The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Neocore Games
Release Date:2013-05-22
Genre:
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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Introduction

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is an action role-playing game from Neocore Games, which is probably best known as the developer behind King Arthur and King Arthur II, "the role-playing wargames" (released in 2009 and 2012).  In Van Helsing, you control Van Helsing's son in a world more related to the Van Helsing movie than to Bram Stoker's Dracula.  That is, in the game you and your father aren't academics with knowledge of monsters; you scour the globe hunting them down and killing them.

As Van Helsing opens up, the elder Van Helsing is sent a message from "the resistance" of Borgova asking him for help, but since Dad isn't available, you decide to take the job yourself, and together with a ghost named Katarina, you set off for the land of Borgovia (standing in for Transylvania), where Borgova is located.  Along the way, you're ambushed by bandits and have to deal with an outbreak of werewolves, but eventually you reach your destination, where you discover that the resistance is being led by a vampire, and that the main enemy is a mad scientist named Fulmigati, who plans to use a poison gas to turn the populace into his slaves.  ("That's insane," says Van Helsing.  "Which part of 'mad scientist' did you miss earlier?" asks Katarina.)  The main part of the game then involves you tracking down and defeating Fulmigati.

Characters

When you create your character in Van Helsing, you don't have to do much.  You just select a name, a color for your cape, and one of four difficulty settings (from "casual" to "heroic").  You can also make your character hardcore, where you're only allowed one death.  Fortunately, once you begin playing, you're given more options, and you're allowed to build up your character in any way you want.

Each character has four attribute scores -- Body (melee damage, defense and health), Dexterity (ranged damage and dodge), Wisdom (spellpower and mana), and Luck (critical damage, magic find, and dodge) -- and each time you gain a level, you're allowed to spend five points on these scores.  You can also improve your attributes by wearing the right equipment, solving quests, and by eating special foods.

Each character also has three skill trees available -- Mystic Warrior (melee skills), Occult Hunter (ranged skills), and Tricks and Auras (a mix of active and passive abilities).  The first two skill trees contain your basic combat skills, and they have eight active skills and three passive skills each.  Meanwhile, the Tricks and Auras section contains space for ten tricks and ten auras, but you have to find and purchase these abilities as you play your way through the campaign.

As an example, in the Mystic Warrior tree there are active skills for Strike (your basic melee attack), Cleave (where you hit all enemies in a 120-degree arc), Earthquake (an area-effect spell), and more, and there are passive skills for Parry Expertise (which increases your parry chance), Fury (which briefly increases your damage after you kill something), and Bodybuilding (which increases your hit points).  Meanwhile, in Tricks and Auras, you can purchase tricks such as Arcane Healing (which heals you and your allies) and Sphere of Timelessness (which stops time for a few seconds so you can escape a bad situation), and auras such as Hunter's Rejuvenation (which gives you health steal) and Treasure Hunter (which increases your magic find stat).

But wait, there's more!  Each active skill has three power-ups associated with it, which you can purchase with skill points just like the skills.  Power-ups add special bonuses to attacks, like a stun effect or extra damage, but they require rage, which you only earn after killing creatures, and so you can't use them all of the time.  Depending on how dexterous you are, you can add the power-ups individually just before you make an attack, or you can pre-define a set of power-ups and then release them with one key.  You can only add three power-ups (including multiples of the same power-up) to each attack.

Also, as you spend points in the Mystic Warrior and Occult Hunter skill trees, you increase the damage of the skills in those trees (where X points spent gives you a +X% bonus), and after every ten points spent (up to 50) you receive a new passive bonus.  That means while there aren't any restrictions where you can spend your skill points, it's better to focus on one of the two main skill trees rather than spread your points around, so you can maximize the damage that you do.
You can also earn perks for your character.  As you defeat boss creatures in the game, you earn reputation points, and then every time you earn a reputation level, you're allowed to select a perk.  Interestingly, most perks only become available once your character has met certain criteria.  For example, if you loot enough dead bodies, then you gain access to the Scavenger perk, which increases your magic find chance and your poison resistance; if you do enough elemental damage then you gain access to the Elementalist perk, which increases your elemental damage and your elemental resistance; and if you do enough melee damage, then you gain access to the Bully perk, which gives you a bonus to the Body attribute and also increases your sell prices.

Finally, since Katarina is your companion in the game, you can build her up as well.  She is a little more limited than you are -- she doesn't have any active skills or perks -- but she has attributes and a single skill tree (where her skills mostly just give you passive bonuses), and you can spend points in each.  Nicely, Katarina also has a behavior tab, where you can control some of her actions.  You can choose to have her use melee attacks or ranged attacks (or not fight at all), you can set up who she attacks (including your target or the target most vulnerable to her fighting style), and you can select the different types of loot she picks up (or none at all).  And just like in Torchlight, you can order Katarina to head back to town to sell her inventory and buy potions.

Engine

Van Helsing plays pretty much like every other action RPG out there -- which is good because it doesn't come with any sort of a manual, and it includes only minimal tutorial popups (which you can't reference later).  You use the left mouse button to move, pick up objects, interact with people, and attack (and you hold down the left mouse button to continue attacking, so the game isn't too rough on your mouse hand).  You use the right mouse button to attack with a secondary skill.  You use the shift key to attack without moving.  You use the 1-3 keys to add power-ups to attacks, or the spacebar to add your predefined power-ups.  You use the A and S keys to trigger tricks, and the Q and W keys to quaff health and mana potions (there is only one of each).  You can also use the function keys to switch between active skills, but I was pretty much at my limit with all of the other keys, and so I just assigned one skill to the left mouse button and another skill to the right mouse button, and I left it at that.

What sets Van Helsing apart is the setting.  You start out in an area of forests and swamps, where "murky" is the operative word, and then you move on the eastern European city of Borgova, which mixes together a 19th century look with a lot of strange, mechanical contraptions.  The graphics engine is more than capable of handling these sorts of locations, and I didn't have any trouble running the game at its maximum settings even though my computer is a couple years old.

Van Helsing also has a nice amount of variety with the creatures you face.  They're not just a bunch of melee and ranged fighters that look cosmetically different.  Some creatures breed other creatures, some grab you and draw you into melee range, some charge at you and bowl you over, some swing a large weapon that it's a good idea to dodge around, some toss bombs at you that you need to avoid, and more.  If you play the game at the "normal" difficulty setting then you might miss a lot of this, since at that difficulty you can pretty much just go toe-to-toe with everything, but if you make your way up to "heroic" then you really have to pay attention to what you're doing, and the detail of the enemies becomes more apparent.

The major boss fights also work well in the game, although surprisingly there are only two of them, one for each of the campaign's two acts.  At the end of the first act you face off against a Drill Worm and host of spiders, and then at the end of the game you have your showdown against Professor Fulmigati and his Doomsday Automaton.  The two boss fights are well thought out, they have tricks to them so you have to use some strategy in order to win, and they're pretty tough -- it took me about 20 minutes to defeat Fulmigati on heroic -- but an action RPG really should have more of them.

Along with the enemies, there is also some nice variety to the equipment.  You and Katarina wear the same things (although Katarina has a reduced set of item slots), and so you have to find lots of items to wear.  Most of the time this is accomplished by killing enemies, but you can also use an arcane forge to create items (by combining three items of the same quality to form a new item of possibly better quality), and you can gamble for items.  And when you pick up an item, the game makes it easy to compare it to what you and Katarina are wearing, to see if it's useful for you.
Items in the game come in four qualities -- normal (white), magic (blue), rare (yellow), and epic / unique (brown) -- and there are also set items (green), which give you extra bonuses for the more items in the set that you wear.  There are also essences that you can insert into some items, which add extra bonuses.  To help you out with this equipment, you're given a stash in each town, which is shared between all of your characters, except your hardcore characters, who get their own stash.

Finally, Van Helsing also includes a mini-game of sorts.  When you reach Borgova, you take over your father's old secret lair, and then a couple of times during the campaign, Fulmigati's minions attack you there, and you have to play sort of an Orcs Must Die tower defense game to drive them away.  This mini-game allows you to place traps in the rooms and tunnels leading up to the lair, and it also involves a couple of quests so you can improve the electrical generator in the lair and place more traps (the generator can do other things as well, and so you have to balance the defense of your lair with the other benefits).  Sort of sadly though, while Neocore added "scenarios" to allow you to play certain campaign maps with higher level creatures in them, they haven't yet provided a way to repeat the tower defense mini-game, and so if you play it and allow a couple of enemies to get through, there isn't any way to get it "just right" short of starting a new character and playing half of the campaign again.

Campaign

The campaign in Van Helsing starts out really well.  The first two maps are chock full of interesting things to see and do.  There's an old coin that allows you to make a wish at a well, there's a scarecrow that triggers a mini-boss fight, and there are statues that can be rotated, rune stones that can be activated, and a big red button that can be pushed -- all for surprising results.  You can even find weapon oil, which allows you to pull Excalibur (and a King Arthur game reference) from a stone.  But unfortunately, once you get to Borgova, this sort of detail goes out the window, and mostly all you do is slice and dice your way through a slew of monsters.  This sort of imbalance is true for a lot of RPGs -- mostly, I expect, because the first zones are around the longest, and they're often used to test out things in the engine -- but the problem is more pronounced in Van Helsing because the Borgova part of the game is twice as long as the other part.

Luckily, the humor and banter in the game make up for a lot of its deficits.  Van Helsing and Katarina have lots of funny conversations, like when you get a quest to pick flowers, and Van Helsing grumbles the entire way through it, or where Katarina tries to convince Van Helsing that she's "corporeally impaired" rather than "dead."  There are also tons of funny references to other games and movies, including Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  But interestingly, despite many common themes, I didn't notice a single reference to Twilight, and I'm not sure if this is a sign of Neocore's age or of its good taste.

Problems

Of course, Van Helsing isn't perfect. The scene transition times are very slow -- especially these days when most action RPGs handle them seamlessly.  The three movies in the game don't have subtitles.  Katarina's battle AI isn't especially good (enemies often telegraph where they're going to attack -- like with Igors and their blinking red bombs -- but Katarina always ignores this and stands right where she's going to take the most damage).  The camera angle is fixed (all you can do is zoom in and out), and the maps are fixed, but you're still presented with a lot of bad camera angles, where it's tough to see what's going on, or where the game thinks you're trying to click on something in the foreground.  And for some reason, while the game always started out great for me, after playing for about 45 minutes, my frame rate would drop in half, and I'd have to exit the game and re-start it to fix the problem.  Combined, these problems aren't great, but they're not a serious drag on the fun of the game, either.

Conclusion

Overall, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is a pretty entertaining game, especially for a $15 budget title.  There are some parts of the game that could work better, but the setting and the dialogue make it worthwhile.  In fact, about the worst things I can say about Van Helsing is that it's too short.  The campaign only takes 20 hours to complete, and once you defeat the final boss, that's it.  There isn't really anything more for a character to do.  All you can do if you like the game is create a new character and play the campaign again.

I played through Van Helsing twice, once with a "normal" ranged character and then once with a "heroic" melee character.  Those two games were more than enough for me to say that Van Helsing is worth the price of admission, but for others you might be happy to hear that the game also comes with a cooperative multiplayer mode, where you can play the game with your friends -- or random strangers.  In other words, if you enjoy action RPGs at all, then Van Helsing is an easy game to recommend.