The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing III is an absurd game in the most literal sense of the word. Between explosive assaults on a circus of demonic clowns and trading Monty Python references with a Minotaur, at times it's hard to say what drives this frenetic adventure. You find the same over-the-top action, pop culture quips, and touches of gothic horror here that you do in the previous games in this series. Thematically, however, the series has grown. Underneath bursts of raucous action and tongue-in-cheek winks to the audience, there's an earnest, albeit haphazard attempt at character drama that works because the rest of the game is so ludicrous.
Until now, the Van Helsing series has played out as something of a comedic parody of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein stapled to the kind of quick-firing comedy that made the Banjo-Kazooie series stand out in its day. The comparison holds up well partly because you don't play as the eponymous Van Helsing, at least not completely. You're also paired with his companion--the ghost of Lady Katarina. Because this is a role-playing game, there are plenty of stats and skills to tinker with, but when Van Helsing levels up, she does too. You can create joint strategies and tactics to play her strengths off your weaknesses and vice versa. This major ludic twist reinforces the bond between these two characters and as I played, that's what I kept settling on.
After three games, I saw Van Helsing and Katarina develop their own brand of snark. Helsing is flippant and dry, often settling things with a pithy remark and an endearing one-liner. Katarina is more direct. She says what she feels and verbally mixes it up with demons and mad scientists alike--all while maintaining a defensive air of detachment. The two have a charming dynamic, which has been a vital element of their adventure so far. After all, what's an epic journey to cleanse the world of demons and vampires without relatable characters to anchor that quest? The notably non-romantic relationship between Van Helsing and Katarina accomplishes that with deft skill, particularly in this third arc of their tale.
At one point, for example, Katarina opens up about the circumstances of her death--an event often hinted at but never fully explored throughout the series. It's an arresting, personal moment for both of them--that happens to be punctuated with spurts of spastic violence and gratuitous gore. It's not a masterful moment by any means, but it's honest and touching all the same--particularly given the context of the other two games.
In exchange for narrative closure, almost everything else has been copied and pasted from its previous iterations.
If you've noticed that I haven't commented much about how the game is played, that's because Van Helsing III is almost identical to the second game in the series. This entry includes a couple more classes, bringing the total up to six, which range from gunslingers and swordsmen to the more exotic exo-skeleton-bound phlogistoneer. They're all distinct enough, with unique skills and abilities that complement those of Katarina, but none feel like they expound on the play in the second game. That entry introduced two additional skill slots and two extra classes, which gave the combat system substantive depth. Now there's clear distinction without a meaningful difference.
If anything, the biggest improvement here is the pacing. Whereas the first entry hadn't found its footing and lacked confidence, the second entry took a few hours to get going. The third Van Helsing opens up right away with a short tutorial and a bevy of side quests. It assumes that you're familiar with the basics of how some of the ancillary missions work, but there's enough guidance for new players to keep them from feeling too lost--at least in terms of play. From a big-picture perspective, most of the context for Helsing and his resistance movement will lack context, but the experience is better for it nonetheless. Veterans won't have their hands held for long, while newbies can immediately understand the scope of this massive campaign.
From the beginning, you have access to potion and equipment crafting as well as adjuvant missions for your pet chimera and your army of resistance fighters. All of these are here to help you either make money or spend money to create the best possible gear. It takes a few hours to gather up the resources to begin investing, but when you do, the process yields very little.
As with any game in the Diablo lineage, Van Helsing is meant to be played in one of two discrete ways. You can play through a standard game, only gathering and selling the loot you find naturally. You won't need to run side quests or devote much time to managing your base at all. In contrast, dedicated players can utilize the large rabbit hole filled to the brim with options to customize and precisely manage your character and your companion--or at least that's what Van Helsing II had. Here, there's little of substance beyond the base game. Even worse is that all that extra content was originally intended to help support a robust set of online modes, but most of those have been cut down. For example, the Neverending story mode, one of the biggest replayability features, is all but gone. When added to the game's decreased level cap (30, down from 60), the exclusion cuts down on the long-term potential of a game that once thrived on post-campaign play.
These unfortunate oversights hint at the biggest problem with Van Helsing III--in exchange for narrative closure, almost everything else has been copied and pasted from its previous iterations. Potions, a quick pick-me-up staple in almost any action RPG, have been cut, but the user interface still has buttons corresponding to where the potion displays were in the last game. Furthermore, some skills explicitly upgrade the functionality of potions that don't exist. Many textures, enemies, and missions are almost identical as well. Adding to that are some pernicious bugs that can cause all manner of issues, from game crashes to quests that cannot be completed. There's nothing game-breaking, but it's still sad to see. This was a series to which I, and many others, had become quite attached. It was a refreshing take on a modern myth and a rote genre.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing III is like visiting your hometown after years of absence. Everything's the same, yet off somehow. As you visit all the same places and exchange words with old friends, you're faced with an uncomfortable duality. On one hand, you get the closure of knowing how it all turned out, but on the other, you wonder what could have been, making you simultaneously satisfied and unsettled by the reality that this is the end.