold. Neocore are generous about the last option. When you respawn on the same ground where you bit the dust, you become intangible for several seconds, giving you precious room to escape with your life once more.
The enemies, on the other hand, do not respawn, removing the herniating grind for weapons, armor, and levels synonymous with old action RPGs. Sometimes I simply want to sign out without fear that all my exploration, that all my current area progress, will be reset. Van Helsing caters to those people. Although maps are not randomized like Diablo III, they seem quite spacious. Several environments took upwards of an hour to clear before the last outline of the map was filled in, and hundreds – yes, hundreds – of monsters occupy each area. I kid not when I say abominations aggro to you every ten feet. I am not claustrophobic by any means, be the setting virtual or real, but the repetition became very nauseating after several continuous hours.
Low on health? Tempt your enemies to fight each other.
What I never tired of were the tower defense missions. After reaching Borgovia, you are granted access to a secret lair, whose name probably needs changing due to the enemies that constantly pour through its demonic gates. To protect your underground abode, you must construct traps from scrap metal, and the cave’s generator only powers so many. But all the defenses fit wonderfully in line with the gothic setting. Enemies will have to run a gambit of pitfalls that tenderize, electrify, immolate, and catapult intruders to their doom.
There are pop culture references abound for those proficient with classical film, literature, and video games, too. For every silhouetted tower teeming with werewolves, there’s an answer to life, the universe, and everything (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). For every battle with a giant spider, there’s a Gollum parody from The Lord of the Rings. For every merchant that wants to sell you his wares, there’s an “arrow to the knee” joke. The reverence does not stop there. The writing contains allusions to Highlander, the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the legendary Excalibur.
Players are liable to miss these comical moments in the company of three impatient friends. Van Helsing supports four cooperative, would-be heroes, and with no rigidly defined classes, allies are free to experiment without regret. The multiplayer contains a sizable community, and after the initial patch, many of my connectivity issues were resolved. It is still not the ideal way to play the game should you want to scour the world for secrets, but the option’s there.
Several battles become Where's Waldo? hunts for Van Helsing.
Clocking around 15 hours, the campaign’s length will net you plenty bang for your buck. I normally advocate for better storytelling in video games, but action RPGs remain the subgenre where I can truly ignore the narrative idiocy and savor my time making nightmares fear me. The team at Neocore Games spent its time wisely, ensuring the gameplay never grows stale for a game of this size, with a well-crafted setting filled with decades of monster mythos. Add pop culture references out the wazoo and Neocore’s supernatural development speaks for itself. Not bad for “another Diablo clone.”
Publisher: Neocore Games
Developer: Neocore Games
Release Date: May 22, 2013
Number of Players: 1-4 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)