The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing Preview
To fully understand a game like The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, one has to understand the origins of the Action RPG. First named to describe Diablo, the genre’s aesthetics and conventions have largely been dominated by that series. Gamers could fill an entire library with action RPGs that build off of Diablo but never deviate from its basic formula of hacking and slashing, with innovations to set them apart from their demonic predecessor largely concentrated on gameplay mechanics . Usually missing from these games, of course, is the story.
By making narrative a primary feature of the game, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is an attempt to make something that seems new and perhaps novel for the action RPG genre: a game with an actual story.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing borrows all the right features from Diablo while simultaneously offering new gameplay mechanics and a much-needed narrative into the mix. Developed by indie Hungary-based developer NeocoreGames, Van Helsing is based on Bram Stoker’s story of Count Dracula, the game is set in a twisted version of 19th century Europe—one with monsters, magic, and all manner of strange technology.
Players take on the role of a young Van Helsing, son of the legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who’s accompanied by a ghostly companion named Lady Katarina. She provides Van Helsing with lively companionship (contrary to her undead nature) and acts as a light-hearted foil to his dark and brooding personality. The two of them make quite the talkative pair—a breath of fresh air for this kind of game.
After he hears rumors of strange happenings while half-way across the world, Van Helsing is tasked with going to a fictional city, but before he can get there, he’s waylaid by bandits who destroy his only means of reaching his destination. Thus he’s forced to take the long route, which leads him to a small town, the first location in which he has to complete quests. The detour is a means of getting the player to know Van Helsing and his companion, Lady Katarina.
Like Diablo and its offspring, the game is basically a hack-and-slasher played with the mouse and keyboard. Left click defaults to the basic attack, while right click allows you to pull off a special attack. Where Van Helsing manages to innovate is in its skill system, which allows you to allocate boosters to your attacks. This system ensures that you’ll always need two free hands to play the game and prevents it from devolving into a monotonous exercise in clicking things. Each of your skills has three different boosters with varying applications—for instance, you can boost your basic gun attack with a stun, a damage increase, and an area-of-effect boost. Depending on the monsters you’re fighting, you might want to spend more points on stunning than you would on the two other skills. If you don’t feel like fiddling around with boosters, you can hit the space key to use a preset boost, which in itself is customizable.
Despite its similarities in combat, the game is a lot more atmospheric and narrative-driven than Diablo, however. The two main characters constantly banter, reacting to events that unfold throughout the story. Even little things, like talking to NPCs, can get one or both characters to speak up. There is a particularly funny moment early on in the game when Van Helsing is refused entry into a city, prompting Katarina, whose undead status is revered by the people of the land, to smooth talk her way into the city by calling him her servant. His reaction is one of irritation, but the way she brushes him off is amusing. Situations like that are dime a dozen throughout the game’s several hour-long preview build, and they provide the player with reason to feel invested in the characters. The interactions are much more immersive than the ones you get in Diablo 3—whose characters sometimes talk to each other, but not to any meaningful level. The bond that Katarina and Van Helsing have with one another is evident from the start, and their interactions invite the player to become a part of their relationship.
Throughout the game, the player encounters a variety of situations that offer choices meaningful not just to the narrative, but impact how the characters develop. It goes without saying that the choices you make are more than cosmetic. Just as well, and the world itself is interactive in the sense that quests have multiple outcomes. For instance, you can choose to kill or spare a Werewolf, who will later return to help you in a quest further down the line, should you choose to spare his life. Likewise, you can opt to screw over the town blacksmith by rejecting his reward for a quest and keeping the loot for yourself. The choices are there, and both main characters often weigh in on the situation to provide the player with valuable input.
It’s surprising how well-polished the game is, how good it looks, and how well it plays considering that its developers are small independent team in Hungary. If you played it, and it’s expected to cost $15 once it’s released later this month, you probably wouldn’t guess that it came from an indie team. If there’s anything that betrays the game’s origins, it’s the voice acting from every other character aside from the two main ones, because it sounds like the developers had to save on costs with those guys. It’s unfortunate, because for as well written and fleshed-out as the preview of the game may have been, I was pulled out of my immersion every time one of the side characters said a word.
In all, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is a solid effort from a little-known studio—at least in regards to what we’ve seen of the game thus far. It’s a game worth keeping an eye out for.