The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing follows the son of Bram Stoker's famous vampire hunter. While the title might be a little overblown, this action role-playing game has an endearing charm, with a well-realized setting, solid combat mechanics, and a terrifically cheeky sense of humor.
As the son of Abraham Van Helsing, you're asked to bring a bit of balance to the "gothic noir" land of Borgovia, a rendition of 19th-century Eastern Europe with just a hint of steam punk. This world stands apart from those in other Western action RPGs like Torchlight or Diablo in that it flirts with more modern visions of classical fantasy. Guns, steam, and an often unclear boundary between science and magic are the meat of Van Helsing's world, and the consistently inventive art direction helps realize the macabre environment.
That doesn't mean, however, that Van Helsing ever takes itself too seriously. Throughout the journey, your primary companion is one Lady Katarina, a ghost rescued by your father before the events of the game. She often offers sarcastic quips to quest givers, and spews snide remarks at the waves of fantastical monsters you meet along the way. It's a refreshing touch, and non-player characters are just as likely to contribute their own bits of subtly anachronistic humor mixed with some valuable nuggets of information, ranging from the locations of unmarked quests to monster weaknesses. As a result, conversations with the locals don't feel like the traditional Western RPG interrogations, and the game benefits, seeming more organic and lively.
The clever writing and world building are wrapped around a tried-and-true core of action RPG mechanics. All of the basics are here: equipment, levels, skill and ability points, and a decent set of map and quest-tracking functions to help you on your adventure. Inventory management, adventure planning, and careful spending of points serve you well. Your weapons are organized in two sets: ranged and melee. While you do have the ability to switch between them on the fly, you can't use both at the same time.
These weapons also have their own skill trees and power-ups, and subsequent selections in one skill tree grant additional bonuses, encouraging specialization. For each weapon set, you can access only two specific skills at any given time, but with two sets you have four skills in total. Some hardcore fans of the genre may lament this design choice, but it helps keep things manageable during some of the larger battles. As a monster slayer, you tussle with some of the more wicked figures of classic fairy tales. Werewolves, demons, and their ilk all marshal their hordes against you.
Many of these monsters are excellently designed and feature visual flairs that you might not expect. It's all gorgeous stylistically. Technically, however, Van Helsing is somewhat clumsy. The interface, for example, while carrying all of the features you need, is a tad clunky. Your target's health bar is placed at the top of the screen, which is an awkward and unusual position. There is an option to show the health of all injured enemies, but activating it leaves you with a bright red block that can be distracting under the best of circumstances and can completely obscure both enemies and the environment under the worst. It's far from a huge issue, but these kinds of small annoyances are notable enough to detract from the overall experience.
If those nitpicks aren't enough to scare you off, you'd do well to pressure some friends to join your gothic adventure. Multiplayer has always been a strong component of these sorts of games, and Van Helsing is no exception. There aren't clearly defined classes in the traditional sense, which does limit character customization to a degree--after all, everyone is playing as Van Helsing--but there's enough variety in the equipment and skill selection that there shouldn't ever be too much overlap. Unfortunately, as it stands right now, convincing friends to play might be the only way you get to experience multiplayer. Even a full week after the official release, finding games is tough, if not impossible most of the time. Thankfully, while nice, multiplayer isn't necessary to enjoy Van Helsing. An average player going through all side quests and extra content should be able to pull a good 20 or so hours from the game. For a budget-priced game, that's not bad.
Lack of community aside, Van Helsing's only real problem is that it doesn't go the extra mile. Nothing is particularly spectacular, but Neocore's latest game is a tight adventure with a few blemishes here and there, and it will keep fans of the genre enthralled for quite a while, especially if they can rustle up some friends to come along for the ride.