If Torchlight is Diablo’s little brother, the family just welcomed another baby into the world: The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is available on Steam for $15. An XBLA version is also in the works.
Van Helsing may not be the kind of action-RPG that will have you addicted for months as you spend hundreds of hours tracking down every last piece of loot, but it will definitely keep you hooked through the campaign with its unique aesthetic, simple combat, huge and diverse maps, and great dialogue. And that makes Van Helsing well worth the price of admission despite some important problems, in particular a multiplayer experience that is still unstable.
As you might guess from the title, Van Helsing has a few ties to Bram Stoker’s Dracula . You play as Abraham Van Helsing Jr., son of the protagonist of Stoker’s novel, and you explore a stylized version of Eastern Europe in the 19th century.
This game doesn’t pretend to be faithful to the universe Stoker created, though: Abraham is a monster hunter like his father, but his world is one of bizarre, old-timey technology and countless breeds of evil creatures. You’ll encounter not only the expected vampires and werewolves, but also other haunted animals, bewitched magicians, and mad scientists. This is Dracula meets steampunk with a heavy dose of random weirdness injected.
That is the biggest departure Van Helsing makes from its competitors. Each and every screen of this game is teeming with a gothic atmosphere that Diablo and its ilk simply do not have, backed by a spooky soundtrack. To make things even more interesting, the developers made sure that your hero and his ghost sidekick, Lady Katarina, never take themselves too seriously. Throughout the campaign, the dialogue — all of which is entertainingly voice acted — is consistently punctuated with clever one-liners. This is the first action-RPG I’ve played where I actually bothered to follow along with the conversations.
Van Helsing distinguishes itself when it comes to gameplay, too. Sure, all the basics are familiar: You click (and click and click and click and click) to attack enemies. The bad guys explode into piles of loot. There are systems you can use to modify items, and to craft new items out of old ones. You can send Lady Katarina to sell loot for you while you’re questing, eliminating a trip to town, just as you could do with your pet in Torchlight.
But Van Helsing twists things just enough to make itself unique. In general, the developers kept the gameplay simple while including a lot of nuance just under the surface.
For example, you won’t have a ton of different attacks to choose from at any given time. You can assign two attack buttons, and that’s it. You can also use health and mana potions, as well as activate two special abilities. Having things boiled down this far is nice; it allows you to focus on the action instead of the controls. It should also make the game translate to XBLA better when the time comes.
What’s more, there are no classes here. Abraham and Lady Katarina can both use magic, ranged weapons, and melee weapons. If you want them to specialize in one particular area, you need to build them that way over the course of the game. You can set a variety of parameters for Lady Katarina to go along with her build. Obviously, if you’re pouring all her skill points into making her better with ranged weapons, you probably shouldn’t set her to use her melee attacks.
But there’s a lot more going on than it may seem at first. You and Lady Katarina each have elaborate skill trees to work with, along with various perks and skills to choose from. There is really no limit to the type of character you can make — as you play, you’ll discover your strengths and weaknesses, and there will be character improvements that can help you. And if you end up with a character you don’t like, you can spend some money on a respec. I personally went with a melee-focused Abraham and had Lady Katarina help from afar.
The Rage system is also interesting. This is a meter that builds as you fight, and you can use it to change the way your attacks work in up to three different ways. With the push of a button you can make your next sword swing or rifle shot especially dangerous to the monsters you face, and the different options allow you to tailor your Rage use to fit the situation (stunning powerful enemies, for example). In addition, some passive skills give you a bonus when your Rage meter is full, so sometimes it’s best to just let your anger fester.
Then, once you get used to all this, the game throws in other complications, such as having you set up traps tower defense style.
Van Helsing also offers multiplayer, but, unfortunately, it’s rather unstable; the developers are warning players to use a separate character for online play because there are still some data loss issues. I trust this will be cleared up in time, but if single-player isn’t your thing, you might want to hold off until the online component is working better.
Aside from that, my biggest complaint is something I could say about most action-RPGs: When you’re playing alone, dying is really obnoxious. You can pay to respawn nearby, but if you don’t have enough cash or don’t want to waste it, you have to start back at your home base. Then, after a minimum of two different loading screens, when you return to the area where you died, all the progress you made is preserved.
Basically, it wastes your time but doesn’t make you redo anything, which is the exact opposite of how dying in a game should work. Instead of forcing you to play better, it just makes you play longer. Why not have normal checkpoints — ones that reset your progress to an earlier point and put you immediately back in the game?
There are a few other issues, too, though none really detract from the experience. There’s some slowdown when a lot of enemies are on the screen, a minor graphical hiccup here and there, the occasional bug that hasn’t been squashed, etc.
But at $15, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is a great buy for action-RPG fans. Not only is the Dracula-inspired setting a nice change of scenery, but the interesting gameplay and great dialogue are sure to keep players engrossed. This is an action-RPG that offers more than just addictive loot gathering, and that’s something we don’t see enough of.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.8 Graphics
This is a good-looking game, but there’s some slowdown and other minor glitchiness. 4.0 Control
Click, click, click, click, click. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is spooky, and the voice acting is entertaining. 3.6 Play Value
The campaign is a great buy, but multiplayer is still unstable. 3.7 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best