Monday, 8 July 2013

Review: The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing (PC)

Say the name “Van Helsing” and you think of a scholarly looking monster hunter out to slay vampires with his intellect, his faith, and a great big gnarly stake.  Alternatively, you may think of B-movies with Hugh Jackman.  Nonetheless, the name is almost archetypal by this point.  Say it and you know you're dealing with a character with a burning desire to put down the things that go bump in the night and a nearly reckless disregard for their own safety, all dressed up in the finest of Victorian fashions.  Neocore Games decided to move away from the classic Van Helsing of Bram Stoker and go with a more steampunkish version that borrows elements of the 2004 movie and casts the player as the elder Van Helsing's son on a trip to the fictional country of Borgova for plenty of monster slaying and fiendish plot thwarting.

For an action RPG in the style of Diablo, Van Helsing is a different prospect from most other titles.  It borrows elements from other American Role-Playing Games (ARPG) such as a Hardcore Mode, different grades of items, item sets, sockets, and data blocks for monsters when mousing over them.  Yet at the same time, it's centred solely on one character, closer to Bastion than a Blizzard series.  Those who like their ARPGs with lots of character classes may feel a little disappointed at the tight focus.

That said, there are elements which put this title outside of the normal dungeon crawler.  Past the first act, an element of base building is brought in as you design traps to protect the approaches to your hideout against a future quest, but it's an element that doesn't feel as rewarding as it should.

Likewise, the game's Rage mechanic is questionable.  It seems like a lot of extra work for not a whole lot of return.  It's not quite an incoherent mechanic, but the execution tends to interfere with the gameplay, particularly when you're in a major fight with a large mob on the screen.

The game's focus on the title character does not, strangely enough, translate into a character driven game.  As a dungeon crawler, it's quite good, but the efforts to give depth to the character of Van Helsing and his ghostly sidekick Lady Katarina don't seem to go beyond comic banter.  It doesn't quite feel forced, but for every really good exchange, there's three or four that just fall flat.  Gaming and geek culture references are smoothly inserted into the dialogue, particularly when you're reading message boards and signposts, but even these are rarities compared to more mundane lines.  It's just enough to make you keep clicking on the things to see if something neat pops up for a few times.

When it comes to monster hunting and leveling up, it can feel a little restrictive.  While it may seem cool that Van Helsing has a dedicated ranged mode and dedicated melee mode that you can switch between, alternate weapon sets are not available.

One area that Neocore definitely got right in terms of style were the visuals.  The quality of the visuals is pretty good, slightly less detailed than what you might find in Path of Exile or Diablo III, but definitely high quality.  The steampunk style is executed consistently and creatively.  From clockwork soldiers to electrified werewolves, fog shrouded swamps to gas lit streets, Van Helsing wears its style like a tailored cloak.  The only real complaint I have is that the textures look a little flat in spots.  It's not a game breaker, but it occasionally causes levels and monsters to have a faintly humdrum feel.

The game's sound qualities are likewise very well done.  In a rarity for games of this kind, the voice acting actually is better than the music score, something which I can't say I've run into before.  Even when the lines are complete cheese, the actors deliver them with style and aplomb.  Each character is voiced distinctively and cleanly.  As I said before, the really good bits of banter are really good, particularly between Van Helsing and his mostly willing companion.    As for the music, it's moody and fits the areas well enough, but it's not especially memorable.  The sound effects are something of a mixed bag.  The destructive ones like jars or boxes breaking, those come out clear and sharp.  It's some of the more environmental sounds that don't quite sound as sharp.  Again, it doesn't break the game, but it does kinda drop the overall quality.

For a game that seems to be positioning itself as the anti-Diablo, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing puts in a strong, if kind of rough, performance.  Chalk this one up to the first try in what could be a very exciting new series, if the developers can build on what they learned and improve the next game.

- Axel Cushing

The Good:
Excellent visual style
Interesting additions to standard dungeon crawling gameplay
Strong voice cast

The Bad:
Texture work a little flat in spots
Some new ideas not as well executed as they could be
Some weak dialog writing

Score: 7.0 / 10