The middle chapter of this trilogy stands out well all on its own
Deciding that your big creation is going to be a part of a greater whole is always a little bit dangerous in my eyes. It causes one serious question to be raised - by knowing they're going to have a part two and then even a part three, does that cause developers to hold back something they shouldn't? In the case of The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, the ambitious RPG trilogy from Neocore games, the just-released middle entry in the series seems to suggest that this studio, at least, has found the right balance.
Despite billing itself with the sort of big-ticket importance you might expect from a big-budget trilogy from a much larger developer, Neocore Games have actually succeeded in reminding me of a time that now feels sadly distant in PC gaming's past - a time when it was less about glitz, glam and bullet point moments to excite and more about a generally exciting overall experience.
There's a suite of wildly different skills, both offensive and defensive
If you were to ask me what moment in Van Helsing II stood out to me the most, I'd struggle to answer - but that doesn't mean I didn't have an absolute blast with the game. It's evenly-spread and highly enjoyable throughout - and that's something that I feel is all too rare these days.
The overall experience that Van Helsing II has on offer is a natural evolution of the first game, which was already pretty damn solid. The comparisons to Diablo are so obvious it would be remiss of me not to make them, but it has to be noted that the deeper you get into the game, the more quickly it becomes clear that this isn't just another Diablo clone. In fact, it's a quite different take on that style of gameplay, more heavy on narrative and intrigue, all while happily set in a deliciously attractive steampunk world.
The world served up is one that's enticing in its simplicity. In an opening narration, Van Helsing himself muses that evil needs defeating and monsters need slaying; it's just another day at the office for the hero, one who knows that he is a hero and seems to happily embrace it in all its clichéd obviousness. The game is full of that kind of a tone; there's references to Monty Python and arrows to the knee, but then there's also moments that have a tough of poignancy mixed among it - it's a unique tone, and one that works - it keeps you smiling and invested all at once.
A mysterious new figure, Prisoner Seven, is key to the plot and helps to guide you through the game, deliciously voiced with a gravelly-toned mysteriousness. If he's really on your side is something pondered by Van Helsing and his partner-in-heroism Katarina during the game, and the mysterious nature of this pivotal character is one of the stand-out beats from a generally very enjoyable and engaging narrative that kept me pushing on through the game.
From cities to freezing mountains, the game takes you to a good slate of locations
Those familiar with the original Van Helsing will be right at home, since this game not only picks up pretty much directly from it with its story, but is also built on the same engine and does make liberal re-use of touched-up assets for things like the monsters and creatures Van Helsing will find himself doing battle with.
Despite that, it is worth noting that this doesn't feel like an expansion pack to the original game, but rather something new; we come back to what I said earlier about holding back things for a sequel - this doesn't feel like obviously held-back additions from the first game, and nor does it feel like anything has been kept back for the sequel. Sure, assets are reused, but this is actually a stunningly dense game for its $14.99/£11.99 price tag - there's a ton of content, and one gets the impression that the developers are at peace with the fact that not every user who plays the game will see everything they built. Again, this density happily reminds me of older games, when a hidden area or an obscure quest was considered good, not bad.
There's a slew of combat abilities, offensive and defensive both, available for you to equip, and combat actually gets rather hectic. I'm a sucker for a ton of huge numbers flying all over the screen while enemies burn or explode in entrancing ways, and this game has that in spades.
For me combat essentially became about how I'd built my character; a specific pattern of attacks worked extremely well for me against most enemies, and the hectic action became about executing that pattern to keep enemies locked in a state of hitstun and Van Helsing alive - but often just barely! There's a decent difficulty here and I was pleased with that fact.
The weird & wonderful enemies you battle are just one of the stand-outs of smart steampunk art design
In addition to the standard combat stuff, there's also a series of interestingly-designed tower-defence style missions where in addition to placing turrets and the like, you're still on the field of battle with all your abilities to help out the turrets. I enjoyed this mode but sometimes found it a bit frustrating - I felt like the UI could've done more to alert me when enemies were about to escape. Generally speaking the UI is solidly designed, though I do feel like the world of loot is one that'll potentially be overwhelming for all but the most hardened Diablo nuts - as is often the case for titles like this. For better or for worse, there's a whole lot of it.
THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF VAN HELSING II VERDICT
I opened this review by talking about the dangers of going into a project knowing you intend it to be part of a larger whole - in this instance, a trilogy. After playing Van Helsing II, Neocore games have another problem on their hands after this - not that they held stuff back, but that they gave it their all. This feels like a complete experience, one that is a natural and smart evolution of the first game’s mechanics. The fact that it has incredible value with a very modest price tag only helps that fact. How they improve on this is something I’m excited to see.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Any and every time a section that previously annihilated you is taken apart with a newly thought-out use of your skills and abilities…