top_of_the_game_ma

You could do worse than The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing (hyperbole theirs). Developer Neocore, fresh from a long stint homaging the Total War series with their King Arthur series, is now homaging Diablo. They mostly get the Diablo feel, even if they don’t get the Diablo polish, replayability, moment-to-moment gameplay, and variety. And does Diablo really need a tower defense game?

After the jump, you might be surprised at the answer

Technically speaking, Van Helsing is a troubled game. I haven’t been able to get the multiplayer to work reliably, but this isn’t the sort of action RPG that benefits from playing multiplayer. Your AI companion — see below — makes multiplayer superfluous anyway. I had serious frame rate problems with one computer, and one of the later levels crashed repeatedly on another computer, essentially freezing my progress. It doesn’t look good enough to run this roughly. The load times are ungodly long and far too frequent. If there’s one thing to make you appreciate Blizzard’s mostly loadless Diablo engine, it’s the time spent staring at a Van Helsing loading screen.

Van Helsing starts out slow and takes a while to get not terrible. The places, monsters, and gameplay are markedly better once you pass a halfway point that warns you there will be no going back. My first thought at this warning was “Why can’t I go back? I can go back in Diablo. Harumph.” My second thought after playing here for a while was, “Why would I ever want to go back?” The steampunky never-mind-that-Hugh-Jackman-movie setting comes to life once you pass this point-of-no-return. If you thought fighting rats was something stupid you have to do when you’re below fifth level, wait until you see the rats you get to fight when you’re 20th level in Van Helsing. Very nice, Neocore. Dishonored would be proud.

wave_two

Furthermore, the latter parts are where this game does some cool things with its blacksmith and gemsmith, called the forge and laboratory, respectively. One of the nicest things you can say about an action RPG is that it’s a worthy loot chase and gear grind, so I’ll go on record as saying that Van Helsing is a worthy loot chase and gear grind. There are even some awesome tower defense missions in which you have to defend the town hub from waves of monsters, complete with a variety of traps you unlock, buy, and install. Hey, who got Orcs Must Die in my Diablo clone? And how can I make sure this feature gets ripped off in other action RPGs? Because it’s pretty nice to have the monsters come to you for a change (hello, Din’s Curse!), even if you’re mostly watching them fling themselves into grinders, flamethrowers, and spikes. This is the point where I was most likely to concede the “incredible” in the title.

But when it comes to leveling up characters — if only the gear grind were enough! — Van Helsing can’t hold a candle to its better cousins. If you think of an action RPG as a linear run through the content from beginning to end, at which point you’re done, Van Helsing is just fine. But if you think of an action RPG as a game in which you level up your choice of character any number of ways over the course of a long drawn-out power curve which involves playing the same areas several times at various difficulty levels, Van Helsing misses the point entirely. In other words, if you think you beat Diablo (the game) the first and only time you beat Diablo (the boss), this is an action RPG for you. But if you think beating Diablo (the boss) is just the first step into the game proper on the way to level 60, which is just the first step on the way to endgame paragon leveling, which you can do five times over because the character classes are all so damn inviting, this is not an action RPG for you. For traditional action RPG aficionados, Van Helsing is a sad single-serving where you normally get an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The only character character class in Van Helsing is the Van Helsing. Your Van Helsing can either be a ranged dude or a melee dude. You’ll probably only use two skills, if that. You’ll mostly just spam one of them. To supposedly keep things varied, you can store up rage by not taking damage, which you can then use to tweak your skills on the fly. For instance, do you spend your rage on a damage bonus, on a wider swath that hits more creatures, or on a knockback effect? Think fast! Or queue it up to always happen the same way when you slap the space bar. Whereas these decisions are part of your character build in most games, Van Helsing intends to make you choose them as you hack and slash. And if you’re a melee class unable to build up much rage because you keep getting hit, well, don’t sweat it. Just put points into something else.

You get lots of places to put points, but as the game goes on, you’ll find yourself doing the same thing over and over and over and over, with no incentive to mix up your approach, much less the option to do so. You’re either the tank or the DPS, with your ghost companion taking up the slack for the other role.

along_came_an_arachnid_leviathan

The ghost companion, a sassy chick named Katarina, is initially promising. She banters well. Her head has been severed at the neck, because she was an executed noblewoman, so it’s just floating there above the stump. Cute touch. You might appreciate being able to set her behavior, even though it comes down to making her be the DPS if you’re tanking, or vice versa, and never touching it again. Okay, maybe you’ll mix it up during a boss fight. You can set her to pick up gold, potions, and loot, which cuts down considerably on the clicking. Thanks, Katarina, you’re a real doll. She’s even willing to run back to town to take care of trash loot, just like the helpful pets in Torchlight. She’ll sell your junk, pick up some potions, and return with a joke about buying bon bons or shopping for shoes. Prickly sensibilities looking for something to tide them over until the next “I can’t believe they called Catwoman a bitch!” or “Lara Croft was totally going to get raped!” non-issue can maybe fixate on this. Someone tell Kotaku. Think of Katarina as an AI party member where Neocore has offloaded a piece of the skill tree. Much of her skill tree gives you buffs.

Van Helsing also has a set of perks he can pick among because, well, it was pretty cool in Fallout so there’s no reason it shouldn’t be here. I mostly admire that Neocore is willing to mix some Fallout and Orcs Must Die into my Diablo. If they’d gotten more Diablo in there, I might still be playing.

2 stars
PC