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There’s this Hungarian outfit you may not know of: Neocore Games. It’s one of those quiet achievers in the Eastern vales of Europe, creating quite ambitious and endearing strategy games. In the same vein as Torchlight 2 and the wacky fun of Krater, a new and alarmingly cheap action role-playing game is about to take the stage. I’ve spent a bit of time with a preview build, and if you’ll hold my enchanted sabre as I load my premier consul flintlock, I’ll fire a thundering rundown in your direction.
Indeed, it is The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, and it is Neocore’s most honed and finely crafted yet. One might suggest there’s a implicit and rather obvious scaling of emphases when leaving the realm of a sprawling dark fantasy strategy like King Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame for an ARPG, but if anything, the sheer competition in the mouse-busting genre means that you either bring it hard or go home.
It’s also very curious that I don’t particular love the ARPG genre or sub-genre or Diablo family or whatever you want to call it. The strange catharsis that comes from one hand curled atop a beleaguered mouse and the other spread-eagled over numeral keys doesn’t bloom under the floodlights of the heavy-hitters. I tried with the first two Diablo games, and neither did terribly much for me. Sacred Gold, Space Hack, Dark Spore and Krater were the few that managed to make inroads into an otherwise comfortably popular style of game.
So when gearing up to hack my way through a mysterious, pulpy, baroque Europe, I was more intrigued to see what an ARPG by Neocore looked like than how it measured up to its contemporaries. After five hours’ worth of carving and blunderbussing my way through the first chapter of Van Helsing, I came away giddy. Not only was this another showcase of Neocore having one of the best art teams in the business, it was an ARPG bristling with character, mission design, and intricacy that I felt could stand toe-to-toe with the big names.
You play as Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter extraordinaire, driving him through the wilderness with sword and flintlock to staunch the flow of beasts and bandits on the road to Borgova. Accompanying you is one Lady Katarina, a ghostly companion providing conversation and combat assistance. There’s a nice back-and-forth relationship between Van Helsing and this ethereal lass; the rich, sharp dialogue does a good job of elevating time away from towns as proper adventures rather that simply clocking on at the grind-face.
Combat itself is solid and meaty, proffering the right level of audio-visual feedback that makes for compelling clickery. Players can switch between melee and ranged, with up to three active combat skills on each weapon stance as well as a host of other proximity and area-effect skills. There are no classes — instead, Neocore is aiming for an a la carte skill-tree system where you’re free to pick and choose between abilities across the discreet melee, ranged, and magic-aura branches. There are also perks that become available as Van Helsing’s reputation increases. Throw in a number of crafting systems and a few good item enchantment mechanics, and you’ve got many boxes being ticked.
The visuals are great, but I am markedly swayed by the aforementioned art team. Their direction here is the usual high watermark, with the infusion of plate, sword, and firearm across a gnarled 17th century European aesthetic. The music — at least going by the preview chapter — is one of the highlights. As much as there’s a sentimentality for Tristram’s lonely strumming, Van Helsing’s dynamic score and location-specific pieces are quite intoxicating.
And the best part of Van Helsing’s strong showcase is the $15 price tag. We’re absolutely spoiled with games rolling in under the $20 mark, and the ARPG genre has been treated to some great production and content combos at a fraction of the price of the so-called triple-A juggernauts. Van Helsing looks to be another example of that comfortable price-production dichotomy.