Around the turn of the century, Capcom’s Shinji Mikami was hard at work to deliver the next installment of the popular Resident Evil series. The game he was creating soon took on a life of its own, and before long he realized that he was at the helm of something too original, too fast and too exciting to be anything less than its own entity. That game was Devil May Cry.
The creators of Van Helsing didn’t have the time to go through a similar evolutionary development and instead skipped to the part about making their game Devil May Cry. Were they also able to duplicate its success?
In a slick promotional move, Van Helsing the game comes equipped with the option to watch the trailer for Van Helsing the movie. It’s a nice bit of marketing, but watching the trailer has the unfortunate consequence of highlighting just how bland the game’s visuals are. It’s probably unfair to compare a game to a megabudget Hollywood spectacular, but even compared to other games, Van Helsing falls short.
The character models in the cutscenes move woodenly and reveal almost no emotion. While these scenes are competent placeholders to advance the story in Van Helsing, they do little more than that. In many cases, they even reminded me of first generation Playstation cutscenes. It’s worth noting that you can skip cutscenes at any time. While this is not recommended if you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s a nice touch considering how lengthy some of the scenes are.
Once the game starts, the visuals improve slightly. Most of the game’s environments are rustic, and rely heavily on earth tones. Although that fits in with the theme of the story, it can sometimes be a little drab. That aside, the settings are very rich and do communicate a great attention to detail in the forests, streams, and mountains that you will travel in your battle against evil.
The in-game characters are a mixed bag. Enemies are crisply animated, and many are assigned a nice level of visual flair. Floating skulls are charged with glowing energy, skeletal swordsmen wield weapons that burn with blue flame, bosses are fearsome looking and represent their subject matter faithfully.
Van Helsing himself does not fare as well. The main character must be called on to do much more than the other models in the game, and here is where problems surface. While Van Helsing usually looks and animates well, there are some maddening oversights. While you can use auto aim to shoot projectile weapons at enemies above and below you, Van Helsing has no animations for aiming in any direction besides directly in front of him. This may seem like nit picking, but sometimes this keeps you from being able to tell where enemies are in a room, so it can get annoying in addition to taking away from the immersion. One immersive touch that I did find commendable was that arrows fired into victims stay visible for a short time – even through cutscenes. Continuing an encouraging recent trend, most of the movie cast shows up to voice their digital counterparts in the game. Bucking another trend, Hugh Jackman actually seems to take his role seriously and gives a pretty respectable performance. Since he has roughly 50% of the spoken lines in the game, his professionalism is seriously appreciated.
On the subject of voices, another nice little touch is that although houses in the game’s central village are locked shut, standing near doorways lets you hear looping conversations between the frightened townfolk inside. These contribute well to the atmosphere and put your role as heroic savior in good context.
The music doesn’t work as well as the voicework in the game. The score is orchestral and dramatic and seems to be a perfect fit. Unfortunately, the music changes as you leave and enter areas, and also changes when you begin and end battle sequences. The final result is kind of a stilted mess of starts and stops that never really lets you enjoy the work that obviously went into the composition. Here is where problems start. As mentioned above, Van Helsing clearly takes inspiration from the seminal action classic Devil May Cry. Some aspects were even improved upon, while other, more important aspects seem to have been left behind.
Let’s start with the good. You aren’t allowed to completely customize the buttons, but you are given three control setups to choose from at the start of the game, and you can alter your chosen setup any point during the game. No matter what setup you choose, there are buttons that allow for quickly changing weapons without having to continually visit the inventory screen. This helps keep the game moving at a sharp pace.
Unfortunately, the actual game controls aren’t as well planned. While Devil May Cry allowed you to complete freedom to string attacks together in fashions dictated by the situation, Van Helsing has a few stock combinations that he will launch into and get stuck in regardless of your intent. You have to take great care when starting an attack that you don’t wind up finishing out the animation violently cutting down thin air while your enemies get a clear shot at your back.
Van Helsing also uses a fixed camera. Aside from the standard grievances that come from not being able to adjust the visuals in a game (navigating level 6 will test your resolve to keep playing), the analog controls also seem to reset each time you enter a new area. This means that if you run into a screen with enemies, unless you remember to let go briefly during the short load time between areas, you’ll find yourself unable to move for a moment at the start and very vulnerable to attack.
The overall effect is a sense of mildly sluggish controls. In a game that means to rely on fast action as a selling point, this is inexcusable. The gameplay is what most often draws comparisons to Devil May Cry, and while both feature a protagonist coolly laying waste to legions of demonic foes, that’s about where the favorable comparisons end.
Van Helsing, while he has access to melee and projectile weapons, almost never needs to rely on getting up close to his enemies. In fact, the balance is tipped so far in favor of firearms that many levels can be cleared without ever unsheathing a sword (or tojo blade). Even when a cheat is acquired that more than triples the size and range of these weapons, they remain an afterthought.
This might be a bigger deal if you ever had to fight enemies. Instead, the game is set up in such a way that you can usually just sprint by any of the slow moving lesser demons on your way to the boss. The only real incentives to fight are the collection of currency to upgrade your abilities (I easily completed the game without acquiring half of the character upgrades and without using half of the ones I did buy) and the accumulation of what the game calls finishing moves. Kill enough enemies in succession and you earn what is essentially a smart bomb. These finishing moves can be used to instantly kill any lesser enemy and can do some heavy damage to bosses. However, as mentioned earlier, you can just run by most enemies and the finishers don’t really hurt bosses enough to be worth getting close enough to use.
The bosses are reused quite often, but they rarely learn any new moves in subsequent meetings. On the other hand, Van Helsing is continually finding new weapons that tend to make later meetings even easier than early encounters.
What’s left to entice players to continue is the scattering of cheats and other items in hidden nooks and crannies of the game. Some unlock cheats that give you or your enemies different appearances, but none add so much to the game that you’d want to play exclusively to hunt them down. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the controls aren’t tight enough to encourage exploration in the first place.
There is an interesting save system in place in the game. There are no save points to speak of. Instead, the game autosaves before entering each room, and lets you restart there with any items you may lose if you die in the next room. This is even more encouragement to just run through levels taking whatever damage you like confident that you’ll eventually face the boss with full health and all of your items. The only penalty is that you restart without any of your finishing moves, but we’ve already covered how useful they are. Another downside to the save system is that if you finish an area having forgotten to pick something up or having lost your hat, you can’t go back and reload a previous save. This can be kind of frustrating. I didn’t see the movie, but Van Helsing does a good job in telling a nice little adventure story. The key word there is little. I completed the game on its default difficulty in three hours. Going through on a subsequent run (the game lets you restart with all items accumulated in the prior session) and skipping the cutscenes took me…get ready for this: less than an hour. Now I’m probably the one reviewer left in the world who doesn’t automatically get mad when a game clocks in at less than 10 hours, but this is ridiculous.
It might have even gotten a pass from me if that hour of gameplay was thrilling and fun. Speed runs in games like Metroid have always been popular, and many in my generation think fondly back to games like Contra and Castlevania that could similarly be beaten in one determined sitting. Unlike those classics, Van Helsing doesn’t even give you much to look at during that hour. Not only are bosses recycled, but entire levels are reused with barely even a change in enemy placement.
The cheats and unlockable challenges (a maze, a time trial, and similar monotony) intend to add value, but none of them are very compelling. You can unlock a hard mode by beating the game, but it too is just more of the same with different enemies appearing in different locations. I suppose beating up monsters is its own reward, but otherwise there isn’t much here.