"There's so much stuff — some of it optional, plenty of it completely missable — and it's delivered with such wild abandon that the game achieves that hallowed status of being unpredictable."
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II reminds me of a time when developers didn't worry about whether the majority of gamers would experience a particular element hidden deep in the folds of a dense virtual world. In other words, Van Helsing II isn't cheap. There may be technical bugs, errors in the script, and minor balance issues, but Van Helsing II never feels like a product manufactured from a few elementary parts repeated until the husk of a game is complete. I had a little flashback to the days of the Infinity Engine. There's a glimpse of old magic here, without any pretention or striving for nostalgia: it is what it is and it's proud of it.
It's that old Borgovian magic.
Van Helsing II is the second in a planned trilogy of hack 'n' slash action RPGs starring the monster hunter and his phantom sidekick Lady Katarina. Van Helsing has been drawn into a conflict of weird science and weirder magic in Borgovia: a realm of steampunk, urban science fantasy in which just about anything can happen. And it's that setting, ripe for gaming pleasures, that enables Van Helsing II to be so much more than a Diablo clone. Flashy, clicky combat may be the focus, but Van Helsing II is dense with unique and rewarding content. There's so much stuff — some of it optional, plenty of it completely missable — and it's delivered with such wild abandon that the game achieves that hallowed status of being unpredictable.
It's this never knowing what's coming next that kept me playing, as well as the fast, fluid, wild mad combat (so much destruction, so many numbers!) and excellent character progression. Sometimes I wasn't sure which abilities granted me access to the next tier in the skill tree, but the abilities themselves are ingenious. I recommend the wizard class, whose offensive spells will have you juggling animate towers of flame, area of effect spells, and a variety of skills that require you to hold down activating buttons, aim with the mouse, or draw lines across the battlefield with the cursor, after which an orb of lightning will trace the path and shock all the weird machines, rat folk, and steampunk grotesques that oppose Van Helsing.
There's also Katarina the companion, who fights alongside the hero and boosts his abilities as she gains levels. There are optional tower defense style mini-games and a pet chimera to feed, train, and summon on the battlefield. Van Helsing can send captains and troops on military missions for material rewards. There are also several crafting systems in place that I didn't delve into too deeply, namely because I was afraid of the loot system. I dislike Diablo-style loot systems — so much junk and so little connection to it — but others will delight in the heaps of gold, potions, and treasure. I was never sure exactly what good (or bad) my equipment was doing, although there are some neat effects, such as a chance to teleport somewhere else on-screen when struck by an enemy.
There's just so much here, and most players might never experience half of it. You will miss secrets and pass up side quests, and pop culture references will be lost on you (everything from the ubiquitous Monty Python gag to the bit more obscure, but priceless Witcher reference). The level design encourages exploration and rarely feels like randomly generated corridors in which to battle hordes of randomly generated monsters. The dialogue is campy and cheesy and maybe even a little poignant, and there are so many little mechanics and systems at work to make Van Helsing who he is: auras, skills, abilities, and every manner of passive attributes. This isn't the usual carelessly crafted hack 'n' slasher, even if it is a bit messy and technically unstable.
It's a shame that Van Helsing II is neither a pretentious indie game nor a AAA Diablo-like, because it deserves the same chance to succeed. It's a small game developed by a small studio full of personality and weirdness, and unfortunately it isn't the kind of weird that trends. But there will always be fans. In an age of gleaming overproduced uglies and no fun, Serious Art indies, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II stands apart as something genuine and unique. It knows itself, and there's power in that. And you know what they say about the power of Borgovia.