Van Helsing Pilot (TV) Review

Van Helsing Pilot (TV) Review

The tale of Van Helsing is one that we’ve seen trotted out time and time again. Whether we’re talking about the mediocre Hugh Jackman vehicle, the cult anime franchise Hellsing, or the dungeon-crawling Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing series, people can’t seem to stay away from the legendary vampire hunter. Now, SyFy is finally taking their crack at the bat (stake?) in 2016. It’s a good thing, then, that Van Helsing is the most radical reinvention of the modern folktale yet.

Van Helsing takes place in 2019, when the entire world has gone to the dogs, or more accurately, to the vampires. The sun is blotted out, city streets are devoid of life, and the only humans you’ll find on the surface are bloodsucking fiends. Much like a typical zombie yarn set-up, the remaining humans have banded together in small, separate factions, clinging to their humanity and attempting to survive.

Luckily, there’s more than enough intrigue in the first episode to prevent Van Helsing from feeling like old hat. Your typical “ragtag group of survivors” winds up in a secret underground bunker housing a former military officer who is safeguarding both a ravenous vampire and a mysterious sleeping woman. The woman is the titular Vanessa Helsing, who wakes up during a vampire attack and ends up brutalizing the creatures with her bare hands.

While Vanessa herself acts as more of a setpiece than a character for about half the episode, what we do see of her is promising. She has no memories of the vampire apocalypse happening at all—or so it seems, at any rate. All she knows is that she has a daughter and a life she wants to return to. But with the earth in ruins and overrun by bloodsuckers, it seems like she’ll have her work cut out for her.
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This pilot sets the stage for what’s to follow, both in terms of narrative and tone. Tonally, Van Helsing fits right at home with SyFy’s stable of mid-tier programming. It has camp in spades, from the endearingly hammy dialogue to the very silly cursing. The violence is over-the-top and ridiculous, with scenes like Vanessa attacking somebody with a knife that’s already been stabbed through her hand. That’s to say nothing of the budget, which is clearly shoestring and in line with other things you’d find on the network.

These might sound like knocks against Van Helsing, but they’re actually anything but. Television today is, in my opinion, very self-serious and po-faced. It seems rife with dour and cynical shows full of edginess that do nothing other than feel like middle schooler’s notebook “poetry.” I miss cheesy and fun stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Charmed, and even stuff like Nightman (bonus points if you remember that one.) Basic cable shows of yesteryear that weren’t pretentious “art” wannabes are sort of my jam, and Van Helsing is very much one of these. It’s a dumb, silly, campy vampire show, and it’s not trying to be anything but that. I respect that—and even admire it.

Basically, Van Helsing isn’t going to win any Emmys, and I don’t think it’s trying to. Instead, I feel like we’re going to be watching a violent, campy and vamp-y bit of entertainment with the whole show. Vanessa is a strong and compelling lead, and I am genuinely intrigued as to why she’s in the position she starts in. Is she a vampire? A human? Something in-between? I want to know.

If you’re in the market for television that’s in the business of entertainment and no-frills fun, Van Helsing seems like it’s heading in a positive direction. I’ll definitely be picking it up in September, and look forward to watching something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2 (PC) Review

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2 (PC) Review

I don’t know where to begin with this game. From when I first loaded it up, this game confused me with its seeming complexity, and while I understand it a bit better now, I don’t particularly like what I’ve found. I never played The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2‘s predecessor, so some of the plot elements have been lost on me, but I don’t think I would come to enjoy it even more with that knowledge.

Let’s just get right into it. This game is, on its surface, a top-down action-RPG, centred around bizarre  mishmash of Victorian Gothic literature culture, pop culture, and steampunk. The entire plot seems no deeper than a checklist of these elements, and follows your title character and his annoying ghost sidekick leading a resistance movement against what I assume to be Bram Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, except a military general and apparently a total jerk. It’s hard to say, since aside from references by other people, he never seems to speak or do much of anything rather than send armies of steampunk and fleshy monstrosities at you. There’s something about Koschei the Deathless in there, which offends me the most, as taking one of Russia’s coolest folklore figures and shoving him into this game is almost a travesty.

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I’m hard on the plot of the game because the game fails to realize it. There IS no proper villain presented; our motivation for this game is defending a city we don’t care about and people whom we barely see – or not at all, with one character whose fate is never known. The side-quests certainly don’t do a good job of fleshing out the universe, as side-quests are supposed to do, with most of them being pointless tasks with choices that don’t seem to matter. In one of the early quests, one can release a vampire from prison, which prompts your ghostly companion to utter that “We’ve made a terrible mistake”. You never see the vampire again, and that foreshadowing never goes anywhere. That’s assuming you can even find the quests’ subject, or that it even shows up properly due to buggy journal entries.

“..the game itself is so dense and obtuse.”

It doesn’t help that the game itself is so dense and obtuse. The game’s system is a tried-and-true concept for action-RPGs, with a skill tree, health and mana, and other such staples of the style. Diablo II was a benchmark, and this game attempts to spice things up by adding on several other features that only serve to drag it down. In addition to managing not one, but three personal skill trees (with not nearly enough points to progress meaningfully in all three), you have to manage your companion’s skills, a set of ‘perks’ accessed by completing tedious and often obtuse side-quests, and one of the most complicated inventories I’ve had to dealt with. I didn’t even get anywhere with the crafting system, as I didn’t have time to ever use it. There’s even a resistance management element, where you send your four commanders and troops off on missions for your cause, which amounts to clicking and waiting a certain number of minutes in real-time for them to return with results. Considering you could upgrade your troops to maximum power in the first act, I never once lost a mission, and often one with perfect result. It’s entirely inconsequential to the game, except to allow you to skip the tedious tower defense missions that crop up from time to time, which I never really figured out.

Being complicated and layered is great for a system. Suikoden II, for example, had a ton of extra stuff beyond the main JRPG party battles, but all of it was fun and felt like it had a purpose to something other than itself. Van Helsing‘s extras are needless, and I found that many of them added nothing but busy-work to the game. Skills can be upgraded with extra modifiers than can be triggered with a Rage meter that I never found made any difference to combat. Currency is entirely worthless, as the only expensive thing you ever need can be bought in the first act; it’s not even useful for death, since dying only takes a percentage of money if you choose to respawn in the mission, and since there’s nothing to spend it on that’s worth it, death lacks any kind of meaning whatsoever. There’s even an entire half of the skill-tree that can only be accessed by level 30+ people, which is all but impossible to gain if you start at level one – you can start at level 30 for a greater challenge, but it means that it’s quite likely you’ll have to play the game again. Since none of the bland, confusing levels are randomly generated, there’s pretty much no replay value, as there seems to be really no different choices to make and no depth of story to draw you in.

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All in all, I left this game feeling perplexed. Navigating multi-level steampunk environments where everything looks the same and your ability to zoom out is limited means I got lost a few times, unable to see how to get over to a place that looked right next to me. Navigating item and skill menus left me unsure of which skills I could use and how, and the user interface and its strange slotting system bothered me as well. I only wound up with four skills I ever felt like I could use, with others being downright underpowered. Top it off with a story that doesn’t seem to have any depth beyond the references it makes, and some truly staggeringly bad pop culture references (“Those were some truly angry birds.” “Don’t be such a pig! They were probably just protecting their eggs!” Oh, Don Piano.) and you’ve got a mess in every sense of the word.

I played Path of Exile. I loved that free-to-play game, even if it was the same ground Diablo II broke years ago with a few rather interesting twists in game system and story. It’s leagues better than The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2 (I am so sick of this title). I recommend Path instead.

 

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing (PC) Review

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing (PC) Review

Neocore Games is best known for its King Arthur real-time strategy games. In them the developer blends Arthurian legend with a heavy dose of inspiration from The Creative Assembly’s Total War franchise to make something that, while not quite new, is unique nonetheless. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing follows the studio’s tradition, combining a distinctive videogame genre — this time an action RPG in the style of Blizzard’s Diablo — with well worn elements of Western culture in an attempt at creating something new.

The game opens with the revelation that Abraham Van Helsing, the Dutch vampire hunter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, has a son, also named Abraham Van Helsing, who carries on the family business by tracking down and killing monsters. He is accompanied by Katerina, a ghost who is not only bound to him, but also serves as a battle companion and the funny woman to his straight man.

Neocore Games uses this simple launching point as a vehicle for a story that, while never very interesting, tosses the player into battle against creatively designed enemies in an adventure that spans a number of imaginative settings. The colourful world of Van Helsing — the forests, burghs and industrialized cities of a fictional central European nation called Borgovia — is the game’s greatest strength. The creativity poured into the development of interesting monsters, non-player characters and locations pays off in spades, making each new environment a pleasure to explore and each new enemy type fun to encounter.

The inventive presentation does a lot to make up for the areas in which the game is far less inspired. Though Neocore have introduced a number of novel tweaks to a familiar formula, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing still takes far too many notes from Diablo. The game’s user interface and mission design —take quests, click on monsters, manage loot, repeat — are all lifted directly from its better known competitor. Neocore Games seems to understand what does and doesn’t work in this type of game and have managed to inject a bit of vitality into an overly familiar combat structure. But even welcome adjustments to the borrowed design (like customizable attack combos and companion behaviour) do little to help alleviate the fact that so much of Van Helsing‘s core gameplay is unoriginal.

Despite this fairly substantial issue the game actually manages to outdo Blizzard’s series in a number of ways. Even without the incredible resources that were funnelled into the creation of the latest Diablo, Van Helsing not only looks, sounds and plays great, but also has a good deal more personality than the venerable action RPG franchise. The emphasis on humour, despite much of it falling flat, combines with the game’s generally light-hearted plot and oddball aesthetic to make for an experience that is endearingly free of unnecessary gravitas. Neocore, in understanding that a game centred on monster hunting doesn’t need to take itself too seriously, strikes a tone that makes the hours of combat and equipment sorting much more enjoyable than they may otherwise be.

This strong sense of personality is the main reason to care about The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. So much of the game’s design can be experienced elsewhere, but the little touches that surround it make for something that feels much more original than it should. Those who are enticed by a game that plays in a familiar way, but possesses a strong personality all its own, may find a lot to love here.