Preview: The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing
If games were judged by the length of their title alone, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing would surely be crowned amongst the champions of entertainment everywhere. Unfortunately, they’re judged on their quality, but TIAoVH this isn’t a bad thing as there’s plenty on offer.
The game begins with a cutscene outlining the brief history of the Van Helsing family. The protagonist of this game is the son of a legendary vampire hunter, presumably the one who starred in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His father receives a letter pleading him to assist the blighted, faraway land of Borgova, but he’s retired and doesn’t seem too bothered. Van Junior steps in and sets off on a journey to rescue the citizens of Borgova, with the help of his trusty assistant Lady Katarina, a wise cracking ghost.
In terms of the story, the opening cutscene probably would’ve made a decent game all on its own. Van Helsing briefly summarises the antics the pair of them get up to – allegedly, mostly caused by the Lady’s razor sharp tongue – and it sets the tone of the rest of the game quite nicely. “Apart from the Kraken, the pirates and the storms, the journey was mostly uneventful,” Van Helsing nonchalantly states at one point. Then the gameplay proper begins.
The interface is fairly standard, with Van Helsing running about a map by directing him with a left click. Lady Katarina floats nearby and assists depending on what setting you’ve got her on, but more on that later. There isn’t a great deal of exploration to do during the opening levels, so as the monster hunter moves throughout the map he encounters – as you’d expect – monsters to kill, for which he and Katarina gain experience points.
Levelling up can be a somewhat complicated affair, but once you’ve got your head around the skill tree it will allow for some diverse gameplay. There are Van Helsing’s basic attributes that can be enhanced such as Body, Dexterity, Willpower and Luck that raise HP, dodge chance and magic power amongst other things, as well as Skills that grant special abilities. Skills are divided into three broad categories: Mystic Warrior (melee skills), Occult Hunter (magic skills) and Tricks and Auras (passive skills). So far so straightforward, right? Well, keep reading.
Almost every skill circle has three abilities linked to it that can also be unlocked – for example, your first skill is a basic melee attack, and linked to it are a stun attack, heavy attack and precise attack. Each of these can be activated in combat in exchange for Rage Points, which are accumulated by being in combat. You can have two active skills that can be activated by left and right clicking, and each sub-skill can have more than one Rage Point attached to it to power it up. Different combinations are subject to different effects, so it’s a system that lends well to extensive experimentation.
That’s probably good because combat quickly seems to come down to Van Helsing being surrounded by a mass of enemies and hacking away at them while Katarina chips in, with no real capacity for diversity. Your ghostly companion can be set to dive into melee combat while Van Helsing holds back picking enemies off with his ranged weapon, or Van Helsing leads the charge while Katarina supports from a distance. There doesn’t seem to be much movement on variations between the two.
Katarina as a support character works exceptionally well, with a wide range of automated options for players to select. She has an inventory, and can be instructed to pick up items – either everything, just gold, or items of up to a certain value. She can be told to focus attacks with various parameters – the enemy attacking Van Helsing, the enemy most vulnerable to her attacks, and so on. Coupled with the skillset of Van Helsing, the diversity of Lady Katarina really opens up combat in the game as a platform for experimentation, rather than the boring hack-and-slash it could have been.
The tongue of the narrative is planted firmly in its cheek, and along with the versatility of the combat system is what sets The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing apart. Listening to the unlikely pair make snippy comments and banter with one another is really entertaining, sounding more like an old married couple than a pair of lethal monster hunters. Beneath Katarina’s complaints and Van Helsing’s wry sarcastic comments clearly lies a deep affection, which provides a touching human connection to the characters you might not have expected from a game like this.
If the combat system doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then you’re almost certainly not going to enjoy The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing as its essentially the crux of the game, but if you’re a fan of old school top-down RPGs like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Planescape: Torment then you’re probably going to want to check it out. It’s been given an official release date of May 22nd 2013 by its developers Neocore Games on Steam, but if you head to their official page you can get it on pre-order now and get instant access to the open beta that’s currently ongoing.