The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing certainly had one of the longest titles at this year's gamescom. It was also one of the most pleasant surprises, quietly nestled into an easily-overlooked corner of the show floor. Taking a traditional top-down, isometric perspective, the game is an unashamed dungeon-crawler which aims to deliver action, story and plenty of loot to keep players hooked.
Planned as the first in a trilogy of titles, each of which can be played as astandalone experience, ...Van Helsing is the start of an ambitious project by Neocore Games. The Hungarian-based developer is planning on self-publishing the game too, a brave move which has clearly given them more creative freedom. We are pleased to say that what we saw of the title was pretty impressive and had the kind of addictive hook that the role-playing action game needs to keep players coming back for more.
Neocore have chosen to focus on creating an arching story for ...Van Helsing that will really drive the plot and give the characters genuine motivations. Taking place in an alternate 19th Century gothic-fantasy Eastern Europe, the narrative follows Van Helsing as he tracks down and slays a wide range of horrible monsters. While you may be somewhat surprised at the depiction of Bram Stoker's elderly Dutch professor, you'll be pleased to know that the game's titular protagonist is in fact, his son.
The game has a pleasing visual style that is reflected in Van Helsing himself and the hordes of beasts that he faces. ...Van Helsing clearly doesn't take itself too seriously and has a nice sense of humour and irony that lightly pokes fun at the gothic-clichés that have inspired it. Enemies are aptly named and are drawn from the pages of some of the 19th Century's most famous horror literature. The "Igor" in particular deserves credit, a patchwork Frankenstein's monster of a being that comes complete with a toxic-slime throwing weapon.
We were given the chance to have some extensive hands-on time with the game, playing two brand-new gamescom 2012 levels: the Rooftops and the Sewers. Playing on an Xbox 360 we were keen to see how the controls felt on a console. The first impressions of the game immediately bring to mind the Diablo and Torchlight series and that is certainly no bad thing. The perspective is reassuringly isometric and the combat and role-playing components seem very much inspired by the strengths of these titles.
Using an Xbox 360 controller was surprisingly intuitive and was not as problematic as we had feared. There were a few problems, but as this was still somewhat early gameplay they were understandable. Sometimes controlling Van Helsing in the midst of a strong group of enemies was challenging and there were a number of occasions where our lack of manoeuvrability caused us to use several health potions. Yet, the camera was always competent and kept on top of the action even when dozens of opponents were trying to pen us into a corner.
Van Helsing has access to a variety of weapons and attacks, with the primary means being divided into close-combat, ranged and magical attacks. Most melee battles were taken care courtesy of the monster-slayer's rather brutal double-handed sword that dealt a great deal of damage. Van Helsing was also equipped with a brace of pistols that were dual-wielded and were especially effective in knocking enemies back from you. The drawback to this was a lack of damage and we mainly used the firearms to keep waves of the smaller enemies at bay while retreating.
Magic was more varied but sadly we didn't get the opportunity to try out a great range of this skill. When levelling up during the demonstration we channelled our skill points into a very useful chain lightning attack that dealt damage to groups of opponents. This proved especially useful when swarmed by smaller, weak monsters allowing you to push them back and gain you space to emphasise on their bigger, more threatening counterparts.
Sadly we didn't get to spend too much time looking at the levelling options available, but there seemed to be plenty of variety to your options. Choosing to tank up, we placed skill points and perks into the areas that mainly increased our health and survivability, which seemed a prudent move. However, there were opportunities to increase weapon damage, firearm proficiency and many more. At each level up Van Helsing had the chance to select specific perks to complement your particular play style.
For a smaller game title, we were impressed at the diversity and depth on offer and with each instalment it seems that you will get a new level cap. There was also a mention from Neocore games that it would be possible to import character builds from one chapter to the next upon release. Indeed, the developers seem to have a future plan for the game with plenty of smaller update packs released in between, free of charge.
During our playthrough of both levels the gameplay was most importantly fun. Looting enemies and chests is always satisfying and gathering a huge stash of gear appeals to our compulsive, collecting side. Neocore mentioned that there would be special sets of armour and weapons to collect that would come complete with added bonuses, which is always a nice touch. Trading and selling items was also straightforward and there was often a vendor lurking in some of the darkest depths of the dungeons, ready to offer his services.
Each enemy type that you faced had clear strengths and weaknesses and when facing a larger swarm, it was essential to exploit these. For example the Igor monsters mentioned earlier explode when killed and can be used effectively as mobile exploding barrels if positioned correctly. One of the most challenging, and rewarding, sections was during the Sewer stage, which was cleverly constructed to have multiple routes through.
The very over-the-top gothic atmosphere was exploited to maximum extent with packs of giant rat men scuttling along dank, dripping passages. However, there were also tall, skeletal resurrectionists who would use necromancy to revive any of the rodents you killed. While this was easy to manage in smaller groups, where you could concentrate your attacks on them, the culmination of the stage was particularly difficult.
Van Helsing found himself in a large open area with dozens of rat men and at least half a dozen tall necromancers. The ensuing battle felt epic in scale and it was only by the skin of our teeth that we managed to fell the last few thanks to a rage attack. Again, this rage-powered bonus is hardly original and is acquired dealing damage and defeating set amounts of enemies. Yet it was very competently handled and certainly a core element of the gameplay.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing might not be the most original game; it is unashamedly honest in what it sets out to do. Neocore have a clear goal: to create a fun, enjoyable game that delivers a solid and entertaining mixture of role-playing and action gameplay. Releasing on both the Xbox 360 and the PC at a very reasonable price, there is a lot on offer for players.
There was something very old-fashioned and truthful about ...Van Helsing. It was never trying to be something it wasn't and we really respected that. We could have quite happily sat down and carried on playing. Gathering loot, defeating enemies and gaining experience were all compelling. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing deserves to do well. It's created by people with an obvious love and understanding of the genre and when it launches later this year we are very excited to dip back into gothic-Europe.