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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (348)

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Far Cry 5 4/5
Jotun 2/5
Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5
The Incredible Adventur... 4/5
Fallout 4 3/5
Tomba! 5/5
Odallus: The Dark Call 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 4/5
Call of Juarez: Bound i... 3/5
Drakkhen 3.5/5
Unravel 3.5/5
Zero-K 2/5
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes... 4.5/5
AereA 1/5

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The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing   PC (Steam) 

Diamond in the Rough    4/5 stars

“The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing” (“Van Helsing”) is the third game by Hungarian Indie developer, NeoCore Games, whose inaugural efforts included “King Arthur” and “King Arthur 2,” the ‘Role-Playing Wargames.’ Like Disney in its heyday, NeoCore has adopted the concept of basing their game development efforts on extant works of literature that have become part of the Public Domain, hence negating the need for expensive licensing fees to IP rights-holders and the whole legal song-and-dance that happens around such licensing agreements. “Van Helsing” is based on none-other than the original novel that brought vampires and creatures of the night into the modern zeitgeist, “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, originally published in 1897 (thus it only just went out of copyright before NeoCore used it as the basis of their game, heh).

Released episodically, portions of “Van Helsing” began to ooze out of NeoCore and onto Steam in 2013, followed thereafter by ports to PlayStation Network and Xbox Live. Over the next two years, NeoCore would produce two additional episodes for the game, culminating in a combined release, dubbed the ‘Final Cut’ in 2015, which ties all three episodes together, while simultaneously homogenizing some of the character development mechanics that evolved over the course of the game’s episodic release.

Presentation
Unlike so many modern games, even/especially Indie titles, “Van Helsing” doesn’t use much in the way of canned assets or third-party engines. NeoCore games created their own proprietary CoreTech engine for use in their ‘King Arthur’ titles, and it appears that it is just a modified version of this engine underpinning “Van Helsing.” In general, the visuals look decent. Characters are detailed enough to be unique, while never really taxing to modern hardware. “Van Helsing” even offers a free high-resolution texture DLC pack… which doesn’t really make the game look any different, despite inflating the install size to over 50GB. Like many traditional PC RPGs and Hack ‘n Slash titles, “Van Helsing” features a fixed isometric birds-eye view camera, which is usually perfectly functional, though it occasionally allows environmental objects to obstruct the player’s view of their character and the action, while also preventing graphics whores from really zooming in and looking at the fine graphical details on anything.

Audiowise, “Van Helsing” is fairly simple and straight forward. The soundtrack features only a small number of tracks, but they are pleasant and appropriate for the game’s setting. The only two voiceactors that receive full credit in the game are Alex Warner as Van Helsing himself and Michelle Sparks as Lady Katarina, whose fake Slavic accent is incredible. There are many other voiced characters, but there is a drastically noticeable gulf between the performances by the credited actors and the fillers. That is to say, the credited actors, despite not having a huge number of other VA projects under their belts, did an incredible job, while the uncredited actors… well, they are likely happy to remain anonymous. One character in particular delivered his lines with such wooden and robotic precision that I at first thought the character was voiced by a text-to-speech bot. Regardless, videogame voiceacting has had a checkered history, and even at its worst, “Van Helsing” is still decent.

Technically, “Van Helsing” has a few problems. The worst, most noticeable, and most common glitches I ran into were all networking related. “Van Helsing” loves to crash in multi-player for no reason. It loves to hang on loading screens (which are pretty damned long most of the time) and kick players out of the game, then tell them that they aren’t able to rejoin because they are no longer at the same part of the story as the rest of the group. The Final Cut release is actually better than the original episodic releases, as it features dedicated NeoCore servers for matchmaking and save backup instead of just using P2P (though there is plenty of P2P still going on, otherwise the whole session wouldn’t end when the host’s game crashes). “Van Helsing” also has a common, random glitch where the visuals will simply fail to appear when launching the game, which can be fixed by quitting and trying again. However, while it is buggy and crashy, “Van Helsing” at least goes the extra mile and supports Xinput controllers out of the box, which is an essential feature for a Hack ‘n Slash, as far as I’m concerned, and a huge black mark against Blizzard for not patching Xinput support into “Diablo 3” despite porting that game to every console.

Story
“Van Helsing” takes place a generation after the events of Bram Stoker’s novel, “Dracula,” in a steampunk alternate early 19th century where mad science has run amok. Located in the fictional Eastern European nation of Borgovia (whose capital city is Borgova, which causes some confusion as the writers/editors didn’t do a very good job of clarifying this or using the two terms consistently), “Van Helsing” follows the activities of the son of Abraham Van Helsing, the hero of Stoker’s novel, and his ghostly noblewoman sidekick, Lady Katarina, as they struggle to protect the common folk of the realm not only from traditional creatures of the night (many of which are actually reformed and quite reasonable), but from the careless and unethical use of mad science to power warfare.

Arriving home in Borgovia after travels abroad, the young Van Helsing finds the place in disarray and is shocked that nobody is upholding his father’s legacy of monster hunting in order to keep incursions by creatures of the night at bay. After helping out in some small rural locations, Van Helsing and Lady Katarina soon learn that the Borgovian government has largely imploded, taken over and pushed out of the way by powerful and organized mad scientists who have setup shop in the capital city and are using the entire country as their own personal testbed for insane experiments.

Van Helsing makes his way to his father’s abandoned secret base and begins to recruit for a resistance movement to push back against the unethical and self-destructive efforts of the mad scientists, provoking their leader, General Harker (another descendent of a character from Stoker’s novel) to wage full-blown war against Van Helsing and any who would support him.

As the war effort chugs along, Van Helsing finds himself the beneficiary of some secret knowledge provided by a mysterious figure who has a long-running grudge against the mad scientists, which leads to several plot twists and revelations that are almost surprising.

The world of “Van Helsing” feels very authentic, for what it is. It’s clear that, as Hungarians, the team at NeoCore knows what Eastern Europe is like, managing to capture the essence of that part of the world, despite the heavy layer of Victorian science fiction and steampunk trappings slathered on top. It’s also quite apparent that the narrative team at NeoCore is full of Lovecraft fans, as there is a strong Lovecraftian influence that pervades the entire story, right down to the fictional cosmology that underlies the world’s magic and science and the way the two arts interact with each other.

Unfortunately, “Van Helsing” has a couple of major pitfalls in its narrative quality. First, it’s obvious that the Hungarian team speaks Hungarian instead of English on a daily basis, as there are an incredible number of typos, grammatical errors, and just bad editing in the game’s script. There are numerous locations where the subtitles don’t match the voiceacting simply because the native English-speaking voiceactors self-edited their lines as they read them instead of mindlessly spewing out broken gibberish. The other problem is something of a plague amongst writers of the Internet era (and I find myself falling into this pitfall when DMing tabletop RPGs): Referential humor. “Van Helsing” is perforated with ‘hidden content,’ all of which takes the form of anachronistic, referential jokes (usually in reference to another IP). These types of referential jokes can be cute and funny when used as a very rare Easter Egg, but “Van Helsing” has a dozen of these things in EACH CHAPTER, which makes it hard to take the game seriously.

The whole shebang clocks in at roughly 40 hours, which is a good length of time to spend with a game like this. Post-game, there are random maps the player can run through infinitely, though there doesn’t appear to be a New Game+ option, which disappointed me.

Gameplay
“Van Helsing” is a fairly by-the-books Hack ‘n Slash RPG, in the vein of the ‘Diablo’ series, with some obvious influence from the ‘Torchlight’ series. Van Helsing can be one of 6 different character classes (though he is always male and always human), ranging from the traditional Hunter, who wears an awesome hat and wields pistols and swords, to the pretty-out-there Phlogistoneer, who wears a Victorian steampunk mechasuit that shoots rockets. Classes in “Van Helsing” boil down to three major types: Melee (Hunter and Protector), Magic (Elementalist and Umbralist), and Technology (Constructor and Phlogistoneer). I played as a Constructor, who summons hordes of disposable mechanical minions into battle. I had a lot of fun with this class, as I particularly enjoy pet/minion-based builds in Hack ‘n Slash games.

And speaking of pets and minions, every character class gets one really great one in the form of Lady Katarina. The ghostly noblewoman isn’t just along for the ride to spew snarky comments and adjust her bodice all the time, no, she’d a bonafide combatant in her own right, transforming into an angry wraith which can either wield melee attacks or ranged attacks, depending on the setting the player applies to her AI and what the player feels will be most complementary to Van Helsing’s class. Katarina doesn’t just fight, but can be configured to pick-up loot and, like the pets in ‘Torchlight,’ can be sent back to town to sell unwanted loot without forcing the player to interrupt their pursuits.

Character development is fairly straight forward as well. Each class has a unique skill tree and a unique aura tree. As he levels up, Van Helsing can equip up to three auras simultaneously, providing passive effects. From the outset, Van Helsing can equip 6 active skills to either the hotbar (for typewriter peasants) or the controller buttons (ABXY, RB, RT). Some skills have cooldowns, some skills have mana costs, some skills have both. All skills and auras can be upgraded to a maximum of level 10, with a few minor passive boosts available at levels 5 and 10. Katarina has her own set of skills in three trees, with one focusing on buffs for Van Helsing, one focusing on buffs for Katarina herself, and one focusing on adding extra options to Katarina’s bag of combat tricks.

Both Van Helsing and Katarina level up independently, and each features a set of three basic stats, which govern things like total health, damage output, and the like. Upon gaining a level, Van Helsing gains 2 stat points and 2 skill points, while Katarina gains 2 stat points and 1 skill point. These points can be spent right away or saved, since it is often better to sit on points until reaching a higher level and unlocking a new skill on the skill tree than it is to dump them into a useless skill and spend gold to respect them into a better skill later. Besides the standard experience bar for gaining levels, Van Helsing also has a Reputation bar that fills as he kills monsters and completes quests. While the level cap in the game is 100, the Reputation cap is only 15, and each rank of Reputation allows the player to choose one from a list of powerful passive Perks that apply to either Van Helsing or Katarina.

The only really nonsensical and poorly designed aspect of the game’s core character building and gameplay is the Rage system. Each and every skill has three power-up options available to it (which must be unlocked by wasting skill points on them) which can be activated once Van Helsing’s Rage meter is full. It’s possible to set the game to do this automatically, as the power-ups are generally so weak and inconsequential, it’s easy to forget about activating them entirely. I ultimately gave up on this system as useless, and instead invested in Perks that provide fairly significant bonuses when Van Helsing is at maximum Rage (and since I had no power-ups to consume Rage, once he filled the meter each play session, Van Helsing simply stayed pissed off the entire time).

What would a Hack ‘n Slash be without loot? Nothing. Or maybe a better genre. Whatever. Loot is, as one would expect, central to “Van Helsing” and in making the titular character and his ghostly companion more powerful. Van Helsing himself has a lot of slots into which to equip gear, while Katarina has significantly fewer (though still plenty at 6). “Van Helsing” follows the tried-and-true tradition of color-based rarity for loot (White, Blue, Yellow, Orange), but takes bold and beautiful step of removing the bottom tier of loot entirely. There’s no crappy White rarity garbage cluttering up the ground or the player’s inventory in “Van Helsing,” nope. Loot starts at Blue, magical loot. Of course, in getting rid of the old bottom of the barrel, “Van Helsing” creates a new bottom, and I never bothered to even look at Blue loot, instead defaulting to Yellow rarity items. But toward the end of the game, I had amassed a collection of mostly Orange gear and found it very difficult to replace any of it. Orange/Legendary loot in “Van Helsing” is generally really, really good, and even Yellow loot from significantly higher-level areas won’t easily replace an Orange. Instead, I found myself hoarding my old, obsolete Orange items (which had been replaced with newer Orange items) and using them to fuel the Blacksmith’s forge. For a small amount of gold, this NPC shopkeeper will combine 2 Orange items into a new Orange item of the player’s level (or 3 Blue items into a Blue item or 3 Yellow items into a Yellow item, but since Blue and Yellow items are useless, so is that capability).

On top of items of given rarities, there are some other loot-based mechanics that allow players to make Van Helsing and Katarina more powerful. There’s a Gypsy enchantress who will add (or remove or reroll) an extra magical ability to any piece of loot in exchange for gold, and there’s a good mad scientist who will apply essences to items. Some items randomly come with an Essence Capacity stat, while others need special Capacity Essences applied to them first. Essences are basically the same as gems in ‘Diablo’ or ‘Torchlight,’ in that they can be slotted in and out of gear, upgraded, or fused into new essences, granting a boost based on the type (weapon, armor, or accessory) of loot they’re attached to.

If there’s anything actually ‘bad’ about “Van Helsing’s” gameplay, it’s simply complexity. Yes, while there is something of a tutorial via a handful of pop-up boxes that appear the first time a player gains access to a new mechanic, in general, the game doesn’t explain the complexities of its systems particularly well. On top of the vaguery and opacity associated with the game’s systems, there are a number of issues where the UI just fails to make sense or explain things. For example, I was fiddling around with enchanting an item, trying to get a more useful random roll than what I kept getting. The UI told me it was only costing around 700-2000 gold per attempt… yet I suddenly and abruptly found myself out of gold, because the cost was actually something like 200,000 gold per attempt, yet the UI didn’t make that clear at all.

Finally, it’s noteworthy that “Van Helsing’s” balance skews toward the more casual. Unlike most games of this type, monsters don’t become more powerful or numerous in coop, so playing in a team makes the game’s challenges trivial. Likewise, playing on Normal difficulty feels like Easy or Very Easy in any other similar game from the genre.

Overall
Between the engaging (if poorly edited) story, interesting (if poorly explained) character development mechanics, intuitive controls (yet buggy networking), and pleasing Victorian steampunk aesthetic, “The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing” is easily my favorite Hack ‘n Slash game. If it wasn’t such an unpolished mess, it might have a much better reputation from gamers at large. However, the fact that it is a self-contained adventure without ‘seasons’ and other MMO-inspired nonsense, and that it’s easy to find really good loot – you know, things I like about it – are things that the typical Hack ‘n Slash audience has rejected, much to their own loss.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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