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The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing / 27th of December 2015

Developer, Neocore, actually took their top-down RPG to PC and Mac over two years ago, yet now that it has been ported to consoles, it’s actually the very first that I’d ever seen of it, and whilst yes, it is quite blatantly a Diablo clone, it was actually this very feature that drew me inexorably towards it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually stack up too well against Blizzard’s own monster slaying shenanigans, yet through the disappointment, some unique character and gameplay mechanics still manage to shine through, and that certainly bodes well for any future endeavours that its creator embarks upon.

After the awful misadventures of Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing, the character has become something of a laughing stock, and the pretensions of the title certainly appeared to indicate that this trend was set to continue, yet this is certainly not the case. Neocore have managed, at least to some extent, to inject some life back into Bram Stoker’s creation, though it is certainly not without its faults, which sadly begin to make their presence felt rather early on.



The tutorial that introduces the core gameplay mechanics to the player is found to be severely lacking, teaching only the most basic elements and leaving quite a bit out to be discovered through trial and error, personally, I discovered that it was possible to switch between melee and ranged weapons with a click of a right stick in the middle of a battle with an overpowered enemy with absolutely no idea as to how I’d managed to do it. Likewise, skills and attribute upgrades are pretty much brushed over, so it takes a fair few hours of play to really get into the swing of things in regards to the most basic functionality. What this also means though is that the game feels poorly balanced as the difficulty curve appears to be more of a vertical line, literally throwing the player in at the deep end with little hope of finding any enjoyment in the game.

Everything that one should expect to find in an RPG is here though, shoddy dialogue, poor voice acting and the usual arrays of skill trees, experience points, inventory management and a whole array of missions and side-quests to further the story and earn some much needed XP. Both the character’s ranged and melee weapon sets have their own unique skill trees to allow the player to specialise their hero somewhat, and it is wise to begin this process immediately, divvying out skill points across both attack options leaves Van Helsing underpowered and ill prepared for the tougher battles ahead of him, though thankfully it is possible to respec the character later on.



Visually speaking, the game is certainly solid if unspectacular, the colour scheme seems deliberately subdued to highlight the effects employed for its magic attacks and various supernatural elements as harmful sigils mark out crimson ranges of health depleting land and waves of blue tinged energy streams that flow out from attacking adversaries. Creatures are likewise made up of the usual array of demons, werewolves and more, which is fine, but personally, I can’t help but feel that the game really needed a more stylised look to help distinguish it from the competition, but sadly this is not the case. Another problem with its overall look is simply how cluttered the UI is, with enemy health bars popping up at the top of the screen, this can be changed though to show the health of all injured opponents, but ultimately this smothers the visible area in blocks of red and leaves the player wondering how well their own character is faring.

Much like Diablo, swarms of enemies rushing towards the hero is not an uncommon sight, and – especially near the start of the game – they are far harder to manage than they really ought to be, leaving death as a fairly common occurrence. To their credit though, Neocore have ensured that punishment for this has been kept as minimal as possible with only small amounts of gold being stripped away to pay for respawning in the vicinity of the player’s death, still, I found this a tad frustrating and it makes the early stages of the game in particular feel like a bit of a slog. Though in a clear nod to the brilliant Torchlight, Van Helsing’s ghostly companion, Katarina, can – despite her lack of corporeal form – lug about unused items and even be sent back into town to sell them on for gold, keeping the player’s coffers filled.



From the mindless, repetitious clicking of an attack button though, the game suddenly slips in a new feature around its mid-way point, which sees the game take a jaunt into the tower defence genre, with players placing a myriad number of traps around the protagonist’s base of operations. Armies of supernatural foes besiege his fort, only to be greeted by these traps as they spring into life, leaving only the stragglers behind for Van Helsing to take out himself. It’s certainly a novel feature to have and it puts some distance between itself and those that it clearly facsimiles, with a bit more refinement and a few more interesting twists on the formula, Neocore may actually be able to offer a viable alternative to the best examples of the genre, but as it is, they just haven’t quite cracked it yet.

The story mode – the main game type – sees players assume the role of Van Helsing’s son as he sets off to carve out a legacy for himself as he attempts to step out from under his father’s shadow. This sees him set off for the land of Borgovia in search of monsters to slay, quests to complete and NPCs to communicate with, the latter, though still subject to the same writing and voice acting problems as the principal cast, somehow manage to inject a bit of life into the surroundings to create a world that is at once both original and yet clichéd, which ultimately sums up the game as a whole.



With a campaign that lasts somewhere in the region of twenty hours or so, some unusual tower defence elements, a fairly robust combat system and some attempts at humour, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing manages to come away feeling better than it probably ought to. It may make me pine for a console release of Torchlight 2, and it’ll certainly never prove to be a viable alternative to Diablo III, but for the price it’s certainly worth a look, it’s just a pity that it could have been so much better.
 
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