When a game defines itself as ‘incredible’, even in an ironically epic tongue-in-cheek kinda way, it’s setting a certain level of expectation. And while it might not be entirely incredible, this one is still pretty awesome.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II (IAVH) is a top-down hack-and-slash RPG with strong steampunk, noir and Gothic vibes. Makes sense, really, since you play as the son of original vampire-hunter Van Helsing, from Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic Dracula. You’re a sword-wielding, gun-toting, magick-dealing hunter, aided by sassy NPC spectre Katerina, on a quest to stop a supremely evil monster army taking over the desolate land of Borgova… So the game’s link to its literary influence is loose, at best, not to mention incredibly basic. One major plus, though, is that while it’s best to play the original game first, for those that don’t, it isn’t confusing, and it’s easy to pick up the events of the first game.
When you start, you’ll choose one of these classes; for our initial play through, we played as the traditional hunter, with access to guns, melee weapons and limited magic. Players are also given the option of playing as the Thaumaturge combat mage and the deadly gadget master, the Arcane Mechanic.
As a hack-and-slash, IAVH performs incredibly well as you mash X to cut down enemies or fire all manner of guns at them, with pistols, rifles and blunderbusses all available in chests or at the store. The simple nature reminds us of an arcade game. And yet…
Unlike an arcade game, the map for the buttons is far from intuitive – they can be fiddly at times: clicking right stick to switch between blades and bullets, LB for the more damaging Rage attack. And it’s a jolt to realise you press LT to interact with the world, rather than the more natural A (here used for your magic blade attack). They’re not bad, and once orientated with the control layout, it becomes ludicrously effortless to prove yourself a formidable foe against waves of enemies.
But you can see what developer NeocoreGames is doing here. Despite a surprisingly in-depth RPG mechanic, it’s as if it’s designed to keep you out of the menus and on the battlefield. If you’re in any doubt, note that the game world doesn’t pause when you go into your inventory, or unlock a perk. This is The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, not The Loadout Management of Van Helsing.
When you do venture into the menus, it’s either to equip a new item of clothing that increases your stats, pass over items to your companion, Katerina, or sorting out your skills, perks and levels. In this area, IAVH performs very well. We were concerned, at first, that less attention might be been paid here, that the experience would be hollow and unfulfilling, but our irrational phobia of tacked-on role-play mechanics were unfounded.
The RPG elements aren’t exhaustive, but there’s still a vast number of options that keep you utterly engaged. With a game so focused on bopping the supernatural, that’s a serious relief, whether it’s upping your main stats – defence, attack, luck and magic – or unlocking skills that offer, amongst other things, lightning-infused blades, strong melee attacks, and traps.
The result of this detailed, but not – importantly – overwhelming skilling up is that you always feel you’re in control. Plenty of games with RPG at their heart can feel overstuffed with skill tree choices that just aren’t viable or helpful. Here everything is so wonderfully balanced that it leaves you feeling as if you’re actually building the character best suited to your playstyle. Better yet, you can level up your spectral companion, ensuring that you create a duo that works for you.
Enjoying your time spent in the world is helped by the contrast between the bleak Borgova and the humorous tone of the dialogue, splendidly delivered by the voice actors. There’s no Borderlands-style unsubtlety, but rather joke-laden, machine-gun fire banter between characters, particularly Van Helsing and Katerina, who play off each other like Lemmon and Matthau, Bogart and Bacall. This is where the game is most recognisably noir-ish, dropping gags into fast-paced Chandler-esque lines that keep the story speeding along as swiftly as the combat.
Overall, The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II is jam-packed with things to do, but never to the point where it becomes a chore. Beyond the main questline, there are side missions, a tower defence mini-game, and a couple of online modes: co-op and PVP, neither of which offer much to players, and frankly feel like after-thoughts. Still, altogether, these extras keep your stay in Borgova interesting and enjoyable, but not unwelcomingly long.
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II is available now in the Xbox Store, priced £11.99.
An appealing action RPG that’s well-balanced and humorous. Not incredible, but still awesome.
Pros: Plenty to keep RPG fans immersed. Tons of in-game activities. And wicked-smart banter that never feels too forced.
Cons: Controller layout is unintuitive. Multiplayer offers little. Simplistic story that could’ve meant just that little bit more.