Almost a year ago to the day, Gabirel Van Helsing, son of the renowned monster hunter Abraham, strolled, sword in one hand, gun in the other, through the wilderness into the dark, pulpy streets of Borgovia. He had been hired to rid the dark city, once ruled by monsters of the occult, of a monster of science: one Professor Fulmagatti. Cutting swathes through the mystical and mechanical, Van Helsing put an end to the evil mad scientist and his doomsday machine.
His victory... was short lived. Seconds after the mad man took his final breath, Van Helsing was buried under a ceiling of metal and concrete as General Harker, another evil antagonist, bombed the building to the ground. It's with such auspicious beginnings that The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II begins.
Whether you take the option to begin a new character, or import your hunter from the first Van Helsing, this sequel begins seconds after the bombing by General Harker. Much like the first game, the plot runs fast and loose, pairing together NeocoreGames' rather light fiction with pop culture references. Unfortunately, where the first game pulled off this mix, a second trip to the exact same well leaves the sequel feeling lackluster. Harker, like Fulmagotti before him, is used as nothing more then a MacGuffin, with no time spent on characterization or even what effect he's had on the world. I know that he was exiled, I know that he's back and he's co-opting Fulmagotti's experiments, and that's it.
The first Van Helsing managed to hide this lack of overall plot the first time through, capitalizing on my love of bad sci-fi with a world that screamed “THIS IS SCIENCE FICTION” so loud its vocal cords ruptured. The Borgovia presented in the sequel is still the same overly Science vs Magic locale from the first, but the difference now is that it's a known quantity, and rather then adding to deepen the experience, they add to cheapen, loading the world with a plethora of overdone pop culture cliches. Stumbling upon Monty Python and the Holy Grail's Vorpal Bunny in the Ink was clever; finding the black knight's limbless body protecting a broken bridge while spouting the lines from that same movie isn't. It comes off as almost lazy, and were it not for the care that went into the rest of the game, I would have zero issues calling it just that. Pop culture references work when they fit with the circumstances. The Bunny's appearance was clever because the ink is supposed to serve as a gateway between worlds, so it wouldn't necessarily be impossible to find a clearly supernatural agent of cuteness and destruction there; a random giant robot walking around a foundry asking if Katarina is Sarah Connor just falls flat.
What doesn't fall flat, and something that the first game never offered, are actual choices. You're never presented with something that could truly change the outcome of the paper thin narrative, but rather with choices that actually open or completely close out quest opportunities. For instance, early on, you are ordered to go on a rescue mission for one Private Bryan. Thankfully, Van Helsing felt the same way I did. Under the “sure I'll drop everything and go” choice, was an option for “No, I'm not leaving the front lines to go rescue one person who is special in absolutely no way. I am staying where I can help.” Taken aback by this option, I took it, and was surprised when the commander acquiesced. And just like that, I was off to do something else. It was only at the end of the chapter, when I was presented with a screen showing off my progress, that I realized I actually fully lost out on that quest with no way to go back. This was not just adding more to the game, this was adding substance.
The predilection for simply adding “more,” as with the references, rather then refining what was present carries through the rest of the sequel though. There are a few occasions where the result of “more” is demonstrably better. For instance, the interface at the bottom of the screen has expanded, adding functionality for two more abilities. Each ability outside of the main two mapped to the left and right mouse buttons also has the ability to use Rage, Van Helsing's unique addition to the Action RPG landscape, and their hotkeys have been rebound to the number keys, bringing the overall feel closer to Diablo. This might not mean a whole lot, but having recently played through Blizzard's latest expansion, followed by a replay of Van Helsing I, the switch to the number keys was most welcome, and one to which I was able to quickly adjust.
Also coming out on the great side of “more” is a complete redesign of the Base Defense mechanic. Now set up as a series of missions that stretch the entire game, each now feels much more like a tower defense game, with lanes of travel glowing along the floor, and a master map showing where enemies will appear each round. Default traps are placed at specific points along the route, and using a preset number of machine parts, you are free to set up the traps using whatever is available. On top of that, each trap can be upgraded in three different ways. With each successful round supplying more machine parts, its easy and satisfying to set up a capable defense, especially if you are willing to add your muscle to pushing back the multiple waves.
Van Helsing's Secret Lair was also redesigned, with a host of new people making the space their home. On the plus side of this redesign are the resistance commanders that you can send out on missions. Each has a number of skills and specialties to consider, and the system adds a neat wrinkle to the story of the Borgovian resistance, making it seem thriving and active in it's work behind the scenes and away from the young Van Helsing's major conflicts. There's also a pet Chimera that has been added to the old stash room. While you are able to summon him in battle, I found he was of far more use being sent on hunting missons.
Where Van Helsing II falls short though, is it's skill system, again, and it's simply overwhelming amount of loot types. In my review of the first game, I mentioned the absurd number of skills, the majority of which I used sparingly, especially given the higher cost of skills lower down the tree. The same holds true for the sequel, only with double the number of skills, tricks and auras to sink points into. It's staggering what's made available to the player, but again, aside from a solid handful of skills, nothing else was worth even exploring, much less using in the thick of combat. It's sad how much of my trees were left untouched, and how successful I was by simply focusing on skills while completely avoiding the tricks and aura lists.
This “extra for no reason” also affects the loot. As an Action RPG, loot is an essential part of the experience. The first Van Helsing offered things like weapons, armor and essences, enchanted pieces of stone like magic that could be used to enhance your items. Van Helsing 2 takes that two steps further, adding runes and scrolls to the table of drops. Scrolls have their uses, offering big boosts over short periods of time that are perfect getting past any difficulty spikes you might run into. Runes on the other hand...
Runes are used in weapon crafting. Where Van Helsing I offered an arcane forge that created new items from old ones, Van Helsing II introduces a complete item creation system, and while that sounds great on paper, it is an absolute mess to use. Creating a weapon requires special Master Runes, which can only be received by breaking down items of Rare (yellow) quality or higher. Rather then being able to click through your inventory ala Diablo's crafting system, each item has to be moved individually to the crafter, who then breaks it into rune pieces. 10 pieces make a whole rune, which means it takes 10 items to get 1 Master rune. Each new item can use up to three Master Runes, and each Master Rune allows you to add stat rune to the item. BUT WAIT... adding those stat runes merely adds a modifier to the percentage that you will actually receive the stat you want, the results are still random. Tons of work + random chance = Never going to use to craft.
It is with pleasure, though, that I bring up Lady Katarina herself. My major complaint with her in the first game was that she served almost no purpose. To address this, DLC to the first game added the Blue Blood system, a separate tree of skills that added to Katarina's direct functionality rather then just her utility support of Van Helsing. I am happy to say that system, further expanded with a third tree, makes her a worthy companion to the Monster Hunter. No longer was she easy fodder to be rolled over and killed. She is strong, capable, and an actual match to the mouthy, biting voice that gives her life. While her history with Van Helsing is still not addressed, I loved having her around to help with the throngs of monstrous hordes.
As you can imagine, Van Helsing II also includes a multiplayer component, allowing you and some friends to venture through the story, or take on additional challenges in the game's Scenario mode. Acting as challenge rooms with adjustable difficulty settings, the scenarios can be provide a nice, lasting challenge for those looking to prolong their stay in Borgovia. There's also what looked like a deathmatch mode available, but there was never anyone queueing for that, so I didn't get the chance to dig into it.
Van Helsing II is very much the same game as its predecessor, just with “more.” While still as fun as the first, there's a lack of actual overall progress, just a reshuffling of used ideas. Given the ending, it's assured that we'll see a third game. Hopefully “more” becomes better before The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing becomes just another monster amidst the fray.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!