Shenmue II is like a long satisfying evening meal. It starts off with a tasty introduction to whet your appetite, and then slowly eases you in till you can’t help but indulge yourself in the delights of what you have been presented. Then there’s the ending which might leave you bloated and uncomfortable but will have you simply wanting more. Shenmue II is epic in every sense of the word, from the sprawling cities to the achingly beautiful musical score; the game just oozes quality and is arguably one of the most important releases in the Dreamcast’s limited lifespan. Being the sequel to one of the most loved and loathed titles of the last generation, there were a lot of expectations and excitement leading up to release. This added with news that the title wouldn’t see the light of day in the USA; made those last remaining fans feel special that they would be able to experience the game in its original form before anyone else.
Following directly from where Ryo Hazuki’s first opus left off, we see our stilted protagonist arrive shore side of the hustling metropolis Hong Kong in hope of finding absolution through revenge. Those familiar with the first game will know all about Lan Di and his nefarious reputation, one that has branched beyond Shenmue even and into gamings most revered antagonists. This is where the base of Shenmue’s narrative starts and hopefully will one day ‘end’. After spending much of the first adventure digging for clue’s on his killers whereabouts with the help of a rich Chinese trader named ‘Master Chen’, his investigations have led him to the dangerous streets of Aberdeen, Hong Kong. This is not the only locale in Shenmue II however, as the story progresses you will see the likes of fortress city ‘Kowloon’ and a beautiful remote village named ‘Guilin’ which plays host to the game’s emotionally crippling cliff-hanger.
First impressions of Shenmue II are that it appears to control almost identically to its predecessor, however there have been several tweaks to the overall structure. For example; one of the big attractions of the first title was the seemingly open interactivity the game offered to its audience. Everything from telephones to wrist watches were fully usable and interactive, yet the sequel seems to move away from these features as a means of solving puzzles and tends to focus more on exploration, talking and tedious mini-games in order to make money. Not to say there isn’t any freedom within the game’s virtual playground, you will still frequently have to check underpants draws for items and scale every nook and cranny for any sign of clues. Finding a key in a towel basket or a hip-hop tape in a desk draw was one of the many joys of Shenmue but to say that the sequels transition into a more explorative game isn’t a welcome addition would be a lie.
Criticisms of the series in the past have often been directed at its almost static animation and its reflection in the controls, Ryo still walks like a robot as well talks like one but at least he is a little more user friendly this time round. Walking is assigned to the D-pad and running to the right trigger, this control scheme certainly works well but after playing many modern games where the analogue sticks offer total freedom over the characters movement, it does feel a little archaic. What’s brilliant about it though is the endless number of things to do, within the first half hour of the game I’d bought a cigarette lighter I will never use, enjoyed a terrible j-pop song on my Walkman, battered a member of the village people in an arm wrestle and helped a restaurant worker fix his wonky sign. Wonderful little touches like this added with the beautiful visuals and sense of adventure the game takes you on makes it such a thrill to play.
Looking back, the Dreamcast was never much of a powerhouse console. It just simply wasn’t around long enough to allow developers full optimization of its hardware. However, Shenmue II is easily the best example of what the console could do with a capable and dedicated set of programmers. Improving on the already lovely looking first title, the sequel takes things one step further with detailed character modeling, superb art direction and wondrous scale all taking front seat to make the experience as cinematic as possible. Improvements in textures and colour are immediately noticeable during the introduction; everything appears as if it’s had a gloss of varnish thrown over it which contrasts the firsts often cold and pale presentation. Director Yu Suzuki is obviously of the same breed as Hideo Kojima, as the cinematic influences are apparent from the start. The fantastic cinematography helps breathe tension and style into the frequent cinematics and when paired with the majestic musical score, it’s hard to be completely enthralled with dynamic mix of storytelling and visual brilliance.
QTE’s, remember those? Of course you do, they’re bloody everywhere now. Funnily enough if it wasn’t for dear old Shenmue its doubtful they would be anywhere near as popular in games as they are today. Running away from an angry statue in Resident Evil 4? That was Shenmue’s fault. Watching poor Lara Croft getting turned into mammary pâté because you didn’t mash X fast enough? Blame Shenmue. You love them or you hate them, but they are probably host to some of Shenmue II’s most shining moments. Being chased by an obese criminal mastermind and a chainsaw wielding transsexual probably would have been nowhere near as tense or physically draining had it not been a QTE moment. The simple thrill from seeing the outcome of your actions, or the acknowledgment you’ve finally beaten through a scene that’s thrashed you for hours is brilliantly satisfying. These moments also allow the game to show off more of its cinematic flare, in fact they often turn up when you least expect so it’s a good idea to have the controller handy.
One thing I’m forgetting, the combat system. Anybody familiar with the Virtua Fighter games will probably feel right at home here, taking into account that Shenmue was originally penned to be a VF RPG it only seemed right for Sega to use the same engine from the said series. As a means of being friendly to beat-em-up newbie’s the controls are somewhat watered down allowing a more manageable difficulty curve. The first few fights are usually just throwaways which you can get through by just mashing the A and B button (kick and punch respectively). It’s not all button mashing however, shortly into the adventure you are introduced to the quaint but beautiful master of Man-Mo temple ‘Xiuying Hong’, who begrudgingly takes Ryo in and helps him refine his fighting skills. Moments with Hong usually end up with a tutorial of some sort where you must attempt at pulling different attack patterns on her, she is a quick opponent and will not take kindly to button mashing, so it’s best to try and learn these moves as they become almost vital later on in the game.
Shenmue II is ultimately a lost gem; everything you loved about the original has been taken and refined with the result being one of the most daring and epic adventures of last generation. A fantastic cast of characters (well, maybe not Delin), seamless interaction with everything around you, a gripping Hollywood style narrative and a blockbuster musical score make this an experience like no other. Yes it has its flaws, but what game doesn’t? One part of the title completely blocks progression till you have a sufficient amount of Yen, this means finding employment or spending hours gambling only to end up with as much money as when you started. This is quite easily the lowest and most tedious section of the game but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience, the rest of the title is just too enjoyable to be broken by such a petite issue. The Dreamcast version of the game only carries the Japanese voice track and English subtitles, however there is also an Xbox port which contains a localized dubbing. It’s generally advised against this version though as it contains some of the downright worst voice work ever recorded. Overall, Shenmue II is for the fans, it’s not likely to attract new fans nor has it broken new ground in the genre but it’s undoubtedly a memorable and special experience. New to the series? Pick up the first game cheap. Loved that? Track down your own copy of this and get ready to be glued to your TV for days.