You’ve probably heard of Van Helsing. Famously played by Peter Cushing in the Hammer Horror films opposite the late Christopher Lee, and more recently brought to life by Hugh Jackman in the Van Helsing action movie alongside Kate Beckinsale, the character has been around for nearly a century in popular culture.
In Neocore Games’ The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, the monster hunter returns in a Diablo-esque dungeon crawler. Originally released on PC, where there now exists a trilogy of games, the first game has been rebuilt for Xbox One and released for free as part of Microsoft’s ‘Games With Gold’ campaign. The whole experience isn’t free however, as only the hunter class is available, to get the other two classes you’ll need to shell out over £3 each. That’s an awful lot for something that’s not really adding much to the game.
When you’re handed control of Van Helsing, on the road to Borgova to hunt a mad scientist, the game is pure Diablo. If you’ve played Diablo III, especially as the hunter character, you’ll feel right at home here. The gameplay is near identical, but with the addition of Katarina, a ghostly companion who can help you defeat enemies and occasionally speak her mind with regards to story events. She becomes invaluable as the game progresses, when the incredibly unbalanced difficulty comes into play and you’re outnumbered 20-2 against suddenly overpowered enemies. You can customise Katarina too, levelling her powers and equipping her with items that can make her stronger, much like the NPC partners in Diablo III. There is an infuriating bug in the launch version however, that constantly turns off Katarina’s AI and basically leaves her standing around uselessly as Van Helsing’s face is pummelled by several monsters. Hopefully a patch will fix this, as it’s tedious having to turn her AI back on every ten minutes, but it does highlight a flaw in why this is even an option – why would you not want your AI companion to aid you in battle?
The combat itself is quite addictive in its simplicity, usually quite satisfying as you shoot, hack and launch magical projectiles at the gothic horror-inspired enemies. These enemies almost always comes in groups that rush at you, offering very little variety in the battles, but they’re at least tense affairs. The controls are a little awkward at times, with abilities being mapped to the face buttons, shoulder buttons and even the right analog stick, and each ability can be upgraded and modified, leaving you to remember which abilities are mapped to which button and exactly what that ability does. In the middle of combat this can get tricky, but you will eventually find a set of abilities that works for you and stick with it. Combat usually consists of blasting group after group of werewolves, rats, spiders and ever-more-Steampunk-inspired enemies as the game goes on, which grows tedious after you’ve fought your fiftieth horde in ten minutes. In the final few areas this gets even more tedious as you suddenly find your health draining in seconds against unfairly powerful opponents, even when you’re at a high level. Quite how this unbalanced approach made it past testing (not to mention the previous PC release) is baffling, but this may be fixed with a patch if Neocore Games listens to feedback.
The game can look okay with some nice lighting effects and environments have plenty of detail, but characters and enemies are fairly uninspired considering the rich history of the genre. With inspiration derived from the likes of Diablo III and Torchlight (itself originally inspired by Diablo) it’s amazing that neither of those games influenced the art style of The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, as it really offers nothing original in its art direction. The Steampunk visuals have been done before, and much better, by the likes of Dishonoured, and the character design is just bland. There’s none of the unique art style that sets Blizzard’s work apart from everything else, no original visual effects and even Van Helsing looks no different to any other NPC in the game. It’s by no means an ugly game, but nothing in it explains the long loading times and horrendous framerate drops, especially on hardware as powerful as the Xbox One.
Top down/isometric action-RPGs have produced some great games in the past, with Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and its sequel being particularly good, alongside the Sacred games and the aforementioned Diablo and Torchlight series. The simplicity of their controls and especially their inventory systems was key to their playability and eventual success, but this game ignores most of that. The radial inventory menu is unnecessarily awkward, often leaving you looking at armour instead of weapons, or boots instead of gloves, and can add extra time to a task that needs to be quick, especially if you’re playing online and can’t pause the game.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing does offer some nice little nods to the geek culture, with Easter eggs referencing the One Ring of Tolkien’s stories and even a fun tip of the hat to Monty Python. Aside from these, the game does throw up a base defence mini-game around halfway through the story, which adds a little variety to the constant dungeon crawling of the main game. As for the story itself, it really is about as barebones as you can get, and I’d even go so far as to say that it’s almost non-existent due to the amount of skipping from area-to-area that happens, with no real reason given for Van Helsing being there. There isn’t even an ending to speak of, as the game jumps straight into the credits without even giving players the satisfaction of an ending cinematic. All game completion unlocks is the ironically-titled Neverending Story mode, which is essentially New Game + and allows you to replay the game with your current gear, against tougher, higher level enemies.
Neocore Games has made a game that is initially fun, once you get past the poor story and voice acting and awkward controls, but balancing issues and over-reliance on throwing hordes of enemies at its players turn the game into a slog in the second half.
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