Platforms: PC (£11.99)
Developer: Neocore Games
The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing is a guilty pleasure and a great idea. It's a full-fat Action RPG delivered in three meaty parts costing £11.99 apiece, but packing the personality of a rambunctious B-Movie adventure. The floppy hatted hunter rampages through a bestiary of classic movie monsters and mad science experiments, swapping banter and gear with his sarcastic yet faithful companion Lady Katarina. It's a hoot, a real honest-to-goodness rollicking romp that doesn't take itself seriously, yet delivers solid Diablo-esque shenanigans for less than the price of Blizzard's expansion pack.
After seeing a great deal of potential in the first game, my faith was rewarded by a host of post-launch updates that added massive replayability and new features into the package, after which NeoCore set to creating a sequel with much more ambition. They succeeded. Barring a few bugs and some questionable writing, The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing 2 punches well above its weight and ends up as a markedly superior game.
Seriously, even the optional tower defence sections are good enough to be a standalone game in their own right. Let alone the 12-15 hours of slaughtering supernatural beasties wrapped around them!
Van Helsing 2 (yes, that's what we're going to call it) follows on directly from the events of the original. Long story short: the country of Borgovia still isn't safe after you dispatched the evil Dr. Fulmigati, because exiled General Harker has now seized the opportunity to stage a military coup using the mad professor's blueprints. Only Van Helsing and the Resistance can stand against his army of twisted experiments and towering steampunk nasties, while a mysterious new ally promises to support the cause for unknown reasons.
This sounds promising on paper, but don't expect much from the writing. Though the banter between Van Helsing and ghostly pal Katarina is still spot-on, Neocore seems to have rushed the actual plot, meaning that Harker ends up as a largely motiveless non-entity throughout the entire campaign while the most of the exposition hinges around the most obvious twist ever, ever, ever implemented by a videogame.
Also, someone needs to politely inform Neocore that lampooning Saving Private Ryan and Alien stopped being funny after Conker did it back in 2001. At least they cut out the awful Skyrim memes from the preview build, even if they left "you shall not pass" in. Groan. There are some great references in Van Helsing 2, but each polite chortle comes with two cringeworthy facepalm moments based on embarrassingly outdated material.
Never mind, though, because the all-important banter is intact and lends Van Helsing 2 a buddy movie feel, setting it apart from the depressingly po-faced likes of Diablo III. It's a welcome breath of fresh air, but when it comes to gameplay, this RPG sequel means serious business.
The familiar isometric ARPG action is largely unchanged from the original game, which is to say that it's excellent. Benefiting from months of tweaks, the Diablo-inspired click-heavy dungeon crawler throws us into some lengthy maps against hordes of brilliantly-designed monsters from classic fiction and mechanical abominations, which we'll slaughter through using a range of powerful spells and abilities that can be enhanced with useful powerups on-the-fly. Whether you suit a burly brawler or ranged sniper -- or a mixture of the two with immediate weapon switching - you'll quickly find your niche thanks to a vastly improved and intuitive interface that consolidates your scattered arsenal into a single line of keyboard commands.
Naturally there's loot and menacing bosses aplenty, along with massively expanded skill trees that adds meaningful depth to every build. As a ranged DPS hunter myself, being able to blast foes with auto-targeting ricochet bullets while inflicting debuffs and abusing powerful rocket jumps was an absolute godsend. These explosive abilities also bring extra oomph to the action, which feels a lot more dynamic and tactile than the original outing. Katarina has also received a wealth of new skills and updates, making her equally valuable as a combat companion as a loot storage cupboard.
Seriously, Katarina is probably the best NPC ally to ever feature in a dungeon crawler. Capable of holding your swag, automatically picking up gold and/or less valuable loot, making shopping trips, passively buffing all of your stats, tanking and holding her own in ranged combat, she's practically indispensable. The fact that she's also a likeable character in her own right is just the cherry on the cake.
New players can build a brand new character from scratch or level 30-60, including the exceptionally powerful Thaumaturge and Arcane Mechanic classes that were only available as DLC in the original game. I favour the latter myself, with happy memories of setting entire armies of creatures on fire with my techno-magical flamethrower, so was naturally delighted that save file transfer lets you quickly continue the adventure with an existing character right down to their equipment.
Balance is interesting. Not bad, just interesting. After an early difficulty spike as your gear catches up with the new enemies, things generally plateau with the exception of champion ranged enemies that sometimes dish out insane instant-kill damage without warning. What sounds horrible actually encourages you to experiment with the more diverse abilities that confer temporary invulnerability or relocation, so I won't mark it down, but be aware that you can't just click through it with your eyes closed!
So Van Helsing 2 is a seriously solid and enjoyable ARPG, then, but, Van Helsing 2 thinks bigger with a range of fantastic features. Viaduct Junction deserves to be hailed as one of the most memorable levels we've seen in an ARPG in recent years, throwing you into what feels like a desperate war for territory. You'll give orders to defensive positions and then hold the line as waves of foes press the advance, helping the war effort in your downtime. Later you'll return for a brand new perspective on the familiar terrain, bringing things full circle. Considering that even Blizzard has trouble making stages feel like a real battle, the fact that Neocore's tiny team nails it is deeply impressive.
There's more. The Tower Defence sections make a return in exquisitely-designed standalone stages that feel unique and exciting to play, breaking up the pace brilliantly. What's sometimes a weak link is actually one of the highlights of the game, especially on harder difficulties where you'll do much of the heavy lifting yourself. You can even ignore them altogether by delegating to one of your commanders in a new dispatch missions minigame; though undernourished, it's always fun to send out your Resistance soldiers on throwaway objectives that make you feel like part of something more worthwhile. Replay value has been addressed with respawning mobs, endless story, paragon levels and a new scenario mode, adding serious value.
You're also capable of capturing and summoning a powerful Chimera ally in battle, breaking down and reassembling items into fragments and seeking out a wealth of exceptional secrets. I've rarely enjoyed such anarchic and interesting hidden oddities since Serious Sam: The Second Encounter, rewarding exploration with a host of hilarious asides tucked into the darkest corners. A seemingly innocent ring unlocks advice rather than buffs after hitting kill targets, giving you five mysterious objectives to accomplish. You'll find and defrost a magical talking goldfish, discover a Half-Life gravity gun and discover what R2-D2 would look like in steampunk Victoriana. Fantastic stuff, and so much better than the lazier references you'll find elsewhere in the package.
Van Helsing 2 isn't perfect. Beyond the deeply inconsistent (and occasionally atrocious) writing, I have to criticise some of the boss encounters for being too visually fussy, with unnecessary foreground elements that obscure the action and make it difficult to see incoming projectiles. The final battle is also rather limp to put things mildly, balancing incredibly quick deaths with no respawn penalty. When death becomes a chore, you know that something has gone amiss.
And then there are the bugs. Despite a colossal patching marathon after the 4.5GB release update bricked practically everything (I'm glad I didn't write a review based on the original pre-launch build!), the game is lousy with aggravating little annoyances. From completed journal entries that won't delete to bestiary listings appearing as junk code, the rough edges could still use some more polish.
But when you can blow up a trio of 'Octopod Annihilator' mechs one minute and thaw a magical wish-granting goldfish the next, I daresay you'll be having too much fun to notice!
- Solid and enjoyable dungeon crawling; phat loot, tough mobs and great abilities
- Excellent new features include dispatch missions and retooled tower defence
- Upbeat and likeable personality
- Fantastic secrets; Katarina might be the best NPC of all time
- Astonishing value at £11.99 with character imports
- Inconsistent writing and weak plot
- Sometimes falls back on cringeworthy references rather than jokes
- Some messy boss encounters; lingering minor bugs
The Short Version: The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing II is a quality dungeon crawler offering solid action, hours of fun and an anarchic upbeat personality - for £11.99. Here's hoping that the third game turns the trilogy into a single superior RPG and underdog success story.