The action-RPG has been receiving a lot of attention in the last year or two with Diablo III, Path of Exile, the forthcoming Sacred 3 and several others. It is into this rarefied air that The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing (the original) launched itself in May of 2013 to generally favorable reviews. Almost exactly a year later, Neocore Games released The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II begins where its predecessor, the unsurprisingly named "Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing", left off. Van Helsing and his sidekick, Katarina, are off on another adventure to rid Borgovia of its evil overlords. The second of its name brings as much to the table as the first and much, much more. The charm, humor and wit has carried over into this latest steampunk adventure by Neocore Games.
Game Play - 8
The second in the series begins precisely where the first left off. After defeating Professor Fulmigati, Van Helsing should have been off on a sun-filled vacation to, say, Dead Island. But no. The forces of evil never rest in Borgovia and he and Katarina are sorely needed by the game's citizenry to take down the despotic General Harker. Sounds easy, right?
Wrong. Harker hands Van Helsing and the opposition forces a resounding defeat and the rest of the game is spent trying to strengthen the resistance and to incrementally reduce Harker's offensive juggernaut in small, yet decisive battles.
Players will be able to do so in a variety of ways. Van Helsing himself, along with his rib-tickling sidekick, Katarina, are the first line of both offense and defense. They range the game world gathering the minds needed to bring victory to the resistance and, not just coincidentally, take out a few of the major players from Harker's troops as well.
Players can opt to start a brand new, level one character, carry over a saved character from the first Van Helsing title, create a custom level thirty character from scratch or choose a level thirty premade provided by Neocore. I found little success making my own level thirty character and instead opted for starting at level one to progress the game.
A bit into the game, players are given access to a "secret lair", a central hub for the main storyline. The secret lair also offers players a place to interact with resistance NPCs, including the mysterious Prisoner Seven, a merchant, a crafting location and a general place of peace and safety. The lair can be accessed by utilizing any of the teleporters that jet players back to the resistance stronghold.
Additionally, there special characters that command troops who can be sent out on missions to shut down Harker's advances, and to gather loot and experience for Van Helsing who has found himself in the unlikely position of a commanding general in the resistance. These characters level up, as do the troops they command. They can unearth relics that can further enhance each commander's skills. They can also, and probably most importantly, bring back gold and items for the player.
Harker never rests, however, and Van Helsing will often find himself called back to his "secret lair" in the city to fend off waves of attacks by those hoping to shut down the resistance permanently. This tower defense mini-game is a lot of fun and offers a refreshing change of pace at times when straight up combat gets tiresome.
Weirdly, however, players ignoring both the tower defense mini-game and the sending out of commanders and troops on special missions seem to suffer no ill-effects. The game, it seems, is fully predicated on the actions of Van Helsing and Katarina and nothing else.
Gaming in VH2 is pretty standard fare for those who are experienced in aRPGs. Movement and combat are achieved by left clicking to move and to attack. Character movement is smooth and strong looking with no 'herky-jerky' movements to be found. Combat is likewise fluid with some pretty nice effects to go with it.
Van Helsing II, unlike the first, comes with three playable classes: The classic Hunter that uses both swords and firearms; the magic-wielding Thaumaturge; and the engineer-type class, the Arcane Mechanic. This is especially welcome for those who played through the first game and did not have access to the two latter classes. Those were only added to the game later via DLC.
Combat can be overwhelming depending on the difficulty level on which players game but, if too difficult, the game can be scaled down on the fly. The most challenging part of the game, if such can be said, is trying not to aggro too many monsters at once. Any given pack can be enough as it is, but add in one or two more and suddenly things look pretty poor for Van Helsing and Katarina.
This brings me to one of the sticking points of the game: The precipitous and often "too little too late" notification of the player's dire health emergency. I often found my health full to capacity and, suddenly, and nearly without warning, it would drop and the red "YOU'RE GOING TO DIE" screen would flash. Sadly, the warning nearly always came too late to quaff a potion to escape death. Again, it's imperative to watch the number of packs aggro'd to avoid this scenario entirely...or nearly so. Kiting is a true survival skill in Van Helsing 2.
Both player and Katarina level up at a fairly good clip and Neocore is not stingy in the number of choices players can make when it comes to specializing their characters and companion. Katarina herself has three skill trees that give nice bonuses to defense or offense as well as a health/mana boost or she can be a formidable warrior in her own right. There were times when she was the "last man standing".
Aesthetics - 7
Aesthetically speaking, Van Helsing 2 is really a nice looking game. The city of Borgova is dirty and rusty and everything a mechanized industrial steampunk location should be. Machines squeak, elevators rattle, steam jets out of pipes and all combine to give the feeling of a city in ruin.
Locations outside of the city give a welcome sense of relief to players as the journey often sends Van Helsing into the local mountains or to an ancient ruin. It is in this diversity of location that Van Helsing 2 really shines. Graphically the game is top notch with many small touches that add to the overall ambiance of the game.
The music of Van Helsing 2 is also terrific, with haunting tunes that give a sense of great sadness or impending doom.
Oddly enough, and given the above, other sounds in the game are less than satisfying. Combat sounds simply don't pack a punch somehow. It's not bad, it's just not that good either. For me, it was a major distraction.
Innovation - 7
Van Helsing II doesn't bring much new to the table though what it does do, it does very well. Still, to say something is innovative means that it has to give the player something different, something unseen, or at least little-seen, in any other game. VH2 is your typical isometric aRPG point-and-click adventure. Sure, there is the tower defense game and the strategy-like command of NPCs but neither of those features are required to succeed in playing the game and neither is particularly 'innovative' (though perhaps little seen in other aRPGs).
Still and all, props have to be given to Neocore for bringing other game types into the general action RPG genre with its inclusion of the tower defense and strategy modes. That said, however, they need to have a real impact on the game to be truly innovative.
Longevity & Value - 9
Van Helsing II's three distinct character classes offer buyers of the game a great chance to experience it in an entirely different way each time a different class is chosen. In addition, Neocore has sprinkled so many side quests, so many easter eggs, so many hidden locations throughout the game that it is nearly impossible to see it all on a single play through. For $14.99 on Steam, it's a terrific value for around fifteen to twenty hours of game play each time through.
Neocore isn't finished either. As with VH1, the second game is sure to receive several DLC packages over the next little while, another factor that adds to both its value and longevity. There are few games out there on release that can offer that kind of deal.
Polish - 6
Van Helsing 2 shipped with a lot of annoying bugs, random crashes and odd item names that were completely left out or named using a placeholder during development.
Also, even as much as I like the overall graphics of the game, they aren't as polished as those of others in the same genre. Take, for example, Path of Exile's graphics and compare them to VH2's and you see what I mean.
All this said, Neocore has been quite up front about the issues players have faced and have been very active patching the game to bring things up to snuff. None of the things listed (as well as random crashes and lock ups) are game ending, merely annoying.
There is no question that Van Helsing II is head and shoulders above its predecessor in terms of game play and in the replayability factor that the additional two classes bring to the game. It's a solid entry into the aRPG market and one that fans of the genre are sure to enjoy. It's a fantastic bargain and quite a lot of fun to play.
Will you, or have you, tried Van Helsing 2? Let us know what you thought in the comments.
Suzie Ford is the Associate Editor and News Manager at MMORPG.com