OK, hands up; who thought this would be one of those sad film franchise games with dubious production values, and mediocre gameplay? Yes, I confess, I am one of those people. I always dread doing reviews of such games. Fans of the film tend to be passionate about them, while developers are keen to milk as much as they can on the coattails of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Well I am big enough to admit I was wrong; incredibly wrong, in fact.
This game follows the adventures of the son of Abraham Van Helsing - a character that also inspired Hugh Jackman's role in the similarly named film, and the hero of the Dracula novel. The game is set in the fictional country of Borgovia (think of Southeastern Europe; take a hard left turn past the village with dark forests, brooding castles, and the occasional witch burning for local colour.) The game world itself has a steampunk-meets-Harry-Potter feel to it; well, the darker books in the series anyway. Some commentators use the term "gothic noir"; for me, that conjures up pasty faced apathetic teenage girls, but that is probably just my age talking.
The game, at its core, is of the action role playing variety in the same vein as Path of Exile and its ilk. It sits almost neatly between Path of Exile and Torchlight, really, as regards gameplay and complexity. A point-and-click game, you race about thinning the local population of various creatures with too many arms, too few eyes, and oh so many decorative horns and spikes.
There are two different paths you can take with your character. For those who prefer the direct approach, involving sharp steel and a large dry cleaning bill, there is the melee route with swords (and then even bigger swords as you progress.) If you like the cleaner approach, you can always opt to shoot opponents by selecting the ranged option. I must confess, the latter is my favorite, with a particular leaning towards explosive projectiles (nothing says “stay dead” better than reducing a slavering beast to pink mist.) You aren't restricted to just one of these classes, either; in fact, there is some benefit to combining the options, and ultimately there are many combinations you can achieve (each also has magic abilities you can mix in for good measure.)
Aiding you in the game is a companion. Like other games, this companion acts as a loot mule and also as an ally in combat. You can equip her depending on how you want your own combat build complemented. The wrinkle here is that you companion is a ghost. One with both an attitude and a sense of humor. Sometimes annoying, sometimes winging, but as far as combat is concerned, quite useful. Particularly as she levels at about the same pace as you do. When she loses all her hit points, she doesn't die (she's already dead, after all) but rather she goes into a weakened state for a while and takes no part in the combat. It's refreshing to have a companion that is more than just a mindless drone with a limited audio script.
The game controls rely on the standard left mouse for one attack, while the right performs an alternate attack. Tied to all of this is a rage bar that, when full, allows you to append a sub ability to one of the main attacks. As you level, you get more main attacks and sub abilities to choose from. On top of this is a perk system where you can choose from a variety of options that can affect you or your companion. At first pass, the character type selection would appear to be lightweight, but as you play through you open up many more choices and much more complexity.
Key to success in all of these types of games is a combination of ease of interface, a variety of opponents, and a game pace that is simultaneously challenging and yet not overwhelming. It's hard to get the balance between these (often competing) components right, but I am happy to say developers NeoCoreGames have achieved it perfectly here.
The different zones are in the midst of a population explosion; often you find your self attacked by more than one mob at once, and sometimes there can be what is best described as a swarm (much like Farmers on a 50% off everything sale day, perhaps.) To counter this, there are skills and weapons that can cause bloody havoc on an epic scale. I found the battles challenging, but - despite the numbers involved - never overwhelming.
As I touched on earlier, the terrain and scenery is a curious mix of old-worldy dark forest and steampunk technology. It's clearly designed to create an atmosphere of dark foreboding, and this is largely achieved thanks to some great lighting and mist effects, as well as clever use of terrain modeling. Often games in this genre are played on flat ground with only contrived height differences. Here, they use what feels like a true 3D terrain, with fade out effects on some of the features as you go under them. If there was a prize for terrain design in the genre, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing would be the clear winner.
Another key feature in this type of game is the loot you find. As you would expect, most of the monsters seems to be able to hide the oddest items on their person (the only way I can rationalize this with the fact that a lot of the monsters are naked and totally void of pockets is to surmise that they have additional orifices.) Items can include some latent magic that allows them to be further modified by differing essences that also drop from monsters. A kind of slot and gem deal, but under a different name. It's good, I like it.
Another stand out for me is the story and its associated quest lines. There is a fair few of them, with some being optional while others crossing in to differing zones. They are less of the go here and kill this boss, with more multiple chains of activity and a bit of puzzling thrown in for good measure. Once again, not overwhelming, but well thought out and they complement the gameplay.
One aspect that raised my eyebrows however is that the zones don't repopulate after you have cleansed them. It makes sense in the context of the quests, but some fans of the genre who enjoy repeating zones to grind out levels will see this as a drawback. I am still pondering whether this is a negative, as the challenge and balance in the game is such that at no point have I felt the need to grind out additional levels before I went into the next zone. In fact, I wonder if this feature in other games is a lazy way of achieving game balance . . .
There are a bunch of features I have not mentioned; teleports, a well thought out maps, network play, and a storyline that has a fair amount of depth - to name just a few - however there are some aspects you just need to play and experience to understand why I have rated this game reasonably highly. Yes, I liked it, and I was a fool to dismiss it so easily. The game is available now on Steam, and at a very reasonable price given its quality. Check it out.