Once in a while, a game comes out that you have never heard of and totally impresses you. That is the case with The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. Brought to fruition by Neocore Games, Van Helsing is a traditional ARPG in the vein of Diablo 2. Marketed as the first in a series of three games, the truly incredible thing about this game is that it is a pure indie title, with a budget price ($14.99 on Steam). Despite this fact, it stands toe to toe with some of the biggest names in the ARPG pantheon such as Diablo 3 and Torchlight 2.
An important note about the game. It has a very large file size (20 GB to be exact). While I am not 100% sure why the file size is so large, it is probably best to make sure you have the room before you download the game. Anyways, at its core, Van Helsing is a traditional ARPG. You will travel through three acts in the game, through the neo-noir city of Borgova. There is a definite style for the game that is truly noticeable upon reaching Act 2. It is almost like a hybrid between nature and steampunk, with enemies reflecting the setting. Mechanical beings and mutated monsters are the typical baddies you will face on your adventures.
In your travels to Borgova to aid the resistance in the metropolis, you will collect tons of loot, and gain experience that will be used to increase your skills and abilities. Equipment is pretty standard, but the interesting thing is that Van Helsing can equip both a gun and a sword at one time. On the fly, you can switch between melee and ranged battle. This will prove important throughout the game. The skill system, while slightly lacking in the actual skill department, is robust in what you can do with it. There are two main skill trees, melee and ranged. The skills that are purchased along the trees can be enhanced and modified by rage multipliers. Rage builds up in combat, and can be “stacked” onto your skills by using hotkeys. Once you get the hang of it, the system becomes a blast, as it provides an engaging component to the battles. Aside from combat skills, there are also passive skills and special “tricks” that can be used on cooldown. Ability points span attributes that can be used to improve your character. The best part is that for a fee, skills and ability points are fully refundable and reusable.
One of the most interesting aspects of Van Helsing, and something I would like to see more heavily implemented in ARPG games in general, is the effective use of the sidekick. In the case of this game, your sidekick is the ethereal companion Katarina. A sarcastic ghost, Katarina provides useful and funny commentary on her beloved homeland of Borgova. She is also adept in battle, and you can build her in whichever way you like. She will level up alongside you, and you can distribute her ability points and skills. Her skill tree is more of a passive one, with all sorts of auras that either focus on improving Van Helsing or her own battle prowess. She can also be outfitted with gear. The best part is that her entire battle strategy can be mapped, all the way down to how she acts in combat, what she picks up from monsters, and the frequency of which she chugs potions. If you should find yourself overburdened with too much gear, she can also be sent back to the store while out in the field. In my playthrough, I molded Katerina into a tank that soaked up damage while I picked off enemies with ranged attacks. It is a very impressive AI system when all is said and done.
In true ARPG fashion, there are towns available throughout Van Hesling. In town, you can embark on a small assortment of quests, shop at a vendor, and purchase skills that can be upgraded. You may also craft items from scratch, or modify equipment using essences found in the field. Essences are like gems, and can only be put into certain equipment. The majority of your time will be spent playing through the main adventure in the field, however. It is interesting to note that during Act 2, there is a sort of tower defense game that needs to be played to progress. While nothing major, it is a nice strategic break from the norm. Battles can also become quite strategic, with the combo system and the mix up of melee and ranged battle. Some bosses require modest planning and strategy, and manipulation of equipment in the area.
While fun is to be had in the first playthrough, which will net you 10-12 hours of playtime, there are no respawning enemies. Replay value comes in the form of trying the game on a harder difficulty, or trying out hardcore mode, where death spells disaster. Van Helsing is also playable with up to four players online. While there is nothing especially enticing about playing co-op, it can be a fun thing to do with your buds. Loot does not improve with friends, but it is probably a good idea to roll with a buddy or two if you want to clear some of the harder difficulties. Also, as mentioned by a staff member, it is a good way to have each character specialize in a certain playstyle. In the solo game, it is usually necessary to invest in a sort of hybrid character due to survivability. If playing cooperatively, specialty builds can be explored, such as pure dexterity/ranged, or a magic wielder. Whatever the case may be, the possibilities present in co-op play will add definite replay value to the game.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is an awesome game. The system that Neocore has in place for an ARPG is outstanding, and they can only improve on it from here. With three games planned in the Van Helsing series, it will be interesting to see how the series develops over time. Whatever the case may be, it is refreshing to see a relatively unknown developer go head to head with some of the biggest names in the genre, adding innovations such as AI companion depth in the process. This is a game that is definitely worth your time and money.