One of my favorite genres is the hack n’ slash action RPG. The mix of progression, loot gathering and wading through hundreds of hapless foes can keep me entertained for hours. Sure, Diablo III is probably the pinnacle of that, but I’ve enjoyed many others as well — Torchlight, Dungeon Siege III, Divinity: Original Sin, Deathspank and so on.
Into that world comes NeocoreGames’ The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II onto the Xbox One; it’s a worthwhile endeavor to bring it over from PC after the first game in the series launched as part of Xbox Live’s Games with Gold program and was therefore free to download. Now let’s see if it’s worth dropping real dollars to experience the sequel.
In one sense, Van Helsing handles like most games of its ilk: you have a base attack and then several specialized strikes and magic, many of which operate on cooldown timers, mapped to the other face and shoulder buttons. In a unique twist, you’re able to switch between melee and ranged combat on the fly by simply clicking the left stick, and each setup has its own associated abilities.
Although that’s cool, the absence of a dodge feature feels like a bizarre omission; one that when added to the fact that you cannot move when swinging your blade or firing your gun makes Van Helsing feel like a ponderous oaf destined to stand toe to toe with monsters. That lack of maneuverability is a real issue when squaring off against Van Helsing‘s massive mobs.
There’s also a lot to digest, and the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining it to you. There are pages of skills and perks and tricks to keep track of, all complete with miniscule text, and it comes across as overwhelming. That feeling dissipates to a degree over time, but even after hours and hours of wading through the game’s various modes I still feel like I’m missing some level of nuance.
Aesthetically, Van Helsing II offers little to suggest it couldn’t have comfortably launched on the Xbox 360 a couple of years ago. Level design and variety isn’t the culprit, it’s the muddy textures and underwhelming combat effects that diminish the visuals. There’s jerkiness to the animations as well; not to mention frame rate drops that should absolutely not be happening on the XB1.
Voice acting is… I guess, hammy? There are all manner of groan-inducing jokes and outdated pop culture references — kinda like MTV’s Shannara Chronicles where there’s a weird mix of modern and sci-fi dialogue. The soundtrack is generic as generic gets. You’ll likely be hard pressed to remember even a bar or two the moment you power down.
Van Helsing II picks up immediately after the original left off. You and your sassy ghost companion Lady Katarina are continuing to fight the good fight to protect the fictional steampunk realm of Borgovia with the help (?) of the mysterious Prisoner Seven, who provides Van Helsing with critical information but whose own motives are, uh, unclear, to say the least.
Although most ARPGs keep story elements pretty basic, Van Helsing II actually contains quite a bit of exposition, largely via in-game conversations between Van Helsing and Katarina. Granted, it’s nothing remarkable, but it provides more context for your adventures than many ARPGs.
Those that played the original have the option to import their character, while newcomers can start from scratch of create one at Level 30. Multiple classes are available from the start as well — as opposed to being offered as DLC — and you can choose from the Hunter, Arcane Mechanic and Thaumaturge. Each class handles differently, and the amount of customization at your fingertips is impressive.
This customization doesn’t just apply to your character, as Katarina can also be molded to play whatever style you’d like. I chose to make her the de facto tank while my Hunter-based Van Helsing chipped away at range and selectively dipped into melee combat. Allowing players to tailor their development to match their gameplay preferences is the game’s greatest strength.
Unfortunately, Van Helsing II has some significant weakness as well. Overwhelming you with sheer numbers seems to be the game’s only method of providing a challenge, and that leads to some major difficulty spikes where you’ll be cruising along and then suddenly get crushed in the same spot a dozen times while barely making a dent. Respawning only costs gold, but it just feels unfair.
Co-op play is also pretty spotty. The aforementioned frame rate drops from single-player endeavors are even more frequent with a buddy tagging along, and the game had a tendency to crash. Granted, the game auto-saves your progress liberally, but these hiccups still happen too frequently.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II is a decent enough game, offering lots of content, loot and customization options, but it would’ve been markedly better with less restrictive movement and a stable frame rate.