Review: The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing: Final Cut

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I was not a fan of the first Van Helsing. It had all the right parts for a great ARPG, but suffered some serious balance and interface issues. I took a chance on Final Cut because I was so enamored with the setting, and I’m glad I did. And strangely enough, the game itself wasn’t even the best part.

Unsurprisingly you play as a Van Helsing, but as the son of the Van Helsing you’re actually thinking of. He’s followed in his father’s footsteps as a gravelly-voiced monster hunter, accompanied by his snarky etherial companion Katarina. Together they travel to the ancient city of Borgova (or Borgovia, people call it both), once the stronghold of vampire kings overthrown by the elder Van Helsing, now a gothic metropolis suffering under the tyranny of mad science. Liberation, then, means killing thousands of monsters and stealing their incrementally-better pants.

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Players of Diablo or its competitors will feel right at home here. You have six classes to choose from, each with extensive trees of skills to sink points into. The first big twist on the formula here is the powerup system, a series of powerful bonuses you can unlock for each skill that are triggered by spending a third resource, Rage. The other is your ever-present partner, Katarina, who assists you in battle and has her own inventory and skill trees. These two factors help keep combat manageable even when being swarmed by dozens of foes. There’s plenty of hacking and slashing to be had, but put up against other ARPGs it comes off a little light, missing some key sound cues and staggering effects that would punctuate visceral combat.

Your journey through the mysterious land of Borgov(i)a is a striking and often picturesque one. Maps tend to have lots of impressive vistas and set pieces, along with plenty of detail in the common elements. Enemies are similarly detailed and enjoy some very unique designs. Fighting steam-powered fumigators in the rain-soaked streets of a gothic city is just as memorable as it sounds, though as mentioned before the sound design doesn’t always keep up with the visual quality. There’s not a lot of production to the cutscenes but they’re saved by the campy back-and-forth between straight man Van Helsing and charming sociopath Katarina, and supported by some genuinely funny NPCs.

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Since Final Cut is the Van Helsing trilogy stitched into one game, it’s helpful to break down the gameplay into three acts. The first is classic ARPG fare, with you fighting your way through forests and mountain passes, aiding small villages, and eventually reaching the big city and taking on its overlord. The maps are sprawling, and the bosses have interesting gimmicks. This falls off a bit in the second act, where the game sets up Van Helsing as the leader of a resistance army against a new threat. The maps for this plotline are arranged more like battlefields, with friendly units and commanders taking the place of sidequests. There’s more of a sense of grandeur to this act, but the trade-off is a lot of backtracking and re-use of the same maps. The bosses also take a considerable nosedive in quality, becoming simple sacks of HP to whittle down. However, you do get two interesting side activities, a resistance management screen where you can train troops and send them on their own missions, and a pet chimera you can send to uncover loot for you. For the final act, the game returns to a grand journey motif as you hunt down your new nemesis. This journey takes you through a number of clever and colorful locales in the Ink, the primal foundations of reality, but at the cost of much of the sidequests and hidden content that made the first two acts so fun. It’s a straight shot to the villain for a long, drawn-out, and not terribly interesting final battle. It’s a bit of a disappointing capstone to the game, though not one that drags down the entire experience.

There are plenty of other details to keep you invested in the game, though. You’ll encounter optional tower defense missions at different points which are a surprising amount of fun. Certain boss trophies can create global effects for both you and enemies, like reduced resistances or more damage. If you tire of story mode, there’s an adventure mode with missions and challenges to face for ever-better loot and upgrades. However, if you’re in it for the loot you may be disappointed. While there are tons of item types and crafting options, very few drops ever go beyond simple stat increases.

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All of these points combine to form an ARPG that’s solid, if not a real stand-out. What really made the difference for me, then, was the controller support. ARPGs don’t often have very good controller support, but Van Helsing might just have the best. The entire interface changes when you have a controller plugged in, switching your menus to easily-navigable pages of radial menus and simplified lists. The button layouts for skills are inspired as well, controlling all of your attacks from the face and right buttons, with the left buttons handling interactions and the D-pad managing your map and potions. The attention to detail here makes a big difference, and elevates Van Helsing to one of the more enjoyable ARPGs I’ve hacked my way through.

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