Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Hands-On Preview: The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing (PC)

As the introduction movie played, with it's water-colours and inky sketches as a voice-over provides a monologue about Van Helsing (well, his son), I couldn't avoid the easy and extremely apt comparison to Diablo III, though scaled back in scope and art assets. And voice actors.

As an indie game, I'll give that last point a pass because it's actually passable.

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing nods heavily to Diablo III outside of the intro cinematic. The menus feel similar, the layout of the powers, inventory management, and, well, a whole lot of other aspects demonstrate that developer NeocoreGames has played Blizzard's dungeon loot-fest, hack 'n' slash role-playing game. That's not necessarily a bad thing since it means a short learning curve for anyone that spent any time with Diablo III. However, that's also a warning for those that have dropped hundreds of hours into grinding out levels and loot. There seems to plenty of both in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing so if you're already feeling saturated this might be a bit too much.

Quest, grind, slot in upgraded gear, spend experience points, level up, click, click, click, click. However, unlike Diablo III, the developers are quick to point out, "you don’t need to stay online to play The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing." At least, for the single-player campaign.

It's easy to lose sight of Van Helsing in a mob of werewolves. Pro-Tip: Keep clicking!
Right from the get-go, inventory management quickly became an issue. Fortunately for Van Helsing, he's accompanied by the ethereal Lady Katarina, who's a bit of a pack mule, but her main role appears to be a foil for Van Helsing and a tool to advance the story and explain things quickly. She's also a (Gorgan) fighter with a separate set of attributes and upgrade slots that can be tweaked along the way. Being good in a fight (and another target for enemies to home in on) is enough, but I found her ability to carry items almost as valuable. Loot practically rains from the sky and, at least in the preview build, areas are packed with enemies to kill just ready to drop whatever they carry. I wound up just leaving piles of stuff lying around.

Obvious differences between weapons and equipment come down to comparing numbers. What's the difference between an okay hat and a great hat? About +5 to armour and even when it's equipped there's no outward change. It translates to staring at numbers and adds another bump in the road to inventory management since I had to look at each item before deciding what to do with it.

Skill trees and other trappings of the action RPG genre are handily accounted for.
The developers have included some clever nods to other classic fantasy settings. Hansel & Gretel, Lord of the Rings, Cthulhu, and Fallout. There appears to have been some thought into the dialogue of the characters, even if the voice acting doesn't deliver it that well. So, although I could appreciate some of the gags, the humour was almost ruined by the delivery.

I haven't said anything about the story only because I restricted myself to a few hours of play time. In the opening, Van Helsing explains that he and Lady Katarina (her existence is quickly addressed in the monologue) land in Borgovia to combat evil things and root out devils, etc., the usual monster hunting activities in a land where "The Ink" leaks through in various areas and provides access to a shadow world. There's an explosion and the game starts.

In the opening areas, one quest typically intersected with another, then another, to the point where I forgot why I entered the gloomy forest in the first place. Finding the mayor? I think so. The mini-map and quest objectives line up on the right side of the screen and take a lot of the mystery out of Van Helsing's wandering and where to go next.

Mobs and special attacks are plentiful.
Something else I think is worth noting is that the penalty for death is pretty light. For a few gold coins, Van Helsing can respawn on the spot he died (though it's advisable to move away from the mob that downed him), otherwise he can spawn back at town for free or jump back in from the last checkpoint for a few coins less than respawning at the death spot. In the preview build at least, I always had plenty of gold to toss around -- the "Sell All" option in my inventory got steady use -- so the penalty was never more than a matter of a few seconds of ghost-form Van Helsing pulling back from the fight slightly and trying again.

What I didn't try was the co-op mulitplayer campaign (for up to 4 players) and that's only because it wasn't available in the preview build. Built outside the single-player campaign, multiplayer is said to involve hunting down "scientific nightmares with other members of the Hunters' Guild."

It's kind of odd the reference to hunting though. I didn't see any gameplay mechanics or powers that allowed Van Helsing to actually hunt or track anything down. But then he hardly has to hunt when mobs of creatures bound straight toward him.

At least from my limited exposure, the game appears to be hitting the right notes when it comes to this kind of hack 'n' slash role-playing. Not only that, it managed to tickle that spot on my brain that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance did more than a decade ago. For that reason alone I'm looking forward to playing the entirety of the game.

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is scheduled for release late May 2013 for PC and later in the year for XBLA.

- Aaron Simmer