After PC gamers were disappointed with Diablo 3 when it initially launched, many looked to get their action/RPG fix elsewhere. Lucky for them the platform saw such gems as Torchlight 2 and The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. The game was created by the European studio Neocore games, who had a hand in creating the King Arthur RPG games on PC. While the original Van Helsing was applauded for taking the APRG formula and making something different from it, it was met with mostly average reviews.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II takes the formula the first game was built on and expands on it in almost every way - something most sequels like to claim but rarely deliver on. While the first game lacked distinct character classes, the sequel has three; the Hunter with ranged and melee skills, the Thaumaturge who wields magic, or the Arcane Mechanic who uses traps and other mechanical devices. Each of these classes are then further broken up into subsets of the melee and ranged subclasses. On top of this there's a perk and reputation system that lets you unlock permanent abilities and buffs for your character.
Ready to go down the rabbit hole of the skill tree? Each subclass offers dozens of skills to choose from, which can be locked and leveled up adding to their ability. You can also unlock modifier skills on each skill (Got that? you've got skills in my skills), adding further depth to your character development. By my estimation there's over 120 possible places to put your points PER SKILL TREE. Loop in all three classes, the multiple trees and Katarina (you're AI sidekick) and you have almost 1000 skill decisions to make. There's so many possible combinations of characters to build it's almost obscene. If you're micromanagement type player, kiss your time goodbye because you'll be spending it trying to build your perfect character.
It's in this that Van Helsing II's greatest strength is also it's greatest weakness. The game is so incredibly deep and verbose, you almost never feel like you can get a grasp on all it has to offer. What else do you manage? How about an entire war. Your character is put in charge of hiring generals (and outfitting them), training troops, and sending them on missions to win an ongoing conflict. It's all done through a quick graphical interface, but it's one more aspect you need to remember.
While I mentioned the previous game in the series earlier, I never actually got around to playing it myself. So it's hard to know just how polished things have gotten, as well as just how much has been "added" for the sequel. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II is a meaty game as it stands now, with a download weighing in at over 20GB. The first of three chapters alone should take you 5-6 hours to complete. The entire campaign is fully voiced for every conversation, including every little interaction between your character and Katarina.
Speaking of the dialog the game has an almost uncomfortable sense of humor. Katarina likes to make offbeat jokes and witty retorts to most characters in the game. There are several "cameos" of pop culture as well including the Incredible Hulk, Silence of the Lambs, and even Saving Private Ryan. While some of the jokes gave me a light chuckle, most just made me want to facepalm. I'll commend Neocore for sticking with it throughout the game, it just feels out of place at time.
For the most part I found the story pretty forgettable, if not, ridiculous. Eventually I got so lost I just started to skip cut scenes and didn't look back. There's a decent variety of areas to fight in, and it's nice to not find all the standard desert/jungle/town/ocean environments - instead there's a distinctive steampunk influence in the towns and mountains as well as plenty of fantasy areas to explore.
Gameplay itself should be mostly familiar to action RPG veterans. The big difference here is you can switch on the fly between ranges and melee abilities. Doing so changes the skills available on your quickbar, giving you some nice tactical options during combat. I found the combat in the game quite chaotic, VH2 likes to overwhelm players with sheer numbers. The screen can become quite cluttered and make it hard to deal with the waves of enemies coming at you. In a way this makes the combat a bit dissatisfying, unable to see your character pulling off cool abilities. Co-op and assistance from your AI companion has little effect on this unless you put her (or your partner) as the tank with you firing from the rear. It's because of this that I found the game to be more of a chore and gravitated towards co-op.
Co-op can be played online with four players. Drop-in and drop out is supported at anytime, though you'll have to turn on "Online Mode." Co-op isn't held back by level limits, though you only earn progress towards your own game when those quests line up with your own current progress. Joining another player will earn you experience and items, and the satisfaction of helping your fellow vampire hunter.
While certain aspects of the game seem to be detuned for co-op; for instance elevators in the levels don't allow both players to ride on them at the same time - other times the missions at hand feel very cooperative. Early on in the game you'll be tasked with defending a city with multiple ways in. Players can easily split up and cover the oncoming horde of bad guys and quickly jump over to assist a friend if one gets overwhelmed.
Speaking of this mechanic there's a set of rather enjoyable missions that are perfect for co-op. These missions mix tower defense style gameplay with typical ARPG mechanics. Enemies will spawn in at one or more location and charge towards a portal that you need to defend. Along the way you can set up turrets, pads, and other towers to hold off the onslaught. These are built with parts that are earned by completing waves. We had quite a bit of fun in this mode and co-op play felt like a necessity to complete the more difficult waves. In a way, it almost felt like a game on its own. As an added bonus these missions yield some pretty awesome rewards.
Co-op players can also enjoy some synergistic skills like your typical heals and attack buffs that affect all players and AI players present. Characters like the Arcane Mechanic are also perfect to set up perimeter defenses utilizing his turret and trap making abilities. Like most action RPGs, Van Helsing II is best played with friends.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II is an incredible value for all the content it contains. On top of the story mode, the game features a co-op nightmare mode and PvP modes. There's a ton of other things I didn't cover like the crafting system, the stat tracking, and the artifacts. The depth of the character's skill trees yield a lot of replayability on higher difficulties as there's simply a ton of stuff to unlock. The price of entry into this? Just $15. It's an absolutely insane value for everything in this package. Like the game itself and it's deceptive layers of complexity, I almost feel like a low pricetag gives buyers the impression The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II isn't a fully featured game - when in reality it's bigger than a lot of the more expensive games out there.