It's been years (116 in fact) since Bram Stoker first introduced us to the Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Originally brought in because “he knows as much about obscure diseases as any one in the world,” his legend, through many varied literary and theatrical adaptations, has grown to obscure his more scholarly pursuits, making the hunting of vampires and other such horrors of the occult, his best, and most widely known, profession.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing takes its cue from these adaptations, so much so, that I would almost advise you to stop reading, find a copy of Van Helsing starring Hugh Jackman, and watch it before continuing on. It's cool, I'll wait. (Note: While now is not the time to get into it, I do have a rather unironic love for this not-so-classic adaptation of the good professor.)
Now that the required watching is complete, you'll understand as you dive into The Incredible Adventures why I refer to him as Gabriel rather then Abraham. Well that and the fact that the game spells out that your Van Helsing is actually the son of the Van Helsing. Rather than simply killing Dracula, the elder Van Helsing is responsible for wiping out a cadre of vampires controlling Borgovia, a very Victorian/steampunk recreation of Transylvania. Having released this realm from its monstrous overlords, Van Helsing retires to London (why he would not go back to his native Amsterdam is a bit odd, but we've come this far already to get hung up on facts).
Years later a call from Borgovia brings the younger Van Helsing back to the land that daddy freed, only to find it once again under the iron thumb of tyranny. This time, instead of Noferatu, Borgovia is controlled by an evil scientist, whose SCIENCE (cause in Borgovia, science is only referred to by yelling its name) has both brought about an industrial revolution, and driven its people straight into poverty and famine.
There's more to it, but The Incredible Adventures takes special care to not get bogged down in its own fiction. It's kind of a shame, because the world is very well crafted. It takes itself only as seriously as it has to, giving over quite frequently to horror tropes and in jokes (what story can truly be steampunk without a visit from Nicolae Tesla himself!), as well as its fair share of internet memes (thankfully these come only at the end, when Van Helsing reads some hanging advertisements). While some of the dialog plays kind of awkwardly and almost too campy, its ability to stay in service to the narrative is rather clever, which made me appreciate the asides it did take even more.
The action in The Incredible Adventures is classic Action RPG, ala Diablo and Torchlight. Van Helsing (Gabe) slaughters his foes with either melee (swords, either 2-handed or dual-wielding), or ranged (guns, either rifle or dual pistols), and it's the constant back and forth, controlled with a simple press of the 'r' key, that keeps combat varied and interesting. There is a strategy in his ability to do both, something that is uncommon in a game of this type, and the ability to adjust your methods on the fly to suit the type of enemy your facing is part of the draw, constantly keeping you engaged to the combat at hand.
While switching weapons in combat is fluid, I often found myself fleeing from enemies in an effort to make ranged combat work. Everything, and I mean everything, charges you straight on as fast it can, and with defense and Van Helsing's auto-parry skill tied to melee, it's easy enough to slip into the habit of simply wading into the tidal wave of charging baddies. That is until a Goat-man one shots you. Or an Igor pops a mine at your feet that explodes into green flesh eating goo cloud. Its those points that inspire caution rather then Diablo-like impetuousness, and while I would have liked to have seen some smarter enemy types, I was thankful for the ability to run and gun.
Speaking of its forefather (the game's not the character's), health and mana are displayed in familiar orbs down at the bottom of the screen, though in this case they are surrounded by a third liquid, Rage. Van Helsing's Rage allows you to power various special modifiers to the skills purchased from Van Helsing's two skill trees. Referring to it as a “combo system” the game allows you to pick and choose which of these additional powers you activate at a given time. In reality, it's nothing more then a useless window dressing. The Rage mechanic itself is useful and the additional choice of momentarily spicing up one of your powers enticing but it's far easier to simply not put skill points into the more pointless modifiers than worry about turning them on and off.
While we're on the subject of window dressing, this game's version of the Torchlight pet is a female ghost named Katarina. A former noble woman, Katarina's past, as well as her relationship to Van Helsing, is almost unforgivably never explained. It's a shame and a true missed opportunity, as she is easily one of my favorite characters in the game. Her exchanges with Gabe are often hilarious and biting, and while it is clear that she must acquiesce eventually, she does so in a way that clearly intimates her stance on the issue at hand. She's also the first talking companion (I am including Diablo 3 in this) that actively makes jokes at the ridiculousness of being sent back to town to sell things.
Unfortunately, and at the risk of this sentence coming off completely sexist, selling things is about all she is good for. She is almost completely useless in a fight, dying immediately in melee, and almost as fast at range, choosing to stay and fire even as the monsters we're fighting close in on her. There is an option to keep her ethereal, granting a defensive bonus to Van Helsing, but I found that to be about on par with the rest of her combat abilities. The circumstances of this come at a double shame when you realize that all her trainable skills (yes, Kat has a skill tree as well) are actually bonuses/buffs for your character, and they only when work when she is alive. Having just typed that out, it occurs to me only now that I should have just left her in ethereal form. Oh well.
Having finished with the window dressing as features, Van Helsing's skills are many, and each fit into one of two skill trees, and while each have fancy names, they break down just as his weapons do, one for melee and one for ranged. In a weird twist, things lower in the tree cost more points rather then simply unlocking as you level up. This cost difference made me want to invest in what I had already, rather then experiment with anything new, as a point in the lower tier ate up all three skill points you earn for leveling up, and none of them seemed worth that price. They all fall to either a left or right click use, The Incredible Adventures does not feature hot keys aside for skills, instead opting for only two which are assigned to “tricks,” abilities like an area of effect heal that costs no mana, or the ability to turn ethereal to escape from danger.
While your attack abilities can be cycled through with the F1-F8 keys, I have always found them a bit more awkward to get to in the heat of the moment, and as such I found myself mainly sticking to only one or two main attacks. For what it's worth, I truly enjoyed Cleave. With a low mana cost, wide arc, and the added extra of a rage powered heal, it was worth every point I dropped into it. Combined with Exploding shot for when I was running away/shooting into a crowd, monster horde control was mostly a non-issue.
One final combat related note. There are only two types of potions in the game, healing and mana regen. Not super healing, mega healing, nightmare healing or over the top healing, just healing and mana regen. I love this. I didn't have to worry about what I was carrying or which was assigned to the potion hot keys. I didn't have to switch them out every ten levels, or curse myself because I was carrying one so small it was practically useless. While I find it odd to label this an innovation, this kind of simplification is something that I hope is carried on to future games in the genre.
No matter how fluid the combat or simple the potions, I don't think either would count as much were the visuals not so beautiful. This is a gorgeous game, even when you leave the dark creepiness of the forest for the rich, unpleasantness of the Victorian Borgovian industrial complex. This tale's weaving of steampunk SCIENCE (i.e. every generator is a huge tesla coil) and occult magic is only possible through its very visual nature, and everything is a marvel to look at, a feast for the senses at its finest.
Well, everything except for Van Helsing himself. While our hero is able sport many “different” looks, all of them are only really distinctive in hat, cape, and weapon. Yes his armor does change as well depending on the type, but the true iconography of the character is in those three items. Sadly, with few exceptions, they all look the same.
In fact, outside of Katarina herself, this is the only other place where The Incredible Adventures disappoints. Loot is everything to this genre of games, and the lack of interesting weapons and armor choices really becomes evident the farther you get in the game. Your weapons are either swords or guns, either big or small, with no distinction but swing style or firing rate between them. There's some visual variety with the one-handers, but none stand out, none awesome enough to be remembered past the login screen where you get a close up of Gabe's ugly ass self.
The game does feature multiplayer, and I played enough of it to know that it works as well as other games in the genre. It's not the reason I come to them, and 4 Van Helsings is kind of a bit jarring as far as the narrative is concerned, but it's functional, and with the right group of friends, fun as well.
And with that, I end my incredible adventure in the land of Borgovia. I am thrilled to say that it was not without merit, and despite some missteps, was well worth the 14 hours I spent monster hunting and looting my way through it's campy yet completely endearing game world. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing was a treat, and hopefully, we'll be able to have more in the future.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!