Back to Borgovia
Monsters need slaying and evil needs to be defeated. It’s the black and white nature of the age old conflict between good and evil. The Van Helsing family - bent as they may be - have long been at the forefront of that fight and Van Helsing’s offspring cannot avoid joining sides. In Van Helsing, the player was tasked with dealing with a mad scientist who was trying to take over Borgovia. He would have succeeded if it had not been for your intervention, but killing this professor Fulminati merely made way for one of his henchmen to take over the evil empire that he had been trying to establish. The machine-horde, now led by General Harker, is back and banging on the gates of Borgovia’s main city, Borgova. Guess who is the only one who can stop them?
Never missing a stride
It would be easy to mistake Van Helsing II for being an expansion to 2013’s original. It looks very similar, uses the same engine and updated versions of the original’s bestiary can be found throughout. Fortunately, the sense that it is ‘just’ an expansion starts to evaporate almost the moment you step into the game and is completely gone by the time you’re half-way through the second chapter.
Things start off with a bang. Harker’s forces have just arrived at the city gates and the city’s defenses are a shambles. Defending a city is not a one-man task, not even when that man is joined by the equally deadly as lovely and ever bantering ghost Katarina. Borgova’s inhabitants have rallied against Harker’s invading army and are looking at you to organise a defense. Using your best judgement, you give orders to hold their position or ask for reinforcements from your lair. A variety of sidequests, whose successful completion further alter the outcome of the battle, pop up at regular intervals. And just when you think you can stop running around destroying bridges and ordering gun turrets to be placed at ad-hoc fortifications, the enemy swarms into the city and you’re up to your neck in mechanized baddies.
Combat consists of the same fluid, frantic and over the top battles we’ve come to know and love from the original. When your character is built right, you will find yourself in a flow, dispatching monsters left, right and center. The tongue-in-cheek bestiary has again been expanded upon, featuring illustrious zombies that shoot electrical bolts - that I mentally dubbed “failed Palpatines” - and ‘Mouth things’ that lash out at you with their fleshy tongues. And just when you thought the kinship between a throng of annoying small rodents and Zerglings is a figment of your imagination, you see a swarm of Overminds coming at you to seal the deal.
The opening scene is an intoxicating mix of action and strategy that sets the tone for the rest of the game. Soon after, Van Helsing returns to his underground lair, traditionally a place where you can relax and plan, but this time around the pressure stays on at all times. Word of Harker’s forces invading the tunnels beneath the city in an effort to find the lair reaches you even when you are out on missions, instilling a sense of urgency that is maintained throughout the game. More than once, I temporarily abandoned my quest to rush back home so that I could keep the lair from being discovered.
These defensive missions blend Tower Defense mechanics with Van Helsing’s normal hack and slash style gameplay. Waves upon waves of beasts, apparently led by Horny the Horned reaper, attempt to break through to your lair along pre-determined paths. By setting up traps along the route and actively defending whenever the enemies break through, your aim is to deflect the incoming waves. It is essentially a mini-game, but woven so well into the very fabric of Van Helsing’s normal gameplay that it feels like a natural extension.
In a similar fashion, a small group of specialists are available to lead resistance fighters on guerilla-warfare missions that are working to weaken Harker’s army. Each of these specialists can draw from a number of skills such as stealth, melee, defense and diplomacy. Depending on their skill levels, one is the perfect man to lead your soldiers to destroy a group of enemy mortars while another is best suited to convince a rogue scientist to join your ranks.They’ll bring back relics that can be beneficial to your cause, take care of some of the tunnel incursions and more.
All this diversity in gameplay is dished out with a perfectly measured hand. Just when you’ve had your fill of cutting your way through Van Helsing II’s imaginative roster of monstrosities, commander Petrov tells you about a tunnel invasion, or you are notified that your new pet Chimera has returned from his hunting trip and in need of some TLC.
Yet the true hero of Van Helsing II is its storyline. Together with the ever present sense of urgency, it is the story that keeps you at the edge of your seat. Where I could easily step away from the original Van Helsing, I was unable to tear myself away from its sequel. The story is much more fleshed out than in the original and supported by additional interludes in the form of movies and in-game cutscenes.
Much of the immersiveness can be contributed to a newly introduced character, Prisoner Seven. This mysterious character claims to be on your side and continuously reminds you of just how weakened he has become during his imprisonment. So weak, in fact, that he even cannot remember his real name. He has a habit of turning up when you least expect him and when he does, he spins tales of impending doom, ushering in new plotline missions and thus furthering the story. In his defense, he does tell you how particular problems can be solved and his services are infinitely useful. Yet Katarina’s snide remarks whenever Seven shows up emphasize the possibility that he has a hidden agenda of his own and cannot be trusted.
Van Helsing II eclipses its predecessor in almost every way. Where the original game depended on fast, action-packed combat to entertain the player, Van Helsing II is a much more refined game and successfully leans onto a better story. The hectic, satisfying hack and slash gameplay of the original game is augmented with cleverly disguised mini-games that offer a level of gameplay diversity seldom found in Action-RPGS. The result is such an intense game that at times I saw my character level up thrice before taking time to spend the points. If that isn’t a recommendation to go out and buy this game, I don’t know what is.
Fast and fluid combat, involving storyline.
A few small text bugs that will no doubt be corrected soon after launch.