The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II takes place in Borgovia, a land where gothic meets geek and dark creatures are met with darker puns. It’s an action RPG in the tradition of Torchlight and Diablo, with a baroque style of its own. It’s my first real outing with the inimitable young monster hunter Van Helsing and his wise-cracking, ass-kicking ghost companion Lady Katarina, having played the first game only briefly. And, despite an incredibly slow start, balance issues and a couple of niggly bugs, Van Helsing II is a fun romp for the price.
The story starts immediately after the previous game, and new players are summarily brought up to speed with the history that’s gone before. The Borgovian Resistance that Van Helsing helped form is under threat by a new enemy, General Harker — but with the help of a new faceless comrade, Prisoner Seven (Yep.), they may be able to emerge victorious once more. The story is forgettable at best and occasionally alienating at worst, with references to the first game’s events and characters being thrown in with little context. This isn’t helped by a rather protracted opening, where you have access to very few of Van Helsing II‘s systems.
Van Helsing II‘s story is saved by the dialogue between its titular character and Lady Katarina, which includes several extremely obvious pop culture references that nevertheless will bring a smile to even the most jaded soul. The deadly duo are well-written and charming; in fact, it’s a level of companionship you don’t often see in games, and kudos to NeocoreGames for their strong characterisation as friends forged in battle and long-time acquaintance.
While it starts slow, Van Helsing II is a game at full throttle with the handbrake up — once it dropped, I appreciated the fact that it does a lot to streamline some of the more niggly elements of the genre. The crux of this is the Hunter’s Lair, wherein you can craft items, purchase goods, enchant weapons, gamble and engage in one of several mini-games and management tasks (more on these in a bit). Teleportation is possible regardless of where you are in the land of Borgovia, removing the necessity for carrying teleportation scrolls. You can combine weapons and armour with essences (which modify items’ attributes) then break them apart without losing any of the components. You can reassign the skills and ability points of both yourself and Katarina at any time, for a modest fee.
Indeed, Van Helsing II rewards experimentation by getting out of your way, and you’re going to have to do a lot of experimentation. Van Helsing II remains a challenging game throughout, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. While I found the skill tree expansive, Van Helsing’s skills don’t necessarily all line up in a way that makes sense (unlike Katarina’s which have clear combinations and benefits). The mouse cursor and camera occasionally work against you, with elements of the scenery sometimes blocking sight on the battlefield and less than precise mouse aiming preventing you from moving when the screen is swamped with enemies, resulting in accidental attacks rather than movement. [This sounds pretty much exactly like real life. I once accidentally launched a fireball at a baby cuttlefish's face when all I really meant to do was walk to the kitchen. – Ed.]
Monsters and locales are varied and visually interesting, but enemy mobs swing wildly between being chaff for your pistols and delivering certain death. The balance is off-kilter throughout, such that I never quite got the feeling that I ever created a build that works. Part of the joy of these types of games is the feeling of complete dominance with getting the right character build, and in this Van Helsing II shines less brightly. Which is a shame, because the combat itself is a blast — controls are tight and it balances just the right mix of movement, skill combos and dodging to keep aspirant monster hunters on their toes. Katarina aids you in combat, shifting into a whirling dervish of claws or projectiles depending on your requirements.
Players have the option of going with three different classes which support different play styles. Van Helsing II allows players to import their character from the first game, allowing a nifty continuation of the fruits of your labour, or you can start with a new character either as a veteran at level 31 or right from level one. Having chosen the latter, I can definitely recommend that players go with the former option if they don’t have a character to import, as it gives you a much wider choice in the available skills you have at your disposal.
Van Helsing II provides several new and revamped ways to wile away the time when you want to take a break from adventuring. The tower defence sequences return from the previous game and offer a nice diversion, while Van Helsing can play a mini-management game with the Resistance, sending lieutenants on various missions. A chimera makes an appearance as a “pet” that you can train and send on hunts for additional loot. Best of all, all of this is completely optional — the game never forces you to do any of it if your preference is for the hack ‘n’ slash.
Ultimately, I think that Van Helsing II is a game for fans of the series. As part of a planned trilogy it definitely favours players who started with the first. Van Helsing and Katarina make for extremely likeable protagonists, and those looking for a bit of lighthearted humour in a world of very serious action RPGs mixed in with some good ideas won’t go wrong. Van Helsing II falters in several areas, but I think that’s more a result of the game’s ambitions, whether it be the gothic steampunk setting or the range of systems and customisation at play. That said, I’d rather it try run and stumble a bit than amble along comfortably in the tried-and-tested tenets of the genre.