There’s little doubt that Hungarian-based Neocore Games has something compelling going on with their Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing series. A distinctly easy going and less than po-faced take on the genre that Blizzard‘s Diablo built, what the The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing might lack in polish, it makes up for in its execution of a confident genre effort that should please hack and slash fans everywhere.
Putting the humour into hack and slash
Very loosely based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula fable, Van Helsing whisks the player off to an alternate version of 19th century Europe that has been twisted by magic, technology and wayward monstrosities. Cast as the titular Van Helsing, players find themselves tasked with ridding the fictional city of Borgova of its various evil denizens and discovering the root of all the corruption in the process.
Where the developers manage to redeem this almost overwhelmingly generic narrative premise however, is in Katrina, the ghostly companion that accompanies our overly rugged hunter throughout his adventures. Snarky and ass-kicking in equal quantities, the banter between the silver-tongued apparition and Van Helsing himself is frequently amusing, and as such makes The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing feel akin to a wisecracking buddy movie of sorts; a welcome departure from the grindingly serious tone of other like-minded efforts.
This sort of humorous camaraderie actually sits well with the general tone of the game too, as the world of Van Helsing arguably veers more towards the likes of something such as Monty Python than the on-the-nose seriousness that its gothic noir setting would normally prescribe. With talking mechanical werewolves, cheerfully mischievous gypsies, enough pop culture Easter eggs to refloat the Titanic and some of the worst accents you will ever hear, it’s fair to say that the Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing doesn’t take it itself too seriously and yet, it feels all the better for rejecting the cloying seriousness that so often permeates other dungeon crawlers.
A resoundingly solid dungeon crawler
Beyond the hearty laughs that it elicits on a regular basis, it turns out that the Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing does a rather decent job of incorporating the fundamentals of the hack and slash genre into its design DNA. From the off, players can choose one of three classes; the guns and swords obsessed Hunter, the magic centred Thaumaturge and finally, the technology focused Arcane Mechanic.
Granted, three classes doesn’t present that much variety on the face of things, but as per the typical dungeon crawling formula established by the likes of Diablo, Van Helsing provides players with more than ample scope for customisation as a wide range of abilities, perks, skill trees and more ensure that one player character will be very different from another. If anything, the veritable flood of skill trees, ability screens and so on, actually makes navigating these various menus feel more cumbersome than they need to be and can seem especially unintuitive when you’re trying to see what things need upgrading.
Naturally, any dungeon crawler worth its salt is distinguished by just how deftly (or not) it implements that classic feedback loop of killing and looting and so it is with a sense of relief that I can cheerfully report that Van Helsing absolutely nails this side of the equation with robust conviction. You see, not only does Van Helsing present a massively varied and imaginative cast of monstrous goons to destroy, it also provides a flood of gold and new gear for eager players to hoover up as well.
In regards to the combat side of things, though it finds itself just short of replicating the deliciously meaty and satisfying hyper-kinetics of Diablo 3‘s scraps, Van Helsing still manages to give a good account of itself with a raft of monster chunking explosions, messy dismemberments and more besides. In essence then, both killing stuff and looting stuff is handled well in the Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing and should provide a big, robotic werewolf sized tick in the box for genre fiends looking for their next fix of dungeon crawling action going forward.
While it’s certainly not unfair to posit that Van Helsing compares unfavourably to Blizzard’s dungeon crawling magnum opus, it does have one or two tricks up its sleeves to keep things interesting and fresh. One such feature is a companion system, where Katrina, our friendly neighbourhood spectre, can be given various AI behaviours to make her defensive, aggressive or to act as something that falls in between.
Even better still, Katrina actually has skills and abilities of her own which can be unlocked as she gains experience points and increases in level in an identical fashion to Van Helsing himself, and just like the main protagonist, the ghostly lass must be given healing potions to keep herself alive (though she never ‘dies’, Katrina just respawns a little while later). This in itself presents a unique wrinkle to the proceedings; as players mustn’t just concern themselves with their own well-being, but also ensure that Katrina has enough potions to keep her going and pumping out damage. It’s just a shame that the inherent clumsiness of the menus makes splitting the healing potion stacks a little more laborious than it should be.
Interestingly, Van Helsing’s deceased companion also turns out to be much more than a fellow face-basher, as Katrina may also be instructed to loot on behalf of the player as well; her inventory being fully accessible and permitting storage of items on her person which she can then sell for money and potions via a handy ‘go shopping’ command that can be invoked whenever battle isn’t raging around you.
In employing such a well-thought out companion system as this, Neocore Games have added an additional facet to the shop-worn hack and slash formula that actually feels meaningful and provides extra depth, rather than coming across as a great lump of micromanagement tedium as it might well have done had the game been fashioned by a lesser pair of hands.
Stuffed with value
Despite being a cheerfully budget priced prospect (the game retails for less than twenty bucks and roughly around that amount in equivalent currencies elsewhere), Neocore Games have nonetheless managed to cram The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing with copious amounts of stuff for would-be monster hunters to get stuck into.
Beyond the enduring appeal of the main campaign which can be tackled solo or with up to four players online, Van Helsing offers Scenario and Neverending Story modes to keep players busy. In the case of the former, players are required to meet a high level requirement as they take part in difficult monster battles that in turn provide gear of substantial quality.
The Neverending Story mode, on the other hand, is essentially a New Game Plus scenario of sorts as it restarts the story with a difficulty level that goes through the roof and allows higher level gear to become available throughout its duration. In truth, neither mode feels essential, and an additional adversarial Battle Royal multiplayer mode certainly feels tacked on, but nonetheless, Van Helsing arguably provides a meaty prospect for dungeon crawling savants and rookies alike to sink their teeth (or swords) into.
In need of some spit and polish
Clearly, one area where Van Helsing stands to improve is its visuals. A far cry from the near unbreakable, liquid smooth 60 frames per second of Diablo 3, Van Helsing suffers from a fluctuating framerate that comes especially undone when the screen fills with enemies and graphical effects; making the whole affair feel more sluggish than it otherwise should. Additionally, frame pacing issues and tearing issues are also present too, lending the impression that Van Helsing just isn’t quite as smoothly responsive or polished as Blizzard’s seminal PS4 dungeon crawler.
Elsewhere, other visual maladies also raise their ugly head. Notably, the game seems to have a small raft of visual glitches, with occasional, very fine white lines criss-crossing the seams of the game world geometry and lighting effects that trigger strange shapes around the player character from time to time. It’s not game breaking stuff in the slightest, but the presence of such issues arguably tarnishes Van Helsing’s aesthetic to a degree.
PS4 Pro owners don’t escape scot-free either, since while three different graphical modes are available; 1080p for fastest performance, 1620p for balanced performance and 4K for best resolution, they all suffer from the same frame pacing and visual glitches as the base PS4 version does, with 4K mode in particular proving to suffer from huge drops in frame rate. Another thing that will frustrate PS4 Pro folks is that you need to exit back to the main menu change the visual quality settings; a baffling state of affairs when you consider older Pro compliant games like Infamous Second Son allow you to effortlessly swap in-game.
Far from being the second coming of Diablo 3 in either qualitative or quantitative terms, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing nonetheless confidently stakes its claim as a fundamentally solid dungeon crawler. It’s an effort that asks players to look beyond its technical shortcomings and embrace the sizeable value and wonderfully light humour that lay beneath its flawed veneer, remaining in the process a prospect that all fans should consider checking out.