The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing wasn't what I was expecting. And managed to continue to not be what I was expecting the further I progressed. Having somehow gained the impression (maybe imagined?) that it would be more of a straight RPG, I was surprised to find myself playing an action-RPG, very much in the mould of Titan Quest. I was further surprised when it started introducing tower defence themes. Here's wot I think:
You play Van Helsing's son, who is blah blah something something killing ten billion werewolves/monsters/ghouls/ghosts/robots, presumably because his dad did such a poor job of killing the one or two that existed in his day. He's accompanied on his adventures by a ghost, because of doo-be-doo-be-doo yadda yadda they said so. And the two of them must level up a lot and click-click-click. Which is all done rather well.
For the most part. Van Helsing's makes that odd mistake of starting out rather dull. Limiting the range of enemies, featuring a lengthy sequence where death means starting over the whole dreary thing, and naturally having you restricted to very few attack options, it doesn't bode well. When my wife came in and saw me playing, watched in confusion for a bit, and then said, "Is it just clicking on the same stuff over and over?" I was hard-pressed to find another answer than "Yes".
I tried. I pointed out that I'm right clicking too to fire off this, and that I'm targeting this slightly taller enemy before these slightly shorter ones, and I have to press Q and W to top up health and mana, but it was fairly futile. The answer was "Yes".
Had her intrusion only occurred a couple of hours later and I'd have had a far better response. "Yes, but..." I could have said more convincingly. By the time you've got a pool of options for your left and right click, with shortcut keys switching between them, along with a litany of special abilities, your ghosty friend maxed out and focused on the attack tactics that you're not, it reaches that very pleasant place that ARPGs should. Of course it's mostly still clicking, but it's skilful clicking at last.
There is definitely an attempt to work in some sort of plot here, but it's all dreadful and hardly matters. There's an evil scientist, using evil science to create evil robots powered by evil electricity, and I dunno, I guess you're trying to stop him. People who give out the missions seem to want to talk about it, but I wasn't too often compelled to listen. What's more important is that it keeps the tasks churning out, the slowly uncovered maps are huge and filled with treasure, and the drops come thick and fast.
In that respect, there are no surprises here. Incremental improvements in weapons and armour, two setups for range and melee that can be instantly switched between, spamming health and mana potions like they're oxygen, your ghost pet can be sent off to sell when your inventory is full, and then there are all manner of skills to balance out. For the min-maxers out there, I think there's a great deal of offer. For those like me who play such games constantly convicted they've made all the wrong choices but are unable to work out how it should be better chosen, it's fairly forgiving. And respecs are available.
It makes the mistakes fairly odd. Money, for instance, quickly becomes irrelevant. You find so much, that by halfway through there's nothing you can't afford. A respec should be a significant spend, but it's dismissible cash. Enchanting weapons and armour should require a gulp, but the few thousand gold each costs barely makes a dent in the hundreds of thousands you'll have. Millions, eventually.
XP comes in at a decent pace, but there's a very peculiar misunderstanding of expected rewards for completed missions. Return to a quest-giver, and you'll likely receive 500XP points for having ventured out for two or three hours, despite the gaps between levels having reached the tens of thousands. The endless slaughter ensures it ticks along, but the lack of a nice leap forward in such instances is very odd.
There's also some odd distribution with skills. On top of the abilities you and the ghost can add, there are Perks, which unlock themselves by your Reputation. About 30 of them appear as you play, although only 10 can be added in total. Making it all the more bizarre when more become available after its stopped you from gaining any further reputation points. And the level cap at 30 cuts you off from exploring the rest of the skill trees properly.
I'm also in the frustrating situation of having made a choice near the end of the game (a choice that was made in a conversation, with no warned consequences) that means the final boss battle is seemingly impossible. In that time-honoured tradition of games ruining themselves at the final moment, I'm in a situation where I'm facing literally 50 or so enemies at once, while a massive boss character stomps around, with no feasible chance of staying alive. So, well, if it has an interesting ending I'll never know. Sigh.
Oh, and the tower defence! In the game's longer second act, you'll find yourself being asked to help rebuild a generator, gather machine parts and design specs, and lay traps around an area, and wonder why. Then you realise, as you find your arrangement of traps facing off an invasion of hundreds of enemies. You also race around attacking them as they encroach from up to four origin points, trying to reach your base camp. It occurs twice, and both times it's a fun diversion, albeit not too enormous a challenge. Still, lovely inclusion.
For its flaws, and there are many (including some dreadful load times), playing Van Helsing single player is an absorbing time. It drip-feeds you just enough to feel that sense of continuous progress, and the combat really does become more than frantic clicking (in reality you can just hold the left mouse button down, but that never feels right).
I've not experimented with co-op, but according to much forum grumbling it's a touch more problematic, with reports of developers NeoCoreGames working frantically to get it sorted.
The £12 price tag makes it a lot more compelling. While never stunningly original, and mostly extremely familiar, if you're somehow craving another ARPG between Grim Dawn, Path Of Exile, and Torchlight 2, then this ought to tick a good few boxes.