Diablo 3 came with great fanfare, Torchlight 2 had some good marketting, I've read about Path of Exile here and there and the same goes with Grim Dawn, now in alpha. Why am I starting with this? Because I never knew that The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing was an Action RPG. I never knew it was coming out on steam and I looked at it the day it came out only to see what kind of game it was. I didn't think it was going to be incredible, as the title suggests.
You don't pick up a class when you start TIAoVH, Val Helsing is able to do everything, through skill trees and equipment, you select what kind of skills your character will use. Van Helsing can shoot guns, use magic, slice enemies up with his swords and specialize in any of these things. While ranged characters lack proper melee options and melee fighters need to get close to their distance-focused enemies in other games, here it's only a push of the R key away. You switch between melee and ranged very easily, and it's great to shoot a couple of rounds at charging werewolves and then switch to swords to finish them off when they are too close. You could theoritically stand there and shoot everything, but the parry bonus you get while holding swords is not negligible and makes switching strategically worth it. Fire guns, switch to swords, switch to guns again, the action is dynamic and fluid, you have plenty of options.
You'll rarely encounter a few enemies, they often come in big packs, numbers and monster chunks start raining everywhere, building a resource called rage each time you kill an enemy. You can use rage to activate secondary power of your abilities (each ability has 3) in the form of 'combos'. For instance, the explosive gun attack I used the most has increased blast radius, increased damage and 20% mana recovery. You could have 3 times the mana recovery (for 60%) or 2 times recovery and 1 time increased damage, etc. You can either use the spacebar to trigger these rage combos or set them to be used automatically. Rage drains pretty fast so you need to manage it a little if you plan to use combos with all your skills, but otherwise you just kill a few monsters and unleash some big attacks.
By speaking to certain NPCs, you can buy 'auras' and 'tricks' that you can use in addition to your usual skills, the auras are passive abilities (such as increased gun damage when no enemies are nearby, life leech, added gold find, bonus damage at max Rage) and tricks are active skills (like healing yourself, having a mana shield effect, a blink ability, a temporary damage buff) that don't cost any mana but they have a small cooldown. You need to spend skill points to level them up, and that means you're going to reset them when you learn ones you like better, which is a bit annoying, luckily you can reset your skills almost anytime.
The perk system is really nice, you get 'reputation' by killing rare/champion enemies and when you have enough reputation, you can choose a perk. Some of them are one-time bonuses like 5 skill points but most of them are weird bonuses like having an extra inventory page, having more strength/higher selling price for your items, making your potions heal you better, saving you from death each 3 minutes... And the best thing about these perks is that they appear based on what you did and how you built your character. The perk that gives you an extra inventory page is based on you using the 'sort' function to replace your items in your bag, the perk that increases your skill points is based on you having skills in multiple trees, you start with a few of them, but the list grows as you play. Only thing I dislike about the perks is how there's no easy way to see how much reputation you have, there's a bar for EXP on the UI, but no bar for reputation, you need to go in the menu.
I'm not a fan of stat systems where you can allocate points yourself, but TIAoVH fixes this by making the stats plainly explained in the tooltip. Because there is no character class, the only archetype you can follow is yours to build, I'm specializing in guns so I have loads of dexterity and luck (bonus magic find, woo), I don't have to ask myself if this is a right build because everything is useful to every Van Helsing. You get 3 skill points per level and you have a few choices. Active skills, passive skills, tricks, auras, upgrades for your active skills. Skills take more points as they go up in level and for each 10 points you put in a tree, you get a neat little passive bonus. You can reset both your stats and skills for a small fee, so if you take a skill and don't like it, it's no big deal.
You also have a ghost companion that serves both for funny dialogue purposes and for fighting enemies/looting their corpses/going back to town to sell everything and buy you potions if you want. She's a very useful ally and you can decide whether she's fighting with claws or magical projectiles. You assign her stats and skills (most of her skills are passive upgrades to Van Helsing in addition to some of her own such as paralyzing enemies) select what kind of enemies she attacks, when she heals herself, what kind of items she loots on the ground and you can equip weapons and armor to her. Her AI isn't perfect, she will willingly walk into puddles of poison, die there and then take a minute or so to respawn. If you play ranged, you can have her go close to the enemies and tank them while healing you and getting all of the items.
You can equip her rings, which is too complicated for no reason. All the command keys on my keyboard can be used with this ring! Why doesn't she have some special ghost-only items instead of rings? It would make sense that a ghost can equip mythical things such as souls, I don't know. This just creates a situation where I pick up a good item, equip it on Van Helsing and then equip my old item to Katarina because it was my previous better one. This isn't a big problem, but giving her gear is somewhat inconsequential.
Besides the normal line of normal/magical/set/rare/unique items, you have epic items that will gain in power when you accomplish certain things. The excalibur sword for instance, gets bonus fire damage when you kill 300 enemies, bonus ice damage after 500 and bonus lightning damage after 800. It also gets +1 in the Bash Skill when you've dealt 15000 damage wielding it. There are plenty of these items and it's not just based on enemy kills/damage dealt, it can be critical hits done, skill usage, times you've dodged, etc. Even if they're not better than the items I have, I always want to use these items to see if they'll get better. They often do.
Instead of gems, you have essences. They all have a 'cost' and some of your items have a 'capacity', it's a bit different of the gem/socket system because gems have different costs and you can get magic items with capacities. Essences are fused with items and you can fuse any kind of essences together, adding a bunch of effects on your gear. You can also strengthen essences, increasing their effects but also their cost or mix essences together to create a random one.
There's a pretty forgiving enchanting system - but it's currently bugged, although I've managed to use it yesterday - when you pay gold and get random magics on your items, that you can then pay to remove if you want to try again. You can gamble by buying unidentified items, you can also forge 4 items together to create a new one of the same rarity. There are plenty of ways to spend gold in this game and you also get plenty from killing stuff. The biggest gold sink is the respawn system.
The game can get tough in spots, I've died my fair share to bombs, tornadoes and lightning, the cost of death is pretty low, when you die you are faced with three options, spend 10% of your gold to just respawn right there, spend 5% of your gold to restart at a checkpoint that can be very close or at the beginning of the map, checkpoints aren't well defined, or just respawn in town. Respawning in town would be fine because there are portals in most of the maps, but the two loading screens (from death to town, from town to portal) break the action too much for me, and paying the 10% fee to just respawn feels a bit cheap, all and all it helps to keep the action fast because you can just retry right there, maybe this time you won't die. 10% is a sizable enough sum to make you think about it.
There's also a tower defense-like minigame where you place traps on your lair and kill enemies as they walk around to try and get out. Spiked floors, flame throwers, lightning traps, blades, werewolves, walls that crush enemies, there is variety to your options and you can research/upgrade new ones as the game goes on and you buy the plans from merchants.
You also can upgrade your generator which gives you more trap capacity and various other upgrades to other systems such as the essence enchanting one. Van Helsing can also help defend his lair by killing enemies as they go. A good combination of traps on one half of the maze and you killing everything on the other will clear all waves. I wished it would tell how far you are in the wave tho, they last a bit too long and you never know when they're done.
I am not saying that only popular games can be good, but this surprised me greatly and I'm very happy about it. There is a ton of charm in this game, the action feels good for an rpg, the story is interesting, the characters are funny and there are jokes here and there that made me chuckle. This reminds me of titan quest, or dungeon siege 2, an interesting Action RPG that does a few things differently and the rest of them really well so that it's an overall great game.