Straying away from the strategy with soft RPG-styled elements found in their previous games King’s Crusade and King Arthur, the Hungarian based NeocoreGames are looking to take a chance by going the indie route and self publishing the newest action-RPG on the block, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. Planned as a trilogy, Van Helsing relies heavily on formulas of gameplay established in Diablo and its more modern clones like Torchlight with the top-down isometric view mixed in with hacking and slashing powered by mouse clicks. Despite being stuck with the Diablo clone label, Van Helsing is something much more.
Players find themselves clicking away as the son of the famous Abraham Van Helsing who saved the city of Borgova and appeared in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. After receiving a letter, the son sets out for Borgova at the behest of his father’s former enemies turned allies to face a new threat to the fictional gothic themed 19th century Eastern European country Borgovia. The world of Borgovia doesn’t fall completely in line with Bram Stoker’s universe despite being filled with the classic monsters and their myths. The mix of mechanical and magic leaves a strong Victorian steampunk meets goth theme to the whole world which is a much nicer spin than just another medieval dungeon crawler.
Van Helsing is partnered with an AI-based companion named Lady Katarina. The noble Lady is a ghost whose spirit is bound to the Van Helsing family. The relationship between the Lady and Van Helsing starts off rocky filled with snarky back and forth but as the story unfolds a level of trust and companionship builds between the two leaving the snark as more playful. Their relationship turns out to hugely entertaining due to how well written and voiced acted it is. We have been conditioned to accept annoying floaty partners in games like Ocarina of Time and it is nice to actually get one that doesn’t force the mute button to be constantly hit.
Lady Katarina comes as a buildable character despite her AI companion status. The Lady features a level 20 cap, a simplistic but powerful skill tree, and the ability to not only equip items but store them in her inventory. Lady Katarina can be set into 3 different modes — melee, ranged, and do nothing — that not only affects how she fights but also how she looks as the melee and ranged modes come with completely different looking forms. The melee and ranged modes are self explanatory but the do nothing mode leaves Katarina in her ghost form invulnerable to enemy attacks and leaves Van Helsing taking 10% less damage.
The Lady’s AI is completely customizable with multiple options to set how she behaves such as setting who she chooses to attack in a group like the weakest enemy, whatever attacks her, or whatever Van Helsing is attacking. Katarina also has the ability to pick up items automatically and place them in her inventory with options to set a max level of item quality she is allowed to pick up. With the ability to even go back to town and sell the items, Katarina ends up feeling like a combination of Diablo’s mercenaries and Torchlight’s pets except much more thanks to the dialogue.
The game features a 10-15 hour single player campaign that can be played online in 4 player co-op. Unlike Diablo that allows the character to progress up difficulty levels, each of Van Helsing’s difficulties (Casual, Normal, Hard, Heroic, and Hardcore) are self-contained and balanced for the level 30 cap on the character leaving no new game plus style continuation of the character after finishing the game. This design choice is even more evident when the game is split up into chapters with no returning to previous chapters along with the enemies not respawning in single player. Van Helsing’s campaign is meant to be played through like more traditional linear games..
Van Helsing follows the genre familiar format of left and right clicking to both move and attack with skills. The combat is built around a rage meter that fills with each kill. Each non passive skill on the game’s two skill trees — melee and ranged — has three rage powers that can be unlocked with skill points. When rage is activated the next attack with that skill will perform what the game calls a combo that can be customized to use any combination of three of the rage powers. This means you can choose to do one of each rage power or do two of one and one of another or do three of one. Attributing more of the combo to a particular power increases the effectiveness of it.
The melee and ranged skill trees are varied enough that some real interesting character builds can be created without the need of multiple classes but still ends up feeling limited due to weakness of mixing and matching between the two. Van Helsing’s combat modes must be transitioned between manually leaving players unable to mix match non passive skills on the fly. Players can assign a skills of the same tree of the respective mode to the left and right-click slot. Augmenting the two skills trees is a semi third tree of Auras and Tricks which are abilities learned from NPCs and can be upgraded like skills (without the rage components). Players can have 2 passive and 2 non passive Auras/Tricks slotted at one time.
The traditional stats of body, dexterity, willpower, and luck make a return yet again to the RPG genre. Each level up gives you 5 points to distribute among these stats to make you stronger along with 3 ability points for the skill trees. Points are not limited to level up rewards as some quests pass them out also. Finishing quests not only progress the story and give out rewards but they also build Van Helsing’s reputation making him more celebrated by friends and hated by enemies. At each reputation level, a permanent perk can be chosen out of a pool that is built from completing certain milestone quests and in-game achievements. Most of the perks give strong passive abilities or stats really strengthening the character builds.
The graphical style presents the steak punk atmosphere perfectly when mixed in with the music and gothic environments. Neocore avoids the overuse of assets and when mixed with the quick setting changes as the story progresses ends up creating an extremely varied set of environments. The music and sound effects are great but Van Helsing’s voice acting is top-notch especially in the interactions between Van Helsing and Lady Katarina as mentioned before.
The multiplayer pits you with 3 other friends including their ghosts into the same campaign as single player. The difference is that there is a higher loot chance and monsters respawn. Matches can be public or private and online specific characters are saved in the cloud. Action RPGs tend to be funner with friends and Van Helsing is no different but unfortunately the title has been marred with issues since release requiring many patches. Even now there are still issues of frequent disconnects and data loss. Patch notes still recommend if playing online to do so with an online only character.