Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: The incredible Adventures of Van Helsing: Final Cut

Neocore Games, the developer behind this game, is such a generous company. Everyone who owns parts of the original trilogy gets the Final Cut at a reduced price. As a proud owner of all three games (that´s how many belong in a trilogy) I got it for free. It is hard to say no to this temptation so I travelled back to the inky lands of Borgova. 

Van Helsing character selection screen with Umbralist class shown

Game Title: The incredible Adventures of Van Helsing: Final Cut
Created by: Neocore Games
Genre: Action RPG
Difficulty: Medium to high
Multiplayer: Yes

1. General setting: Down with science!

It´s the famous monster hunter Van Helsing and he is going to an ancient town to fight evil beings! So far so generic. But The incredible Adventures of Van Helsing comes up with a lot of twists to that well-known story. First, the evil undead have already been defeated by your father, so you are "only" the son who is returning to investigate a mysterious call for help. Second, you get a lovely companion named Lady Katarina that is sworn to protect you. But she is a beheaded ghost who loves to get on your nerves. Third, your common creatures of the night are the victims in this story and you will fight the dangerous inventions of Weird Science (yes, that is an official branch of science practiced in the land of Borgova).

Resistance Guard from Van Helsing shouting "Down with Science!"
That´s the spirit!

2. Combat: It could be better

The game has a few deficiencies in this area. You don´t get much feedback when you hit an enemy, making the combat feel floaty. It can´t compete with the energetic and satisfying combat from Diablo 3. Grim Dawn has demonstrated that it doesn´t require a AAA-developer to deliver but Van Helsing can´t keep up with these two. The second problem is the wonky difficulty curve with high, unpredictable damage spikes. If you can swallow your pride you can adjust the difficulty setting on the fly to suppress the problem. Or you install a mod that flattens the difficulty curve. Depending on your frustration resistance, this can be a major gamebreaker for you.
But let us also take a look at the good aspects of Van Helsing´s combat. The number of enemies that the game throws at you is impressive. Especially during the tower defense quests you face dozens of enemies while your traps shoot lasers, fireballs and werewolves (yes werewolves) through the hallways. It gets pretty crazy. You can watch a video on my YouTube channel.

Combat in a graveyard from Van Helsing
Can you find all the enemies on this screen?

Furthermore, the six available character classes offer very distinct playstyles and lots of variety. Among them is the Umbralist, one of the best interpretations of a stealthy assassin in any actionRPG. You can see my Umbralist build in action in the following video:

3. Character growth: The quintessence from 3 games

As already mentioned, the six available character classes offer their unique core mechanics that result in very different gameplay styles. You power up your character by conventional means: gain experience and spend attribute points and skill points. Your skill tree is a very intriguing construct. There are three circles that are unlocked as you gain levels. Each circle offers 8 skills. In theory, this means you have 24 skills at your disposal but sometimes it is just an upgrade of a skill from the previous tier. In order to not make these inferior skills obsolete, they passively increase the efficiency of higher-tier skills. The so-called synergies may be familiar to players of Diablo 2. Each of your skills branches further into possible modifications for that skill (e.g. add a poison cloud, make you invulnerable for a few seconds after use).  Then you have a selection of skills that are not connected to the skill tree (called auras, for some reason). Oh and let´s not forget your lovely ghost companion Katarina who offers her own skill trees and builds.
This system achieves something most games can only dream of: it stays relevant and your skill points remain precious up to level 100. Many games arrive at a point when you just fill out the gaps and no longer look forward to your next skill point. This rarely ever happens here.

Skilltree from Van Helsing Umbralist class build.
Branches and sub-branches everywhere. The Umbralist skill tree is shown as an example.

The loot system is equally vast. Color-coded loot is a given, with an additional tier called "godlike" to keep you going even after completion of the story (see also "adventure mode" in the next chapter). Once you take that stuff into your secret lair you can apply a frightening amount of methods of tweaking the loot to complement your playstyle: enchanting, socketing, upgrading, reforging, transmogrifying, renaming, gambling. It takes some time to wrap your head around all this but it feels much better than being entirely dependent on random drop luck.

There is one negative thing I have to say: the character classes have a very unique, steampunky look to them. Which is great. But wearing different equipment changes your appearance so little that I can´t tell the difference between a level 10 and a level 100 character.

Close-up screenshot of an Umbralist character from Van Helsing
Minor texture variations and maybe a spike here and there on an Umbralist character.

4. Exploration: Atmospheric, quirky and a huge amount of content

The Final Cut is a combination of the whole trilogy. The games were moderately short but when stitched together into one campaign, the game becomes massive. It can take up to 50 hours to beat the final boss and bring peace to Borgova. It is important to note that you don´t have to play through this game multiple times with the same character. I am very thankful for that because it´s a relic from the past that was used to artificially increase the length of a game without offering anything substantial to the player.
The areas in this game are not randomly generated and generally look very pretty and distinct. The excellent music plays also an important role in making your stay enjoyable (listen to the main theme, it´s outstanding). I just wish Van Helsing would run a bit faster since he seems to be worse on foot than in the original games and the maps didn´t shrink in size to compensate for it. There are many points of interest scattered throughout the maps with easter eggs, side quests and permanent rewards. It encourages you to look into every corner instead of just running to the next exit. The reactions from your two protagonists can also be hilarious.

Monty Python reference in Van Helsing
A classic Monty Python reference.

As you make the move from the first game to the second one, the side events become more and more elaborate. You get caught in a civil war and start to deploy elite troops, play tower defense (even a spinoff game was created from this) or jump into the fray when two opposing factions battle each other. The third game starts out strong when your companion ghost lady begins to reveal her troubled past but it then fizzles out as the maps get more and more linear and you basically just walk forward until you arrive in the lair of the final boss.

Desolate, snowy are in Van Helsing
The world breaks apart as you move towards the finale, but so does the game.

After beating the game you can continue to play in adventure mode. You are confronted with a random array of scenarios and bonus objectives. It is extremely similar to the adventure mode from Diablo 3 but not as long-lasting because the number of different activities is small in comparison. See a video of an example scenario:


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Useful links:

The top 5 "true Diablo 3"s
Homepage of the Creator
Trailer of the game

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