Back in the days when analogue controllers were first becoming widely available for consoles, primarily with the advent of the Dual Shock pad for the PS1, I remember thinking precise controls for top down games would work really well. Surprisingly, over the years, not many ARPGS made the leap to consoles. We had Diablo on the PS1, but since then it’s been rather sporadic. We never got Diablo II, or the original Sacred, or the superb (and ripe for ‘consoling’) Titan Quest. We never even got the low-budget games, such as Silverfall. Sacred 2 made the leap, and I’m grateful for that, having put over 250 hours into the Xbox 360 version, as did the superb Torchlight. Then came a handful of rather hit and miss download only titles; an average bunch at best.
Over in PC land, a trilogy of games about a famous monster hunter began making the rounds, and garnered some attention via word of mouth and Steam Sales. After quite a while, the first part of that trilogy – The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing – was ported to consoles. And here, at long last, we have the second part of the trilogy, aptly suffixed ‘II’. So, how does it fare?
It all seemed so simple: defeat the mad scientist, free the land and ride into the sunset, but sometimes the fall of a villain only opens the way to more sinister foes. So the incredible adventures continue, and Van Helsing, the famous monster-hunter returns to save the day again with the help of his charming companion, Lady Katarina. The gothic metropolis of weird science is on the brink of destruction as chaos rules the streets and a new enemy plots revenge. It’s time to enter the dark side of Borgovia and the forbidden wilderness, but beware: you are not the only one behind a mask… So says the games press release, at any rate.
By and large, it’s the exact same game as the first one. Of course the locations are different and the story continues on, but the gameplay, graphics, sound and physics remain unchanged. A game which looks so average running on the Xbox One shouldn’t stutter and stall, and when playing the original it was one of the first things which ground my gears: The badly optimised Unity engine running in a jarring, stop-start fashion. You would think the developers would have taken the time between releases to polish this for a console release, but no, it’s exactly the same here.
There are some great diversions to the hack n slash formula to be found in the sequel however. There’s a tower defence game of sorts, with enemies invading in waves. You have the opportunity to defend your Lair and other strategic locations with deployable traps and several upgradable functions to ward off evil, presented as optional side quests.
Thankfully, the gameplay is nice, tight and responsive, and having the option to import your character from part I means you can develop your slightly convoluted mix of skills, perks, companion skills and stats even further. This remains as confusing as ever, though, with skills having passive and active modifiers which can be leveled up to provide additional effects in battle, which are preloaded with the right thumbstick and then unleashed via a hit on LB. Once you get this technique down, it can prove deeply tactical and provide an edge in battle, but it’s explained very poorly in-game.
Unfortunately, this tends to be a running theme with the series. There’s a lot of really cool stuff and genuinely unique ideas running through it, but the obtusely explained tutorials are very little help. For the first few hours, you’ll find yourself bumbling through the game having no idea what you’re doing aside from switching between basic ranged and melee attacks.
This is a huge shame, as beneath the stuttering game engine and rubbish tutorials, there’s a game ripe with invention, fantastic features and a massively flexible character builder. The way you can rearrange skills to suit your own play style is unmatched, even by the juggernaut that is Diablo III. With perseverance, you’ll have a moment of clarity where it suddenly clicks, and you realise everything you’re trying to do is working as it should. It’s a Eureka moment, and it changes the game completely – you are no longer the sheep, you are the shepherd, and your skills are your flock, obeying your every command and doing exactly what you want them to. The real issue is, many people won’t persevere until that point, as the confusion will lead to frustration which in turn will lead to uninstalling the game.
For those of us who do stick with it, there are a lot of really cool ideas which break up the ARPG kill ‘n’ loot grind. You have a companion with you, with her own set of skills, for the entire game. You can edit her default behaviour in a surprisingly deep way, changing her AI routines so she is more of a healer, or a defensive guardian. If you like you can make her your aggressive sheepdog, charging into battle to take down the strongest foes first.
There’s multiplayer here to, for those who get occasionally lonely: You and your friends can test your skills against each other via the PVP mode, or join forces and complete the story in the co-operative campaign for up to four players.
All-in-all, what we have here is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a game where the developer’s ideas outshine their ability to explain them to the player. A game where the budget doesn’t match the ambition. A game with hidden depths and amazing tactical options which remain obscurely hidden behind an almost impenetrable wall. It’s no good having a game which does so much so well, only to keep it hidden beneath layers of obfuscation. With a little more time spent teaching the player how it all works, this could have been an awesome experience.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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