It shall appear from a far eastern land across the sea...
Nearly three years have passed since Yu Suzuki's brainchild was first unveiled into the gaming world. Captivating the imaginations and countless hours of gamers across the planet, the first Shenmue game was a visually charged and powerful masterpiece; a game that had not been realized on consoles in recent years. It included an engrossing storyline, realistic graphics, charming and memorable characters, a city brimful with exploration, and more on top of that. To say the least, it was the type of game that only a creator with such groundbreaking titles as Virtua Fighter and Hang-On under his belt could come up with. While the $70 million budget it reportedly took to develop the game was staggering, the game's sales were not so. You would expect that a title of such magnitude would have impressive sales numbers but unfortunately that was not the case.
While the first game was released, rumors were flying abound that further chapters (the story is broken up into 16 chapters) had already been finished. So what was the reason that only Chapter I was released so far? Sega of Japan apparently requested that the game was to be released before the hectic holiday season, thus we received a shortened first game. Yu Suzuki being determined to finish the series, strong sales or not, continued with creating further chapters and here we are discussing the sequel to one of the greatest games ever created.
Originally planned for release on the then dying Dreamcast console, Shenmue II was first released in Japan of course. Sales were medial, but Sega had its eyes set on Europe and the USA, where the first game seemed to develop quite a fan following. Knowing they would not be going big in the black on this title, Sega opted to not finance the addition of an English dialogue dub, thus keeping the original Japanese language track intact. For some this might have been good news (the underground anime crowd was surely pleased), while others would most likely have been disappointed, which could potentially lead to low sales.
Prior to the game's scheduled release in North America, Microsoft apparently struck a deal with Sega to publish this epic on their console. Shenmue II ended up being exclusive to the Xbox in North America, while Europe still retained the right to have the game released over in their side of the world. In time it was announced that the game would come with enhancements, such as an English dub exclusive to this version (the European game had subtitles), enhanced graphics and some more features. Good plan to hook Sega fanboys to the Microsoft machine? Definitely.
On top of these alluring extras, the fact remained that this was a sequel to a game that was not published on the same console. This was realized by both sides, so a deal was struck which would package in a DVD of Shenmue The Movie in every copy of the game so that newcomers would not be lost in the story. Shenmue The Movie is basically a 90-minute long film compromised of cutscenes from the first game. The models and graphics in the move are slightly enhanced from the Dreamcast game, with featuring a sharper and crisper picture. While a port of the original Shenmue would have been a wiser idea to introduce people to the game, obviously it would have consumed too much time and money to port it along with the sequel.
So what is this whole saga about anyway, you ask? You assume the role of Ryo Hazuki, the main protagonist in this series. As we found out in Chapter I of the series, a mysterious martial arts master going by the name of Lan Di entered the Hazuki dojo in Japan. He brawled with Ryo's father Iwao, and using an unknown fighting style he delivers a deadly blow leaving him to die in Ryo's arms. Prior to his departure, he takes with him one of two mysterious mirrors that have been hidden near the residence. This guy is obviously guilty of a breach of the peace so now Ryo is out to find him and exact revenge, learning about those mirrors in the process. After numerous hindrances in Japan, Ryo boarded a ship headed to Hong Kong and now he's off to continue his quest, sadly sans hungry kitten this time around.
[ Gameplay ] - 4/5
Let's start off with the basics of Shenmue first. This is a game that is supposed to mimic life; you jump in the role of Ryo and live day by day doing what you have to do in order to figure out clues leading to your father's murder. Time passes like in real life, although a minute of game time is equivalent to seconds of real time, and you will wake up early in the morn and have a set time during which you'll go back to wherever it is you're sleeping. Along the way you will have some drudging to perform and basically some people might tend to feel that living their real life and then playing a game where life is essentially simulated can get a little bit tedious. You are expected to stay on the trail leading up to your father's killer which will include some required tasks similar to chores (such as carrying stacks of books or dusting temple walls), but you are recommended to dissipate once in a while and enjoy your surroundings. In any case, it's safe to say that one person will absolutely fall in love with the game, while the next would not touch it after trying it once. In the end it all comes down to a matter of taste and what type of gamer you are.
For those new to the series, the gameplay of Shenmue II is a mixed bag. Each of the individual styles have their ups and downs, and add a lot to the series in terms of integrating various styles of gameplay, something which generally is a gimmick and is seldom done properly. There's something here for everybody and it relieves the game of monotony.
The most common mode you will encounter in the game is named Free Quest, which is the type you will spend the most time playing and which also happens to be the exploration and detective part of the game. Here you are required to grill the 1000+ unique citizens (no, a zero was not mistakenly added) of the towns you visit to figure out clues which will help you progress in the story. You are free to visit shops, purchase those significant capsule toys, talk to some friends or hook up some cash by going to the neighborhood pier and carrying some crates (not a pleasing task, might I add). Clues and story plots will be revealed at a slow pace, so patience is required when jumping into this particular game (read: GTA addicts looking for a quick gaming fix need not apply).
The second type of gameplay, often catching you by surprise and testing your reflexes, is called QTE, short for Quick Timer Events. During particular events command prompts will be displayed on-screen requiring you to input them with the controller in a quick burst of thought and action. A fair test of hand-eye coordination and a revival of gameplay from such classics as Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, though Shenmue brings a tad bit of excitement to the table. A more advanced version of the QTE has also been added to the sequel, named Command QTE, in which you need to input the buttons in a specific order which flashes on-screen.
Free Battle is the final game type in Shenmue II, and it is proclaimed as the most exciting by many. Whenever impetuous Ryo gets in the least bit of trouble he always seems to wind up in a fight, so you've got to save the poor guy. This particular mode plays out like a simplified Virtua Fighter -- meaning the control and battle system closely resembles that of Suzuki's second contrivance. You'll be able to punch, kick, and throw, at your leisure and ''freely'' as the name implies.
The game is merciful with the latter modes, allowing you to retry whenever you fail a Free Battle fight or aren't mentally hasty enough to input a QTE command in time. Also for gamers' convenience, you can save your progress at any point in Shenmue II. This is helpful for those times when you must save right away and you've no time to go back to some specific place to do that (i.e., girlfriend wakes up at 4 a.m. and is about to notice you've been staying up all night playing a video game).
If you've had enough of free questing and searching for that particular someone to tell you about that other someone, take a break. Slow down. Enjoy the environments and go through the game at a calm pace. There are many distractions that have been added to entrap you in Shenmue's world, the most prolific being mini-games. At your selection are perfect emulations of Yu Suzuki AM2 classics such as Hang-On, Afterburner II, Outrun, and Space Harrier. You can find these in various places scattered across the towns you will visit, and unfortunately there is not one arcade in the whole game that features every playable mini-game so you are forced to search around.
There are also a few original games thrown in for good measure such as ones that test your reflexes with QTE commands, a dart game, or the inclusion of gambling and free battle fights which are new in the sequel. Ryo starts out the game with a small amount of cash and to progress through the game you will have to fatten that wallet up a tad. You can select from a plethora of dice games which can have an impressive payout, step up to the arm-wrestling stands which are based on the furious button-mashing gameplay of old, and even try your luck with pachinko-like stands. Not those? How about you pit yourself against an opponent in one of the free battles type fights, which have requirements you need to perform to win (i.e., avoid your opponent's grasps, or defeat him using a throw). In either case, there are a lot of fun and interesting ways to distract you from your main quest and let you enjoy the exploration factor of Shenmue II. Also, once you play a mini-game they are recorded in the Shenmue Collection, meaning you can access them anytime conveniently from the main menu.
An exclusive feature that has been added to the Xbox version is a Snap-shot mode which lets you capture Kodak moments you might encounter throughout your journey. With a press of a button you can photograph any scene in the game which will then be automatically saved to the Xbox hard drive. You are limited to only 126 photos for some reason, and expect to fill your album up quickly. You'll come across many memorable moments and it's a fun diversion from the main tasks the game has you doing. As a bonus, once you photograph all of the characters listed on one of the six secrets pages of your album, you will unlock a special extra only attainable through taking these snapshots. Surprisingly enough this feature adds much replay value to the game and you'll find yourself framing shots and switching off between filters (more on these later) to get the best look.
Some minor upgrades that have been thrown in to the pack on the Xbox release include such incentives as reduced slowdown, which was a frequent gripe with the Dreamcast versions. Since the Xbox is a console steered towards the next-generation of games, it should have no problem handling a multitude of characters on screen at once, thus we get no slowdown for the majority of the time though it does pop-up from time to time. The next significant improvement made was reduced loading time, which was a very common complaint with the series on Dreamcast. Areas took 6-8 seconds to load when you entered or left shops, and this has all been remedied with the use of the Xbox hard drive and DVD format. While not providing instantaneous loading, the time is reduced so you don't have to suffer through that dull black screen with white text.
[ Graphics ] - 5/5
Grievances having to do with the game's graphical presentation have been spreading like wildfire. What potential buyers have to realize is that this is a port of a Dreamcast game. This is not the worst case scenario, since the Dreamcast was a very powerful system that surprised many, but such a game will not have the pleasing eye candy that high-caliber titles as Halo or Splinter Cell provide. To put it simply though, Shenmue II features graphics that could put some low-profile PlayStation 2 games to shame. Sega's terminal console packed a punch and it's evident in the groundwork of Shenmue II, which AM2 enhanced to slightly improve the game's visuals. Not having played the original incarnation of the game, let me just say that there were moments when I was stunned by the graphics, thought they were few and far between.
According to interviews and speculation, few changes have been made to this version in terms of graphics. It is touted that polygon count has been increased on few of the main characters, which is considerably evident on Ryo particularly. The NPC characters still flutter their blocky hands, smile at you jeeringly with their blandly textured faces, and at times move in a jerking manner, but since we were graced with one thousand of these then we should not voice complaints. Water textures have been vastly improved thus beautifying the surface and adding realistic movement, along with draw distance which comes in handy when trying to identify locations throughout your quest.
On top of all these extras, AM2 has also thrown in comely lighting upgrades in various situations. First off the colors now seem to have more saturation to them, producing a vibrant pop at every corner of the streets and also giving the towns a certain vivacity. A big change of direction in the graphics department though was the use of excessive lighting during night-time scenes, in order to give off a wonderful Hong Kong-esque look. The lighting provides a certain aura around characters and makes the color saturation kick in, adding a certain mood to the crowded city streets. Though Hong Kong does have a very distinctive look to it provided by the plethora of neon signs gracing the storefronts, I wasn't aware that Ryo was able to glow inside of a shop as well. Must be the fluorescent lamps.
As yet another bonus, the Xbox version features an exclusive filter mode. These visual filters let you switch off between five different types; the default -- and best looking, reduced color and light, yellow tone, sepia, and black-and-white. Even though you will usually find yourself using the default filter, the others choices provide some welcomed variety to the previously mentioned snapshot mode and amateur photographers will surely be caught switching between filters to find that best shot.
All pleasantries aside, not everything is swell and well in the visual portion of the game. There are still a number of problems, the most notable being the character fade-in. Whenever you approach a throng of people, most common in Kowloon, the Xbox needs to load the textures onto the characters that are to stroll the streets. As it does so, the characters fade-in from emptiness, almost as ghosts. While this is no big deal really, it may come as a distraction to some. The rest of the complaints really focus on what changes could have been, since there was a hefty wait from the buyout of the game until the actual release. Even more polygons would have been welcomed, as well as improved texturing and a speedy frame-rate.
[ Sounds ] -4/5
Shenmue II's aural experience can be memorable at points, while tolerable at others. The game features an amazing score that captivates the drama and emotion of the saga perfectly, and this is an extremely captivating element. You will be stunned at scenes almost poetically flowing together combining an uplifting song and striking visuals. You will possibly find yourself at later points humming along to a theme you have heard previously in the game. Each shop and town has its own little distinctive song, ranging from lighthearted lilts to a more serene and relaxing jazz. The first installment of the series had an incredibly majestic and powerful score, and the sequel follows up perfectly with its own distinctive and memorable themes.
The clamor of negativity towards one specific aspect of Shenmue II is clear, though. That would have to be the oft-controversial voice acting, which is an ardent topic in video games; some games do it right and some don't. Unfortunately Shenmue II falls into the latter category. As you might already know, the game originally featured a Japanese language track. It was expected that Microsoft would fill up this DVD to the brim, but the the Japanese dub was omitted. Now this could have been a good thing, but the majority of English voice actors sound as if they were androids programmed to read off a script. Ryo sounds very arid throughout most of the game, which might turn some gamers off. This was always planned to be a cinematic gaming experience, but how many films have you seen where the protagonist spouts off all sorts of artificial dialogue? In comparison, the Japanese voices are much more sprightly than their English counterparts. Some sound effects are also very bland and generic, though they are mostly inaudible as the background music usually drowns them out.
Changes in the sound category from the Dreamcast release are not extensive as in the graphics department, but they definitely are prevalent. On top of the list is obviously the English dub which was recorded specifically for the Xbox release. Another change includes the addition of a 5.1 audio track to cutscenes, which will surely please audiophiles. Regular gameplay churns out 4 channel audio, which is standard nowadays, though transferring all of the game's audio into 5.1 would have been a welcomed touch.
[ Final Thoughts ]
I want anyone reading this to understand that Shenmue is not a game that everybody is guaranteed to enjoy. You need to try it out and see if it is indeed for you. If you are a newcomer to the series, I would recommend buying the game at a store which will allow a return, or borrowing the game from a friend. Merely renting it will not give you enough time to play through the expansive world, and returning the game unfinished will just turn you off from playing again later on and enjoying the series. For those who are acquainted with Shenmue, this is pretty much the same game you have played before, but now you have immense areas to explore, a more rapidly developing story, all-new drinks to purchase from vending machines, and much more.
Shenmue turned out to be a very ambitious series, and in some points achieved what it strove to do. It created an engulfing world filled with hundreds of interactive characters, simulated the daily tasks and experiences in two different countries, integrated three dissimilar types of gameplay, and on top of all that it engrossed us in a gripping story filled with emotion and drama. The game allows us to experience how life in Asian countries might be like, and there is no better (or cheaper) way to do this than through a game with such an immense amount of exploration and interaction. Love it or loathe it, Shenmue II is a classic representation of story-driven gaming, and no Xbox gamer should go without experiencing it.