Review: The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing

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The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing takes a page from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, turns it into an action-RPG and spices it up with a steampunk twist.  With an Xbox Live Arcade release date yet to be announced, I got a chance to play the full release on the PC platform.  Is it a great new twist in gothic gaming lore or just a horror you should avoid?

30 Second Review

(+) Great immersion thanks to the fantastic setting, graphics and audio

(+) Diverse skill trees and character customization options

(+) Interesting twist on action-RPG gameplay with the addition of tower defense missions

(-) Random difficulty spikes that are difficult to compensate for

(-) I experienced a lot of framerate/lag issues during my time with the game

(-) Extremely long load screens

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Questing in Borgova

As the game begins, you step into the boots of Abraham Van Helsing’s son answering the call to vanquish evil from the lands.  He is accompanied by Katarina, a ghost that serves to help you in many ways on your journey.  With an unforseen detour and mobs that do not want you completing your quest, the story quickly takes a backseat to the frantic gameplay.  The witty banter between Van Helsing and Katarina is really top notch.  The story itself seems to become a fine vampiric mist of side-quests and the age old “vanquish the evil from the lands”.  Along the way there are decisions you can make as to making friends or foes, but the real enemy behind the evil in Borgova is not apparent until the very end.  I do very much like the writing, in Van Helsing, I simply hope the sequel is a bit more fleshed out.

Van Helsing is proficient in both melee/sword-based combat and firearms, giving you plenty of skill tree options and attacks to choose from and level up.  In addition, Van Helsing can utilize tricks and auras that will either buff his skills, augment his attacks or even heal both he and Kat.  Van Helsing  infuses the typical action-RPG gameplay with quite a few new mechanics and strategic elements, making this game a vibrant and deep entry at a bargain price.

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Not Just A Pet

It would be easy to assume Katarina is just your typical support character. On the surface, she fills a similar role to that of the pets in the Torchlight franchise. After all, she can take your loot and sell it in town for you, even picking up potions for you from a shopping list.  The difference is she has a skill tree of her own and quite a few tricks up her sleeve.  She can be tailored to attack aggressively or defensively with either melee or ranged attacks.  Along with her other useful traits,  she can add various character buffs to Van Helsing while in specter mode, something which can be very usefull. You can customize Kat’s skill tree to allow her to absorb some of your damage, leech life with her attacks or even boost your chances of finding magic powered loot.  All in all, she is a valuable tool for Van Helsing to wield during his quests.

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Take A Friend On A Slay Ride

Van Helsing supports up to 4 player co-op.  Your multi-player characters can be used in either single-player or co-op, but you must be logged into and launched through Steam to go online and play co-op.  This can be troubling if you are affected by framerate hiccups and are running the game via a 64-bit OS optimized shortcut in the game’s directory(more on that in the next segment).  If you can get the co-op to work, the game is the perfect setting for some awesome multiplayer.  The skill trees of both Van Helsing and Katarina are perfect for making complimentary partner builds.  One character can focus on the melee/tank side; the other can focus on ranged attacks and support skills.  Even within these two build types, there are tons of options for allocating skill and attribute points, so  even two tank builds can handle differently or have different elemental attack specialties.  Still, I really feel this is an underused portion of the game, as it is still fairly laggy.  I’d really love to sink my teeth in more when the kinks have been worked out.

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I Vant To Sap Your Framerate

Judging from the forums and feedback, there is a percentage of players experiencing significant framerate issues.  Sadly, I am among them.  Many attempts to solve these issues went without relief.  Reinstalling the game, updating drivers, defragging my hard drive…. Nothing seemed to work.  I can’t be sure if it was a new patch, the use of a different 64-bit optimized shortcut in the game’s folder or a combination of the two, but I’ve finally experienced some relief.  Launching the game from the shortcut means sacrificing Steam’s in-game options, friends list, screen capturing capabilities and achievement/time tracking, but it’s worth it for the smoother gameplay.

Just in case you are experiencing issues, I would recommend creating a desktop shortcut to use the ‘VanHelsing_x86.exe’ file in the game’s folder to launch the game.  Checking the game’s advanced graphics options to deffer some of the graphics to the CPU or take advantage of SLI technology may also provide a better FPS rate.

EDIT: As of June 25th, the game has been patched (and again on July 1st).  These recent patches seem to have greatly reduced the lag during gameplay, so much so that I no longer have to run the game through a separate, non-Steam launcher from the game directory.  Neocore still recommends using ‘Online Characters’ for multiplayer rather than those created via the Single Player menu, but I’ve seem massive improvements in gameplay with the latest patches.  -7/4/2013

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A Lot At Stake

If you aren’t familiar with current action-RPG gameplay, Van Helsing attacks with clicks of your left mouse button.  Your right mouse button will activate a player designated skill or spell attack, and two auras can be mapped to the ‘A’ and ‘S’ keys on the keyboard.  In addition, killing enemies earns you rage points that can be used to augment Van Helsing’s attacks.  Each skill and attack has secondary buffs that you unlock with skill points.  Combos can be made using those buffs, so that a press of the spacebar activates the rage system and augments your next attack with the advantages of those buffs.  For example, you can unlock a skill that will imbue your sword with lightning damage.  You can further unlock skills to cause instant death, area of effect and multi-hit damage with your lightning attacks.  These are the buffs that the rage system will give your base lighting skill attack.

Another fantastic addition is the use of a lair during the game’s second act.  Not only can you shop and teleport to your lair, but an engineer will upgrade it’s generator and provide some very interesting base defense segments.  Collecting machine parts during your travels in Act II will provide resources for you to craft and place traps in Van Helsing’s lair.  At predesignated points in the story, you will be forced to rely on these traps and your combat skills to protect the lair from waves of attackers.  It’s a fantastic portion of the game that, sadly, only happens twice.  I certainly wish there were more of these segments. Hopefully the upcoming DLC for the game will include more of this mechanic.

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A Monster Tale

There are some factors that weighed heavily in my review score of Van Helsing.  The aforementioned framerate and performance problems were a real drag.  The difficulty spikes and frequent deaths at random segments were very frustrating.  That said, I could not help but love the game despite these flaws.  The framerate was corrected by simply using a different shortcut in the game’s folder.  The difficulty spikes were tough, but I can’t help but think that respecing my character to favor an attack build that relied on different elemental attacks.  Sure, I’d understand if you cry foul on forcing the player to respec their character simply to counter a few new enemy types.  I’m not sure I like the idea having to use a specific build or skillset just to counter certain enemy types, as simply changing my tactics didn’t seem to offset the difficulty spikes.  I imagine it’s possible to try and balance your build with varied elemental attack types, but again, I couldn’t overcome some of the difficult spots with a very narrow build, so I’m not sure further dividing skill points would have alleviated my troubles.  The defense against all of this is the fact that the gold cost for a respec is negligible compared to the wealth amassed in the endgame.

Van Helsing is a very polarizing game. It really depends if you are a “glass is half empty” or “half full” type of person.  The “half fulls” like myself will look beyond the shortcomings, appreciate what Neocore has done and still have a great time.  There has already been free DLC to provide extra content for level 30 and up characters.  If you like a challenge and the depth of playing around with character builds, then The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing won’t disappoint.  With the next title already announced, I’m excited to see what other adventures await Katarina and Van Helsing.

My point is that for a mere $14.99, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is full of charm, atmosphere and monster mash-up mobs.  All of this outweighs the faults of the game, making it well worth the price of entry.  The tower defense segments were brilliant, and the final battle was pretty spectacular.  Coupling that with the fact that the dedicated team at Neocore continues to patch and troubleshoot the game alleviates any hesitations that I would have at recommending buying it.  Personally, I’m looking forward to playing around with some of the high level content, as well as diving into the co-op when it’s a bit more stable.  I may even make a new character and just start another build.

EDIT: In case you missed my earlier comments, patches released in late June and early July have basically fixed all of the graphical glitching I was experiencing, making this game that much easier for me to recommend.  I commend the efforts of Neocore, and applaud them as they continue to support Van Helsing and add to the free DLC.  Thank you Neocore!  7/4/2013

Van Helsing infuses a lot of new ideas into the action-RPG genre and provides a memorable experience.  For that, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing earns 7.5 out of 10 cloves of garlic.

[starreview tpl=14]

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