The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing hands-on preview
Ah, Van Helsing. Originating in Bram Stoker's Dracula, the oft-hatted-and-trench-coated Victorian hero is both the most famous vampire hunter outside of Buffy, and the star of one of my favorite critically-panned movies of all time. He's now stylishly diving into the action RPG space with The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing (well, technically you're the literary Van Helsing's son), an indie monster hunting tale from Hungarian developers Neocore Games.
The game is set in a darkly romanticized version of 19th Century Europe that's moody enough to stand beside the likes of Diablo II and Path of Exile. You take control of the titular Van Helsing some time after his legendary father rid the world of an era when creatures of the night ruled the world. Now, however, a new darkness is rising that has something to do with the weird, unstable technology that has risen to prominence. That's not to say that the traditional beasties of Gothic literature won't make an appearance. There were more werewolves than you could shake a bag of Beggin' Strips at in the 45-minute demo I played, and any Van Helsing game without vampires would be like a Blizzard story where one of the main characters doesn't turn evil at some point.
Van Helsing hews his way through the slavering hordes of nightmares much as his brooding genre brethren do. Left click moves you around and triggers contextual melee attacks and interactions. Right click is your ranged attack, which can be either weapon or magic-based. You can only have one of each equipped at a time, with your hotbar slots devoted to secondary abilities called Tricks that can grant benefits like quick healing and temporarily stopping time.
While it may seem odd to only have two attack buttons, almost every core damage skill in the game has significant customization available. Aside from just leveling up the base ability using skill points, most have branching modifiers you can invest in that change their function slightly. On top of this, you can put points into a set of modifiers (three per skill) that compose a supercharged version of this skill, activated by spending a resource called Rage. For instance, your basic sword slash could be built up with a +Damage, +Speed, +Range loadout, with all three modifiers going into effect when you trigger rage. Alternatively, you could go +Damage, +Damage, +Damage, or any other combination of modifiers you've unlocked for the skill.
Van Helsing is accompanied in his familiar ARPG questing, slaying, and looting by Lady Katarina. A unique story companion, Katarina is a female spectre who can help you in combat, store loot, and sell things in town while you continue to mow through the legions of darkness. She has her own equipment slots, attributes, and skill trees as well. You can build her to be a sturdy melee combatant if you're more of a "hang back and pick things off with my crossbow" sort of player, or invest in more support-driven abilities if you'd rather remain in the thick of things.
Most of the characters I ran into were fully voice-acted, and done rather well. Van Helsing and Katarina, in particular, have an enjoyable back-and-forth with high quality voice over. I didn't play long enough to get much of a sense of the overarching story, other than it feels very mystery-laden, steampunkish, and avoids trope overdose in the early stages.
That being said, it's a bit hard at at first to not feel restricted in terms of build diversity. In most ARPGs, we're used to having our pick of several, distinct classes with wildly-varying playstlyes. In the Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, you're... well, always Van Helsing. There are only two major trees: a melee focused one and a ranged/magic-focused one. Granted, you will find a lot of diversity in each, and they're complimented by a tertiary screen for your unlockable Tricks and Auras. The latter are gained through story and quests, but level up just like any other skill once unlocked. You can have two passive Auras and two active Tricks equipped at a given time.
It's also worth noting that switching between weapon and skill sets is fairly quick and easy to meet changing combat circumstances, so you don't need to feel tied down to only four buttons through the whole game. On the other hand, I didn't find myself wowed by the Rage system. It might have been due to my low level, but there wasn't a hugely noticeable impact on the flow of combat when I triggered it.
As a sucker for dark, Victorian fantasy, I'm looking forward to The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. Even if it doesn't turn out to be the most polished ARPG, or the most fun in moment-to-moment combat, the story presentation is already hitting the mark enough to almost guarantee I'll finish it once. That's just fine. I'm not a "grind for the best gear for months" ARPG player—I'm perfectly content to see the campaign to the end if the characters and plot are interesting. You can read more about the game on Neocore's dev blog. Van Helsing is set to release, crossbows loaded, sometime later this year.