Prior to the release of the original Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, I was concerned whether NeoCore could break into the well-heeled world of aRPGs. For the most part though, they proved me wrong. The game had some issues sustaining its story through one Borgovan steampunk district too many, but made fine use of Eastern European folklore and a goofy sense of humour. While it wasn’t really a title for min-maxing loot statheads, the novelty of tone and traditional design carried the day instead.

As the cliffhanger ending in the first game probably made clear, and the existence of this sequel should make obvious, this series is not yet over. There are more monsters to be slain and many more skill points to be allocated before the land of Borgova is truly safe from bands of enemies who loiter around the landscape until something tasty to attack shows up. The only people qualified for such a task are the banter-powered double act of Van Helsing and ghost pal Katarina, back for more jovial jaunts in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 2.

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“As a hunter, I feel compelled to know about ancient evil powers, even if they’ve been dead for centuries.”

Matters are not terribly jovial at the start of the game, mind you. Having expertly blown up Professor Fulmigati’s contraption, you’d think Van Helsing could put his slippers on and have a bit of a sit down. Instead, he’s thrust into the role of impromptu general, co-ordinating a resistance uprising against new antagonist General Harker. The initial offensive doesn’t go all that well, so the theme of the game revolves around chipping away at Harker’s grip on the city from your Top Secret Lair / Giant Loot Toybox.

As a narrative peg to hang a couple of new mechanics on, this works quite well. It also keeps the story pretty tight and justifies Van Helsing getting himself involved in pseudo Tower Defense mini-games (back again in Van Helsing 2, this time with handy ink teleporters.) Whenever Harker gets close to sniffing out the lair, it’s time to bunk off from whatever mission is in progress and start deploying some traps. If you don’t feel like bothering, you can just send some Borgovan Resistance members to take care of business instead.

Another layer of resistance management is added by an Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood-like roster of special agents who can be sent out on timed missions and (if successful) return with loot and experience points. As an individual feature it’s not revelatory, but it all helps maintain the overall idea of a group of eager rebels trying to take back their city.

There doesn’t appear to be any kind of failure state involved with ignoring Tower Defense or resistance management missions, which feels a little odd, but suggests NeoCore has decided to keep the side activities optional.

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Resistance management is a little over-designed, but a neat diversion between selling off your loot haul.

Tower Defense and levelling up rebels are secondary to what is still very much a traditional aRPG at heart. Van Helsing and Katarina spend most of their time tramping around in hostile territory looking for ways to get an advantage in the war. They’re kind of like the Borgovan Special Forces, performing dangerous missions behind enemy lines in search of information, or leading a charge against entrenched positions. Van Helsing 2 makes better use of locations than the original title, mixing up the map types and making sure they know not to outstay their welcome.

When you do return to previously visited areas, the landscape has usually changed somewhat (often due to war damage) and there’s some neat continuity with weather effects once a storm starts raging in the city. Although the maps don’t feel quite as sprawling this time around, they all still have optional portions for you to explore and little side-quests to follow. Overall, the game is around the same length as the first (14 hours or so, since you ask.)

My preferred locations are still those that take place in the Borgovan wilderness, as these seem to allow NeoCore’s creativity to shine brightest. One particular map features a weird village of ghosts, rock-obsessed talking boulder heads and an eclectic mix of deadly wildlife. Happily, these areas don’t completely disappear after the first portion of the game like they did in the first Van Helsing. The steel-and-steam city maps have been given a bit more architectural variety than before, but mechanical and bio-engineered foes just aren’t quite as interesting as snow-topped peaks and demented magical stags.

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There are more fantastical locations than boring sewers, which is always good to see.

Here’s the problem with reviewing Van Helsing 2 to the level of accuracy I’d normally like: NeoCore is still finishing it. One day before the review embargo was due to lift, the game was still missing a final boss segment and all multiplayer functionality. During my playthrough I’ve run into hard crashes (a cut-scene involving a man and his dynamite refused to end without a reset,) weird bugs that check off quests before they’re actually done, missing voiceovers and objects with names like VH2.magictrousers.finishthislater.items.

This kind of thing is sometimes to be expected in pre-release code, and NeoCore were entirely up front about aspects like multiplayer and complete voiceovers coming at a later date. The thing is, the regularity with which my Van Helsing 2 Steam code has been updating suggests the team is scrambling to get it all wrapped up in time. I’m hoping they manage it, but the manner in which this title is going down to the wire should be a cause for concern if you’re expecting a bug-free experience on release day.

Multiplayer did eventually show up, but would crash back to the desktop whenever I attempted to ensnare a passing journalist by hosting a game and still had one of the modes listed as ‘GameModeGameMode.’ So that may not exactly be the finished article either. If you were hoping for some smooth story co-op on release day, I’d strongly advise waiting until the netcode can be given a broad test by a much more significant number of players.

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Sitting back and letting my Tower Defense set-up do the hard work.

The class and skill options have expanded considerably since the first game’s initial release. That title launched with just one class (“Van Helsing” basically,) but subsequent DLC added the Thaumaturge (spellcasting) and Arcane Mechanic (handy machine buddies) options. Van Helsing 2 launches with all three available from the start, plus a full range of new abilities for level 30-60 characters.

If you opt to carry over your level 30 Van Helsing character to part two, you’ll start on a “Veteran” run. It’s also possible to put together a custom character of any class at level 30, or use a pre-made one that NeoCore has constructed.

It could be the case that I’m just bad at making efficient characters, but my unstoppable level 30 Van Helsing from the previous game was about as resistant as wet tissue paper when I carried him over to this one. None of my custom efforts fared all that well either, and seemed to have trouble dealing sufficient damage to be viable. I only really got off the ground with a pre-made Thaumaturge, who seemed to have around 100 additional Willpower (which increases spell damage) coming from his superior starting equipment.

Like much of this review code though, damage balance and enemy toughness has been in a state of flux. By the time the game comes out I have no idea if what I experienced in a “normal” difficulty play-through will be the same as the final version.

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Most major fights end up looking a bit like this.

With some moderate re-speccing (available as an option within about an hour and a half or so) and judicious use of the new Thaumaturge skills, the character I’d settled on eventually became a reliable dealer of destruction. The Entropy Ray ended up being particularly useful, as high damage spells with a healing effect tend to be, but I also got a lot of use out the basic “setting people on fire” skill, Everlasting Fire.

Judicious use of abilities is recommended, because Borgova’s angry inhabitants are not shy about swarming Van Helsing like brain-addled Justin Bieber fans; throwing their grotesque visages towards your hero, like … brain-addled Justin Bieber fans; pummeling, spitting deadly venoms and doing anything else in their power to subdue their target, like … well, perhaps I need a new simile. Let’s just say if you’re a spellcaster, get used to more kiting than a summer’s day park frequented only by specific birds of prey and their kite-loving families.

Vicious attacking is what monsters in aRPGs do, of course, but Van Helsing 2 lacks some tactility when communicating damage being done to your character. The health bar plunges downward and the much-used red screen effect kicks in when you’re near death. But when in a situation of peril, foes tend to be attacking with such speed and tenacity that the red screen goes by in a flash. Half the time you won’t even be able to see Van Helsing under the determined scrum of bodies. It’s by no means impossible to quaff a health potion in time, but there is something slightly lacking in the way attacks can swing from “you’re fine, you’re fine, WAIT THIS IS SUDDENLY VERY DEADL … oh you’re dead.”

Death (at least on standard difficulties) isn’t a huge set-back, but if you’re playing a hardcore character it’s the end of the line. Again though, this may partially be a review code balance issue.

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The wilderness locations really are the best by far.

That’s the problem I keep returning to when trying to structure definitive thoughts on Van Helsing 2. I don’t just suspect that the final release version will be slightly different from the one I played through, I know it will. It’s probably plotting to update itself right now to render some of this review incorrect and make me look silly.

Structurally, it’s a better, more confident game than the original. It has broader scope for character development, greater depth to the loot system (the addition of runes means you now have roughly twenty thousand ways to augment items) and worthwhile new features that tie-in with it’s narrative arc. But just hours before the release of the full title I have no way of knowing what the final balancing will look like, whether or not the various bugs and crashes I ran in to will be cleaned up in time, or even if the last boss is properly implemented yet. The latest, and probably final, pre-release update seems to have corrupted my level 60 save, so it’s a bit hard to check. That’s hardly a position from which to offer unqualified recommendation. Like the first game this one eventually deserves to end up as a minor aRPG hit, but it will need a patch or three before it reaches that potential.

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