Before I get started with this review, I'll go ahead and point out that I'm not an expert. No really, loot-based action-rpgs aren't really my forte. Sure I've spent hundreds if not thousands of hours on titles like Diablo 2 and its ilk, but I couldn't tell you a dang thing about any of them. Go ahead and ask me about Diablo 2, all I recall is Tristram run after Blood run after Baal run after run after run after...bleah. I fried my brain on the genre years ago so I have just a little understanding for "strategy", "proper-builds", and the inner-workings and mechanics of what makes this genre function. I still play them though because they're addictive as hell.
Now then, what can I say about Van Helsing? Well, for starters the characters are a bit more amusing than most. This is one of the benefits of having a game where the main-characters stay the same no matter the class. Despite his appearance, Helsing is a good-humored dude, and isn't always deadly serious about his job. His ghostly partner Katarina always has a cutting remark ready for the vampire hunter. As a duo they're far more memorable than most loot-clicker casts. I went with ranged-build, mostly relying on the spread-shot for crowd-control. Kat was built to violently explode upon "death" for great damage. It worked out well enough I suppose. I played on hard difficulty and didn't run into many problems (didn't beat the game, more on that later).
Van Helsing plays out much the same as any other loot-clicker. You have your equipment, your rares, your skills, and your build. Either through happenstance or a guide you find your build, you choose the right skills for it, allocate the appropriate stats, then just kill stuff for appropriate weapon upgrades. For some gamers, that's compelling enough on its own, but it's preferable to hunt for something more.
Where Van Helsing falters is mostly in the map-design. Each area is largely uninteresting. Some areas (like the ink realm) are visually inventive, but that's about it. The maps in this game are largely just a lot of space filled with packs of enemies. Nothing really changes as you progress. In the forest you'll run into packs of wolves, somewhere else there will be packs of soldiers, or packs of demons, and so on. When monsters are grouped together like that the game becomes stagnant. After you've found your build you're not likely to use more than the same or 2 or 3 skills at all times. Variety isn't just fighting different monsters, it's fighting monsters that approach in different ways. Some should ambush, others call for help, hell maybe they're just wandering around. In this game, they just wait around in organized groups for a vampire hunter to come fight them. One particular area is also aggravating because it is split into two sections, which leads to several minutes (slight exaggeration) of wandering back to square one if you go the wrong way. I will give credit to one area in that portions of it are separated by chasms, so enemies can take pot-shots at you as you try to cross. Sure it's headache-inducing, but at least it's inducing a feeling of something more and not just "oh look. All these monsters are standing around for the thousandeth time" mediocrity.
...But I didn't quit the game yet.
A real frustrating aspect of this game involves the hit mechanics. More precisely, when enemies attack, what constitutes a hit? When I see an enemy wind-up to attack -- pull their fist back, hold an axe over their head, etc. -- I should be able to move out of the way to dodge it. Loot-Clickers..no...Action-RPGs in general have dozens of stats, even a dodge rating. All the same, there should be an incentive for players to avoid attacks through direct-input, not just their number > the enemy's number. Van Helsing flicks a toothpick at that idea, and it is a consistent source of annoyance for me. Even when I'm clear out of the way of an attack I'll still take damage.
But that's not why I quit the game.
After a certain point Van Helsing is given control of a resistance base, and he can outfit it as he sees fit. This is basically the tower defense portion of the game and THANKFULLY it's largely optional. I put the emphasis on THANKFULLY because I hated it that much. I'm going to change subjects ever so slightly and talk about a PS2 game called Shining Force Exa. In this game there is a fortress that is regularly attacked. While one character is questing, the other holds down the fort (so to speak). When you strip enough elements away from tower-defense you're left with nothing but "protect this thing". However if the core of the game is entertaining enough, that doesn't really matter. I actually enjoyed these battles in Exa because they focused on the core. A lot of monsters were thrown at the player and that was the extent of it. Van Helsing has this whole set-up where you can buy traps and place them all over this corridor-abundant dungeon. The waves of enemies are too frequent, come from too many angles, and due to the way the dungeon is constructed you'll never reach them in time. You have to approach these battles almost entirely with a tower-defense mindset. This isn't what I signed up for when I started playing Van Helsing. To be fair, tower-defense was a hardly a thing when Exa came out, but really who wants to play that crap when they pick up an action-RPG?
...But I didn't quit the game at that point. After all the tower-defense stuff is largely optional.
No I didn't actually quit Van Helsing until I was maybe one or two dungeons away from the final boss. When Katarina had reached her level-cap, and Helsing was maybe one or two levels away from his, I quit. Yes, of all the things to quit a game over it's due to hitting a level-cap. Or maybe the real reason is because it dawned on me that this is only part one of Van Helsing's incredible adventures. I'm sure if I picked up the second game I'd get to continue leveling, to continue fighting in seemingly endless repetitive encounters, using the same skills I mastered hours ago, dealing with the crappy mechanics, and there'd probably be even more tower-defense garbage. I didn't think myself capable of stomaching another 15-20 hours of a sequel to this game, so I quit.
I'll give credit where it's due, Van Helsing managed just enough in getting the basics down to keep me playing. I'm an exceptional case though, I play a lot of loot-clickers regardless of quality, so maybe my judgment isn't always sound. If I see yellows, purples, and golds dropping at a decent enough rate there's no telling what games I could be tricked into playing. It's only when the end of the road is in sight do I realize that maybe this game isn't for me and move on. This is where Van Helsing lies. It's not particularly bad, but it gave me reason enough to quit as soon as I shook out of its icy grip.