Barcelona-based developer EnjoyUp Games got our hopes up for this – after the surprising success of its atmospheric Abyss on the Wii U eShop last month, the trailer for EnjoyUp's new 3DS-exclusive Van Helsing Sniper Zx100 demonstrated a first-person gallery shooter set in a neon sci-fi dystopian future London; the setting had potential.
Essentially a handheld light gun game in the cheesy gothic style of classic late-'90s arcade titles like The House of the Dead, Van Helsing's audiovisual flair is by far the highlight of the show. The wonderful soundtrack is a synth-heavy collection of appropriately futuristic gothic tunes, and in true EnjoyUp style there's all sorts of goofy voiceover work ("Helllp!", "Thank you!"). Very few other 3DS eShop titles take advantage of the system's 3D-capable horsepower, and not only does Van Helsing present pleasing polygonal graphics with a full stereoscopic 3D effect, but it actually utilises the console's motion sensor to add to the gameplay.
The controls are fairly intuitive; you use the motion sensor to aim, the Circle Pad to zoom your weapon's scope in and out, A/B to fire, L to use special power-up weapons, and R to enter a slow-motion "vampire vision" mode for a few seconds that makes it easier to aim. As anyone who's played motion-sensing titles on 3DS or Wii U knows, the alignment can get all out of whack very easily, so Van Helsing cleverly features a quick X/Y button tap to readjust the camera to the default centre position.
The setup is simple: it's futuristic London, you're the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing with a sniper crossbow, and you've got to shoot vampires and save humans from atop your stationary lookout. These aren't traditional Castlevania-style vampires, but rather modern, sexy Blade-style bloodsuckers. The urban landscape's neon, almost cel-shaded art style dominated by skyscrapers in which you shoot undead enemies in a first-person perspective evokes one of the greatest games of all time – Goichi Suda's Killer7. Disappointingly, the similarities end there, as beneath Van Helsing Sniper Zx100's glossy surface, the core gameplay experience is as unfulfilled and empty as Dracula's soul.
The meat (or juicy, blood-filled flesh) of Van Helsing is Adventure Mode – six different levels split into a handful of sections each in which you must either kill vampires, save humans, or both. Since the only thing Van Helsing can really do is "shoot stuff," you save humans by either shooting the locks of the coffin-shaped cages they're trapped in, or by shooting the vampires trying to attack the humans and take them away. At the beginning of each stage you're given a target number of vampires to kill and humans to save, and you must reach the goal within the given time limit of a few minutes.
The game world feels less like a living, breathing city than a mere shooting gallery, as you wait for vampires and humans to arbitrarily appear out of nowhere on random rooftops so you can shoot them. How did they get there? Why are vampires storing all their captives on rooftops in the first place? Most of the vampires and humans in the earlier levels simply stand in one place waiting for you to shoot them, with virtually no AI programming to be found. All your targets are far away, which adds a grand sense of scale to the experience but can also be irritating as you search for small vampires in the distance with the 3DS' relatively low-resolution screen. Any game about sniping faraway targets will call to mind the iconic "All Ghillied Up" level from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and while "All Ghillied Up" required players to take into account factors like wind direction and bullet drop, Van Helsing Sniper Zx100 requires aspiring snipers to... shoot stuff with unlimited ammunition. It's all fairly easy once you can actually find your targets – aside from the vampires and humans, there's nothing going on, as you're left with an attractive-yet-lifeless cityscape to monitor for enemies.
Later levels feature more aggressive vampires who will actually try to attack you, humans who need to be saved from multiple foes at once, and even a few boss battles, but the gameplay always feels stale. You can shoot floating orbs to get powered-up weapons, but these feel less like deep game mechanics than items on a checklist. Each level is unnecessarily long and drawn-out; since you're not moving and the enemies mostly exhibit the same exact behaviour for the entire level, it gets repetitive and bland very quickly; if you die, you can't just try the individual stage over again – you have to replay that entire section of the game. If you play Van Helsing Sniper Zx100 long enough to earn 666 points, you unlock Survival Mode, which as you'd expect consists of surviving as long as possible against waves of enemies. It's just as bland as the main game, with the difficulty ramped up and the variety ramped down.
Van Helsing Sniper Zx100 evokes the creepy aesthetic of Killer7, but while Killer7's unique concepts and quirky style helped it overcome its significant faults, Van Helsing doesn't have the same originality; its charming 3D presentation is delicious icing let down by a fairly flavourless light gun cake. It can be therapeutic to simply shoot bad guys and bask in the sci-fi London setting, but you should probably wait until the ominous $6.66 price point drops a bit before you consider sinking your teeth into Van Helsing.