Trilogies are tricky things. Keeping the same level of quality all the way through is a rarity; the ones that do deserve the elite air they have, while the ones that don't seem to pile up on each other, trying to eke ever closer to the story version of Mount Olympus. When it started 2 years ago, I didn't know whether or not The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing would go for the hat trick, and with it, an attempt at that special ascent, but it proved itself worth paying attention to.
Combining the dungeon delving and monster hunting of Diablo with a beautiful mastery of the tongue-in-cheek pop culture reference and art that showed off it's own version of steampunk dubbed “weird science,” NeocoreGames delivered a title with style. The following year came Van Helsing 2, a direct sequel that leaned a little too far into the pop culture and lost itself in the minutiae of extended skill trees and extra systems. It was still good, but the sheen had worn off; what had made the first seem unique now felt dated or buried in changes that felt far more hurried then crafted.
More hurried then crafted. I think that's an important statement heading into The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 3. This third chapter in three years is the final one for our titular hero, and its a case study for what happens when a good idea runs aground. Picking up again where the second left off, Van Helsing is in pursuit of Prisoner 7, who's current plan involves remaking Borgovia through the power of the relic he ran off with at the second's conclusion.
With such a quick jump back into the fray, I was extremely disappointed from the get go that I would not be able to carry over my Arcane Mechanic from the previous 2. Instead, I was presented with a series of 6 completely different classes, each attempting to encapsulate ideas captured in some of the previous skill trees. Gone was the Mechanic, and his devastating mastery of both long ranged combat and pet-based assault strategies. In it's place was either a Constructor, a class bearing the same armor and massive weird science gun that my Mechanic had that deals exclusively in pets, or a Phlogistoneer, which, fancy word for an obsolete Greek theory aside, is a Van Helsing in a powered armor suit. Should that not suit your fancy, there is also a sword and shield Van Helsing, a stealth-stabby Van Helsing, and in case you were missing it, a sniper Van Helsing and mage Van Helsing.
Regardless of the Van Helsing you choose, you are in for a very similar experience to Van Helsing 2, minus of course my over-powered yet equally enjoyable Arcane Mechanic. Monsters still attack in large groups, most mixed between normal and veteran versions. Occasionally, you run into champions, who normally have a special power or two, and Uniques, who have more then one special power and a ton of hit points. Where previous games swung towards the werewolf end of the supernatural horseshoe, Van Helsing 3 deals with the titular hunter's bread and butter, vampires. Sadly, the only real difference is a lot less snarling and drool.
Where this game takes a sharp turn from its predecessors is in its environments. The first games focused mainly on Borgovia and it's capital city, Borgova, with occasional jaunts into the Ink, the home of magic and the paranormal. Van Helsing 3 spends the majority of its 10 hours exploring the most fantastical places the Ink has to offer, and while this leads to a little less open exploration, the amount of totally different environments is astounding. One location has you exploring a town broken into small, floating islands, the buildings barely holding steady against what seems like an eventual fall into the nothingness of the void. Another is a castle made of gears and flywheels, turning and whirling down into the nether. Each new area feels unique and structurally different then the ones before, even if they all still represent the same basic idea.
The beauty of these environments comes at a cost to the gameplay. Beyond making some levels extremely linear, movement around the levels is often hit and miss, with the most familiar sight on my screen being a big no symbol over my mouse icon. This is especially frustrating during some of the more hectic combat sections, like any time you are trying to deftly run circles around the nearly endless swarms of gnats released by haunted trees in the Haunted Forest. Or any time you are trying to deftly do anything in general. Which leads right into why I hate melee combat in Van Helsing 3.
In fact, while there are certainly pockets of folks who will stick with either the stealthy-stabby class or the sword and board variant, claiming that they are totally viable, there is nothing I found less appealing then the way melee combat feels. There is no oomph to it. No power, no bang, no sizzle. You wade in, click to simulate a slash, or 3 slashes in the case of stealthy-stabby, and then run when you see you have no life left. The secondary stealth attack lets me hit a group of enemies by sending out what looks like an Ink shadow, but Van Helsing himself still just stands there, lifelessly slashing away while his shadow, HIS SHADOW, slashes and dives through people. Where something like Diablo 3 can make even the simplest of Barbarian or Monk attacks feel chunky and powerful, where Marvel Heroes finds a way to show you the fury behind every meaty fist the Hulk throws, Van Helsing feels like he barely made it out of bed and has neither the energy nor willingness to give anything but the bare minimum.
Ranged combat continues to be where Van Helsing excels, and with the addition of my Constructor's minions, I found myself only occasionally challenged by what the game presented. Often times, I was able to simply brute force my way past encounters, and if I died, it was often to a ranged enemy that I either didn't see, or just hadn't prioritized appropriately. One thing I couldn't quite get over was the utter ungainliness of the Constructor's pet, a hovering, circular weapon platform that shares more in common with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarrier then any kind of actual pet. Yes, it did its required business by blowing my enemies sky high, but hot damn, it is one of the ugliest pieces of machinery ever hoisted upon me in a game environment.
The weapons platform, or Tom as I often referred to it, also seemed a bit out of place seeing that I already traveled with Katarina, your ghost companion from the first two games. Cast as a foil to Van Helsing's often cold personality, she is my favorite character in the series, and NeocoreGames finally expands on her back story, giving us info about not only her life before becoming a looming specter, but also how she came in to the service of the Van Helsing family. The info itself is satisfying, but its delivery as ambient dialog will cause a lot of players to miss it unless they specifically stop what they are doing to listen. I am sure it's a hard call deciding what you need to stop play for on the development side, but I can't help but wonder if there is a better way to get that info to the player.
I also can't help but be disappointed hearing the same jokes from Katarina when she both goes to sell items, and returns from the hideout. For three games she has come back, claiming to be a princess that's been kidnapped by an evil madman, and for three games she feign surprise when she sees you like by now, you are suddenly taken by the joke. Add to this the pop references for reference sake, and much of the humor Van Helsing shoots for falls flat.
Van Helsing 3 also offers the ability to co-op the story with up to 3 others, as well as some competitive multiplayer... fun. The co-op works fine, but I was unable to play any matches of the competitive variety because there was, quite literally, no one else playing on a Saturday night. I left the queue running for over 30 minutes with no hits, and upon looking at the custom game page, found only a handful of folks joined together playing the story. I would not expect to explore those things without a group of friends, and if you have a large enough group playing this game for that, chances are you'll be going through the campaign anyway on the harder difficulites.
Just like the proverbial stake through a vampire's heart, The Incredible Adventure of Van Helsing 3 is the sharpened piece of wood that killed the beast. While the bones of the gameplay remain acceptable, it's left the promises made by that first game two years ago broken and alone in the Ink. There's enough here for folks who have come this far to finish the journey, but it's certainly no place to start, and a sad note to end on.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!