Experiencing the horror- Van Helsing.

When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

The above quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, which appears in the video game we’re about to discuss, probably wasn’t inspired by a lousy experience Nietzsche had playing a video game. But had he ever played the PS2 adaptation of the film Van Helsing, I think the above quote illustrates that he would have understood how gamers felt about it pretty well.

Back on 02/28/2012, my good buddy Anthony Ortale did an excellent review of the game X-Men Origins: Wolverine– a review that is one of my personal favorites of his work thus far. I was, in fact, a tad jealous of how well his review of that game turned out- it was an excellently researched review. Then, a few days later, I was browsing the shelves at my local game store with Spookypanda when I came across an old copy of Van Helsing, and the thought of doing a review of yet ANOTHER Hugh Jackman game, thus creating an epic Hugh Jackman review series spanning two websites, was an idea that was just too amusing not to make happen- so prepare yourself for “Games starring the sexiest man alive, part 2- Van Helsing”.

See that price tag? In video game retail, they generally refer to that as “The Kiss of Death”.

The game opens with a brief segment explaining the controls (helpful since a manual was nowhere to be found in my copy), then throws the player into a fight against the dastardly Mr. Hyde. My blood froze when I saw who I would be fighting, since historically, playing games starring Mr. Hyde has tended not to end well for the reviewer– but in this case he went down extremely easily. After the fight with Mr. Hyde you’ll be treated to a cut scene, and I hope you enjoy it, because half of the game is watching cut scenes- in between nearly every scene of gameplay the game subjects the player to repeated cut scenes. This becomes annoying rather rapidly and by the time you’re halfway through the game, the repetition of watching cut scene after cut scene will have passed well into the realm of grating. The problem is particularly aggravated by the fact that if you find yourself killed by a level boss, the game will respawn you directly outside his or her lair, and you will have to walk through the doorway, watch the same cut scene of the boss entering the room again (or press start to skip the cut scene and wait for the environment to load) and then finally re-engage the boss in combat. Why is this repetition necessary? One would think the game could simply respawn you in the room and let you fight the boss immediately. Perhaps the developers were just so enamored of their cut scene work that they felt gamers should be made to rewatch it ad nauseum.

Or maybe they just really wanted you to notice how well they rendered that cowboy hat.

Hugh Jackman contributed voice work for the game, which is cool- and much like Anthony mentioned in his Wolverine review, he honestly seems like a nice guy who tried his best to do his part to make the game come out well- unfortunately, it seems as though it was out of his hands. The game fails to follow the plot of the film with any sort of detail, and indeed excises major plot points from the film. Probably most damning is the effect of this on the character of Anna Valerious, who was a fairly strong female presence in the film but is essentially reduced in the game to a damsel-in-distress sort of character. This is both unfortunate and needless- it would have been awesome to be able to play as Anna Valerious during the expository scenes between her and her brother Velkan Valerious, scenes that were extremely plot-relevant but which were removed entirely from the game. In addition, most of the romantic elements present in the film were removed completely from the game.

The enemies in the game include some odd choices. I don’t recall satanic nazi midgets with spears who hurl explosives being in the film- but they’re in the game (some would say the gas-mask wearing servants of Dracula from the film inspired those enemies, but I don’t remember them being two feet tall). Strange ghosts in the countryside go down after pinging them with just a few arrows, but animate stone statues that spam attacks like they’re trying to audition for a spot in Demon’s Souls will have you throwing your controller in rage.

The vampires are a pain in the ass too.

The difficulty level of the game careens wildly between ‘so easy it’s boring’ to ‘nintendo hard‘. Most parts are extremely easy, but then you find yourself cornered in a steam tunnel by endlessly respawning satanic nazi midgets with jagged spears made from kitchen utensils and the game becomes incredibly frustrating. The worst part of all this is that the game seems to swing between the extremes of difficulty entirely at random.

The game’s combat is simple and works from a ‘lock-on’ system where pressing one of the trigger buttons causes Van Helsing to target a foe. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t work very well, and often you’ll find it auto-targeting an enemy yards away from you, leaving you to fire helplessly in the exact opposite direction of the vampire who is currently standing right next to you eating your face. In addition, a vast number of enemies can simply be avoided by nothing more than walking out of the area that contains them. Seriously. You’ll miss out on the experience/currency points you would have collected by slaying them, but the game gives you those points so liberally that you probably won’t find yourself missing them too much anyway. Odd as well is the fact that Van Helsing is somehow able to jump like fifty feet into the air here, something else that I don’t recall seeing in the film. Maybe they just assumed that since they had already changed so much from the film, they could just give Van Helsing super-Mario-jumping powers too and no one would notice.

They also thought no one would notice the ps1 quality texture work on Wolf Man there, either…

The boss fights work somewhat similarly to those found in Mega Man games- a trial-and-error system of finding the correct weapon to defeat the appropriate boss. In many cases it’s rather obvious what weapon you’ll need- it was the weapon Van Helsing found sitting around in the level five minutes before he walked into the boss’s lair. Each weapon also comes with an alt-fire mode, if you can find the appropriate upgrade for it. A number of the weapons are things not seen at all in the films, so they were presumably invented completely for the game. Or maybe I just missed the part of the film where Van Helsing finds the lightning gun from Quake.

The game did teach me that werewolves don’t like tasers. Who knew?

Another thing that is sort of subtly disconcerting is that the atmosphere of the game is totally different from the atmosphere of the movie. Not only, as I mentioned earlier, has most of the romantic subplot that was present in the movie been ripped away from the story presented in-game, but the game’s environments reflect this change in an odd way- the color palate used here is much colder than that of the film. The issue is particularly noticeable at the very end of the game- after the final confrontation with Dracula, the credits roll over an image of his icy throne- a far cry from the warm vista seen in the closing shot of the movie. This tonal shift from the film is discomfiting and ultimately comes across a bit nihilistic.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the entire game though is that the game is approximately three hours long. This sort of thing was, of course, acceptable back in the 8-bit days- but today’s gamers, unlike Gilligan, are not interested in a three-hour tour.

“You really mean to tell me I paid sixty bucks for a three-hour game?”

Intriguingly, the inclusion of an in-game book in the library stage mentioning the Belmont clan adds an incredible layer of meta-logic to the game, since not only does the presence of that book subtly infer that Van Helsing is canon to the Castlevania series, but the fact that the novelization of Dracula has been considered Castlevania canon since the release of Castlevania: Bloodlines serves to suggest that the novel is therefore canon to Van Helsing as well. In addition, given that Van Helsing was inspired by the classic Universal horror films, one could conceivably make a compelling case that all the above works are now canon to one another. Of course, the only logical conclusion we can draw from this is that we’ll be seeing satanic nazi midgets with spears made from kitchen utensils in a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon in a few years.

Even Van Helsing would be a little bit suspicious about paying 7.50 to go see that one in the theater.

In his review of Wolverine, my friend Anthony stated something that that has become conventional wisdom about licensed games: “If there is one thing that gamers know, it’s that perhaps since the Sega Genesis days, there has not been a worthwhile video game adaptation of any film.” Van Helsing may or may not bear that statement out, but I do know this: my recommendation is to stay away, unless you find your copy of the game bearing that same $2.95 price point- because when you play a broken game, man, that broken game plays you as well.

All images in this review were taken from the Van Helsing: The Game commercial. All rights are the properties of their respective owners. Images are used compliant with fair use law for the purposes of review as discussed in the About section of this site.  

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~ by Redgoateerob on July 4, 2012.

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