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The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II is the follow-up to last year's The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, where Van Helsing and his ghostly companion Lady Katarina defeated the evil Professor Fulmigati and saved the day in Borgovia -- or at least so it seemed. As the sequel opens up, you learn that Fulmigati's army is still out there, and that a certain General Harker is rallying them together, with potential dire consequences for Van Helsing, Katarina, and the Resistance to which they belong. That means there aren't any glorious sunsets for you yet. You have to re-equip your monster-hunting gear and deal with another would-be boss.
Van Helsing II comes with two campaigns. The "normal" campaign is for new characters, where you start out at level 1 and end up around level 30. But there is also a "veteran" campaign, where the enemies are 30 levels higher and you can reach level 60. That gives you some options for picking a character to play in the game. You can create a new level 1 character, you can create a new level 30 character, you can play a pre-generated level 30 character, or you can import your character from the original Van Helsing. Van Helsing II includes all of the equipment and DLC content from the original game, and the translation process between the two games seems to be smooth, so it's easy to jump right back in and start playing.
Characters in Van Helsing II come in three flavors. Hunters are the most versatile class, and they focus on guns or melee weapons or some combination of the two. Arcane Mechanics are engineers, and they rely on grenade launchers and mechanical companions. Thaumaturges are casters, and they defeat enemies using a variety of elemental spells. Each class gets its own skill tree, and these trees aren't shared. So if you pick a Hunter, for example, you can only learn Hunter skills.
Along with skills, each character also has four attributes: Strength (for melee damage), Dexterity (for ranged damage), Wisdom (for spells), and Luck (for critical hits). Each time a character gains a level, he receives five points for his attributes and three points for his skills. The attributes aren't very interesting because it's clear (more or less) how they should be prioritized. But there are all sorts of options for the skills, because each character has over 60 of them available, and you can't come anywhere close to learning them all. So two ranged hunters, for example, might not be anything alike, and there is plenty of room for discussing the "best" builds for the classes, which is always a good thing.
Characters also earn reputation points while playing (by defeating bosses and champion creatures), and these points can be used to purchase perks. Perks are bonuses that must be unlocked first. For example, the Gunslinger perk (which adds +7% to attack speed) only becomes available if you put 110 points into Dexterity. The original Van Helsing only allowed you to purchase 10 perks, but in Van Helsing II you can purchase 20, and there are over twice as many to choose from. You're also now allowed to reset your perks (although this can be difficult), so choosing poorly early in the game no longer necessarily cripples your character at the end.
Katarina can be developed as well, although she works differently than Van Helsing. Katarina is always a Hunter, but she can be set to use melee attacks or ranged attacks, or just follow along as a "ghost" (which gives Van Helsing an extra 10% damage reduction). Katarina also has a variety of skills, and like Van Helsing, she can't learn them all, which gives you lots of options for how to build her. In the original Van Helsing, Katarina's skills pretty much only made Van Helsing stronger, but now in Van Helsing II there is more of an even split, where half of the skills help Van Helsing and other half help Katarina.
Finally, there are a five difficulty settings for Van Helsing II, from "casual" to "fearless." There is also a "hardcore" option, where your character can only die once. I played the game on "hard," which is the middle setting. This made things reasonably tough at times, as I encountered a few bosses with tracking attacks who could one-shot my character. Some of these bosses (such as the kobold king) seemed buggy, but the others might be working properly, and combined they make the "hardcore" option seem a little pointless at the moment. The good news is, if you have trouble with one of the difficulty settings, you're allowed to change it at any time, so you can keep the game appropriate for your playing ability. You can also toggle an option for extra spawns to appear, and that can change the difficulty as well.
Van Helsing II uses roughly the same engine as the original Van Helsing, or at least the game looks about the same and has the same interface. You play using an isometric view of your surroundings, which surprisingly can't be rotated or otherwise adjusted in any way. You move Van Helsing by clicking where you want him to go, or by using the arrow keys. You attack primarily by using the mouse buttons, but you can also use the 1-6 keys. The Q key quaffs a health potion while the W key quaffs a mana potion. The 0 key allows you to use scrolls, which are new consumables that give you a temporary bonus (like invulnerability for 10 seconds). You can also press the spacebar to trigger a "powerup" attack, which becomes available after you've generated enough rage during a fight. And if you don't like the key assignments, you can change them in the interface. About the first thing I did when playing the game was switch the movement keys from the arrows to WASD. Supposedly controller support is coming soon, but it isn't available yet.
The campaign for Van Helsing II takes place in and around the city of Borgova. You still have your Secret Lair located in the sewers beneath the city, and that's where you do the majority of your shopping and quest-receiving. The tone of the game is a little more grim this time around -- since you're essentially fighting a war where you're vastly outnumbered -- but there are still moments of levity when Van Helsing and Katarina share some banter. There are a ton of pop culture references, from Sherlock Holmes to Batman to the Wizard of Oz, and there are any number of jokes referencing the first game as well, with broken bridges and crazy domovoys taking center stage.
For the most part, what you do in the game is kill stuff. Van Helsing II is still an action RPG, after all. Luckily, there are plenty of different enemies for you to deal with, and so the mayhem never gets stale. Some enemies cast spells on you while others use guns or clubs. Some enemies charge at you and knock you down, some breed other enemies, some target you so other enemies can deal more damage, some protect other enemies with a shield, some slow you down with their aura, and more. I'm pretty sure Van Helsing II includes all of the enemies from the original Van Helsing, plus at least that many (if not more) new enemies, and that's plenty of variety for the game's 20-hour playing time.
While killing monsters and completing quests, you of course also find equipment. The drop rate is lower than in the original game (only once did I come close to filling up my inventory), but this seems to be at the expense of normal (white) and magical (blue) items. Rare (yellow), unique (orange), and set (green) items are still plentiful. Van Helsing II includes all of the equipment from Van Helsing, plus roughly double that amount in new equipment, including somewhere around 20 new high-level sets.
Van Helsing II also has a variety of ways to manipulate your equipment. Some items allow essences to be inserted, where each essence gives a small bonus. All items can be enchanted by a merchant in the Secret Lair, and new in Van Helsing II, that merchant can now replace or reroll enchantments so you can fine-tune what your equipment does for you (assuming you can afford her prices). This is particularly useful for Katarina, since some enchantments (like Mana and Spellpower) don't do anything for her since she can't cast spells.
But the most interesting equipment change in Van Helsing II is the new rune system. If you go to a runecrafter and break down items, then you earn rune fragments, which you can combine together to form runes. If you then go to the runecrafter with a template item, all of the enchantments on the item are removed, three random ones are added, and you can add up to four more enchantments with your runes. This allows you to create some pretty powerful items, provided you don't mind dealing with about 100 different types of runes and rune fragments, and figuring out where to store them. Runecrafting is only available to veteran characters, and I'm still in the process of collecting runes, so I can't tell you yet just how worthwhile the crafting system is, although it certainly sounds useful.
One of the more unique features of Van Helsing was its tower defense mini-game, where you had to defend your Secret Lair from hordes of enemies. Well, developer Neocore Games has expanded upon this mini-game, and it shows up no less than five times during the Van Helsing II campaign. Each mini-game takes place on a different map, and while you only have 14 traps available to you, the maps remain interesting, mostly because you're extremely limited in how many "machine parts" you have available for constructing and upgrading traps. I almost always enjoy mini-games in RPGs, and the tower defense mini-games here are no exception. However, if they're not your cup of tea, you're allowed to skip them so you can get right back to the regular killing of monsters.
Another mini-game of sorts involves you running over 20 Resistance missions. Each mission is led by one of four captains, who control a collection of soldiers and equipment, which you can purchase before the missions start. Each time a captain succeeds in a mission, he gains a level, which allows you to improve one of his 13 skills, including Aggression, Reconnoiter, and Genius Defender. The higher your completion rating is for a mission, the better your reward at the end, which means if you want the best loot, you have to be careful about which captains you send, and when you send them. I never failed a mission, but I had a tough time earning "brilliant" ratings, and so the missions have a certain amount of replay value, depending upon how thorough you want to be.
Finally, you can meet a chimera during your travels, and it can level up and help you out as well. You can either treat the chimera as a secondary companion, where you summon it to battle every so often, or you can send it out on its own to defeat enemies and collect loot for you. The chimera must be fed (with essences) to maintain its energy, and you can also find candles that act as equipment for it. I mostly sent my chimera out to find loot, and it did a better job of collecting unique and set items than I did, which was sort of odd (and maybe needs balancing).
Sound and Graphics
Flat out, Van Helsing II doesn't look or sound like a budget game. The graphics are more than acceptable, with a nice variety to the enemies, locations, and spell effects. Even the equipment got an overhaul, with over twice as many icons as in the original game. I'd argue that Neocore Games too often likes to stick big things in the foreground, which gets in the way of trying to play the game, but there isn't anything wrong with the graphics engine, either technically or artistically. There are even some nice cut-scenes.
As for the sounds, once again Alex Warmer and Michelle Sparks do a wonderful job portraying Van Helsing and Lady Katarina, and it's strange that Neocore Games chose not to list them in the credits, since they're one of the highlights of the game. Some of the other actors are a little bit iffy, and sort of sound like they're reading their lines for the first time -- with the key word being "reading" rather than "acting." But heck, most budget games don't have any voice acting at all let alone every line voice acted. The music, meanwhile, is pleasant to listen to. I'm surprised that Neocore can survive only charging $15 for the game. In my mind they could be charging more, easily.
Unfortunately, Van Helsing II has numerous technical issues, and if there's a reason why you shouldn't buy the game -- at least not yet -- this is Exhibit A for the prosecution. Van Helsing II has been out for about a couple of weeks now, and despite Neocore releasing three hotfixes already, there are still people out there who can't get the game running. There are also bugs with multiplayer, rune-crafting, skills, quests, and more. If you go to the Steam forum page for the game and do a search on "bug," you get 115 pages of results. Of course, if you do a search on "good," you get back 91 pages, so it's not all negative.
Luckily, the worst thing that happened to me is that my copy of Norton Antivirus kept thinking that Van Helsing II's executable contained a virus, and it kept quarantining it. So I had to learn how to create exceptions for Norton so I could play. Given Neocore's track record, I'll be optimistic and predict that they fix most the things that can be fixed, but other issues, like excruciatingly long load times (which were also the case for me in the original Van Helsing), are probably here to stay.
Van Helsing II, like its predecessor, is a lot of fun to play. It doesn't travel far away from any action RPG standards, but it's consistently amusing, and it has enough variety that it never overstays its welcome. The campaign takes about 20 hours to complete, and if you repeat it on veteran and then play some of the level 60 content (where you can earn glory points and continue to improve your character), then that's 40+ hours of content right there, without even getting into multiplayer, where you can play co-op or pvp. And all of that only costs $15. So if you like action RPGs, and especially if you enjoyed the first Van Helsing, then there isn't any reason not to try out Van Helsing II, although you might want to wait for a major patch to come out first.