The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is a Diablo clone, originally released as a three part series on PC. While it remains visually gorgeous, its amalgamation and transition to the Xbox console has created some clunky mechanics and frustratingly difficult scenarios.
You play as Van Helsing – the son of the Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – who, along with his companion Katarina is responding to a letter that calls his father to the mysterious land of Borgovia. Or Borgova. Or Borgoveria. Honestly the pronunciation of the place varies so much that I may as well call it Atlantis. Semantics aside, the inevitable happens and you can’t travel to Borgovy-whatever the normal way. In taking the detour the inevitable happens again and you take another detour. And after taking the most round about, enemy ridden route and fighting a few ridiculously enjoyable boss battles, you find yourself at a Palace of Machines, standing over the corpse of a mad scientist.
Then the game abruptly ends and you realise that aside from travelling to the city of disputed pronunciation you have no idea what you were doing or why you were doing it. In short, the story isn’t the strong point of The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing; at best it’s a gigantic long way round, and at worst a poorly thought out excuse to warrant the production of the game.
Now, I’ve played and enjoyed many games with less-than-stellar stories. And the reason these games were enjoyable was because they acknowledged that narrative wasn’t their forte, placed gameplay in the foreground and spent as little time as possible shoving their story down your throat. I loved Skate 3 but I couldn’t tell you the reason why I was skating. Nor could I tell you why exactly I was exploring Pandora in Borderlands, but the exploration was still fun. Honestly, had the game taken a leaf from these proverbial books, it would have excelled but instead The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing spends its time forcing us into cringe worthy conversations with two dimensional characters about a story that we don’t understand, let alone care about.
From here out I’ll refer to Neocore’s Action-Role-Playing outing simply as Van Helsing. The main reason I do this is because, like most of the game’s dialogue, the title is unnecessarily wordy yet, at the same time, fairly juvenile. The intro cinematic sets this precedent, introducing the characters and plot in the longest and simplest way possible. The premise of this cinematic is sound, but, like that game’s story, poor characterisation and poorer writing hold it back. If only the story and dialogue had been handled with the same subtlety as the game’s lore. Established only through mentions of past times and occurrences, the lore of Van Helsing is minimalistic yet intriguing. Pop culture references to Vampire films and even Lord of The Rings, are a welcome comedic relief. And in commending Neocore, I can’t forget the genuine chemistry between Helsing and Katarina. The voice acting, at least for these two characters, is commendable. Their banter is amusing and, when coupled their talk of previous adventures, adds a depth to their relationship that is lacking in the majority of gameplay. All in all, in terms of narrative and dialogue, Van Helsing leaves a lot to be desired.
Lazy storytelling aside, the game is actually fairly intriguing. But as all interesting and ugly people will know, it’s difficult to engage an audience after giving a repelling first impression. Luckily for Neocore, the Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is far from ugly. The game does suffer from its shaky introduction, but the level and character are too brilliant not to draw that audience in. Both are beautifully and equally diverse. Even during my first playthrough, I could easily differentiate between environments. Borgovy-whatnot’s steampunk aesthetic is starkly different to the Thunderhead Mountains’ forests. And even the Ink worlds are interesting and psychedelic, though their inclusion in the game is an unexplained annoyance at best. As the game progresses, there are appearances of re-skinned and steroided-up, versions of previously fought enemies – The Pale Gentlemen and the Lesoviks come to mind here . But the changes in environment and skins are enough to hold your interest and that, in itself, is an immense compliment to the game’s design.
Also, the boss battles are phenomenal. Even if I had no idea why I was fighting them, the battles with The Drill Worm and Profressor Fulmigati were addictively enjoyable. The game would have benefitted significantly from increasing the frequency of these types of battles. The ‘take five steps and get swarmed by enemies” style of gameplay gets dull quite quickly. Even so, the team at Neocore have structured the gameplay perfectly; every time I felt myself losing interest, I’d face a boss and my enjoyment would be renewed.
Van Helsing’s skill system is also well done. Thoughtful upgrading of your character is necessary to progress in the story, and the vast majority of skills are surprisingly useful – at least in their upgraded forms. On the downside, the effects of skills, tricks and auras are, for the most part, only understandable through trial and error. And the game would have done well to properly introduce the idea of powerups and combos and to explain how they differ from the manual activation of “rage”.
In fact, apart from the obligatory explaining that X does this and Y does that, Van Helsing hardly teaches players anything. It specifically doesn’t mention that it’s very easy to accidentally change what X and Y do. Now, I’m not, nor will I pretend to be, a veteran in the realm of top-down adventure-RPGs, so perhaps I’m lacking in the knowledge that Neocore assumes its audience to have. But even if I am, Van Helsing’s lack of proper tutorial still seems negligent; it isn’t a clever or minimalistic way of increasing difficulty, it’s lazy and frustrating. And more than this, it makes the game feel like it’s throwing you in the pool and yelling “backstroke!” from the sideline, knowing full well that you haven’t the faintest idea how to swim. Let alone how to differentiate between strokes.
Due partly to this lack of explanation Van Helsing’s difficulty is ferocious, not in the Dark Souls sense of clever-yet-rewarding difficulty, where death means rethinking your approach and victory brings with it a sense of accomplishment. What we have in Van Helsing is a type of difficulty where death means “this is impossible” and victory means “thank God that’s over”. At the start of the game I was swarmed by enemies that I had no idea how to deal with. So I died. And by the time I’d deciphered the secrets of ‘rage combos’ and tactical upgrading, I’d be swarmed by three million ranged enemies – each with three million hitpoints – who’d attack simultaneously and kill me in one fell conjoined swoop.
And these issues are made worse by certain mechanics. For one, you can’t move and attack. If this is meant to make battles more strategic, it doesn’t. Instead, it usually results in you being enveloped by enemies. This would, I assume, give rise to the “shoot and run” strategy on PC. However, on Xbox, the PC’s point and click method of aiming is replaced with… nothing. You literally can’t aim your ranged attacks. I mean, you can turn in a direction and shoot, but the game selects your target for you. And given the fact that you’re usually being chased by at least thirty enemies, it seldom chooses the same enemy twice.
These mechanics don’t destroy the game, it’s just that once you’ve adjusted to them the game is over. Of course, this opens up the possibilities of Never-ending Story, Scenario and Multiplayer modes. Never-ending story mode, is essentially identical to a New Game+ mode, it ups all the monsters to level 30+ and increases chances of epic item drops. The mode is a standard addition to RPGs these days and in Van Helsing’s case it allows you to restart the story with a understanding of the game’s mechanics and upgrade systems. While the multiplayer mode seems like an obligatory addition, it’s one of the game’s most enjoyable features. Character models of Van Helsing don’t change between accounts, but the top-down perspective and randomly generated loot prevent any confusion between characters. And the goal-based system actually creates an interesting dynamic in PvP matches. Scenario mode is essentially a story-less version of the game, where you are thrust into certain ‘scenarios’ with a goal or objective. Here, the game shakes most of its flaws. While the enemies are harder than in story mode, the lack of ridiculous dialogue and character interactions are a welcome change. It’s just a shame that this mode wasn’t included as a main focus of the game. For, without the story, the game is in its element.
On the whole, for a game that in its title boasts of incredible adventures, Van Helsing doesn’t quite live up. Don’t get me wrong, the good parts of are fantastic, but the bad parts are equally horrible and almost as frequent. The story is arduous, yet the art is breathtaking and while the boss battles are spectacular, they aren’t frequent enough to fully redeem the tedious gameplay in between.
See, the thing with the Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, is that it’s just not that incredible. And it’s generally a problem when products fail to live up to their advertisements. That said, I don’t think that a game like this one would benefit from a title as lengthy and honest as “The Kinda Good But Not-Quite-Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing”.