Try. This. Game.
Shenmue has to be one of the most overlooked games ever. Even though it's a masterful blend of RPG elements, action, free-roaming, mild puzzle-solving, and more, it's still not widely recognized. Sure you'll see it in pretty much all the "Top 100 Games of All Time" lists, but that doesn't help when no one knows what the hell it is. If you were to show someone a picture of Ryo, the name Shenmue would not pop into their head. Maybe something along the lines of "Why is this dude showing me a picture of another dude?", but to get an actual response would be too far and few between. It may be because of the weak advertising that Sega had put forth or just the fact that it doesn't appeal to the new casual "SHOOT EVERYTHING" demographic. The point I'm trying to make is that sales sucked.
Shenmue follows the story of a young man named Ryo Hazuki out to seek vengence for his father who was killed by a man shrouded in mystery, a man named Lan Di. Throughout both games, Ryo is involved in tracking down Lan Di. In the first Shenmue, Ryo is based in Yokosuka, Japan. Upon further investigating the mystery of his father's death, Ryo's snooping lead him to go to Hong Kong, where our story picks off.
Grapihcs: This game is a port, so if the graphics don't please you, then keep that in mind. By now, in the HD generation, looking at Shenmue would be like looking at a litter box. Textures are flat and some character models are lame (applies to NPCs), The main character models look sharper than in their Dreamcast counterparts and the lighting has been improved. This makes the game look fairly decent by our spoiled standards and considering it's nearly 10 years old makes it all the more impressive. The art direction, though, makes up for where the textures and models fall flat.. When you first reach Kowloon, you'll be captivated at the wonderfully framed camera angles showing off the walled city, along with the beautifully orchestrated music, it feels like you're actually a hawk zipping around in the sky. The detail to the culture is nothing short of inspiring, just imagining how much research had to be done to even get an idea of how people in China live is mind-boggling. Needless to say, the world is on a MUCH more grander scale than the first Shenmue and is executed wonderfully. Despite it's age, it's quite the cinematic experience.
It's also important to note that since the game takes place in a much bigger area, the slightly more richly detailed area of the first game has been slightly compromised. The designs are by no means bad, but there's obviously many more reused props and textures than what we saw in the original.
Story: Though the story is left largely unfinished, it's safe to say that Shenmue contains a very intriguing story. Combining mystery, action, and adventure, once you get into the story you'll always want to find out what is going to happen next. To say more would be spoling the fun.
The story goes on in forms of chapters, of which there are a total of 16 in the whole series. Shenmue 1 was only the first chapter, titled "Yokosuka". Shenmue 2, however, is chapters 3-5 (Chapter 2 was taken out due to production issues). In spite of it's chapter book layout, one of the greatest things about Shenmue is that it cannot ever be translated into a novel, TV show, or movie in it's full glory. Much in the vein of Mass Effect, most of the events of the game wouldn't have much resonance with an audience unless they had been doing the actions themselves.
Gameplay: The gameplay in Shenmue II is similar to the first, in which it uses three different play-styles at different parts of the game.
The first is free mode, which is where you'll spend a majority of your game. This is used to wander the streets of China to find clues as to where or what Ryo should do next. A neat feature allows you to NPCs to gather information and have them lead you to where you want to go. You go into a first-person view and start following the person automatically, so you're free to look around without have to press forward the whole time. As a methodical gamer myself, I enjoyed stopping for a bit and admiring the design of the game with all its nooks and crannies. It's also really handy if you need to know how to get around. You can also walk around and go gambling, participate in fights, and get a job (who doesn't love working?).
Aside from free mode, there's free battle, where you take full control of Ryo in a fight. You have a plenty of moves at your disposal, though you most likely won't be motivated to try all of them. You'll mostly be sticking to your basic kicks, punches, and lots of blocks. It's important to remember, however, that the game isn't a total button masher. If you don't pay attention to your health and never block, you'll find yourself being beaten to a pulp multiple times. Be wary.
The last form of gameplay is called the QTE, which we should all be familiar with by now. Shenmue 1 is probably one of the best early examples of a modern QTE that we see in games like God of War and Heavy Rain. For the uninitiated, A QTE is basically a button that flashes on your screens that prompts you to press said button. This occurs in cinematics so it may take you by surprise and be slightly different than what other more current games offer. There is another variation of the QTE called a CQTE, a command quick time event. This is where the screen darkens and displays your controller and you're basically forced to play a game of Simon Says, where a button combo will appear and the gamer must mimmic what was just shown.
As I said, you'll be spending most your time in free mode, and there are far more QTEs than free battles, but there are just enough of both to keep the game interesting and moving.
Sound:This is where many people find flaws in the game. To be honest, most of the voice work is just terrible. By most, I mean pretty much every NPC and even some of the main characters. Seeing as so much money was poured into the game, it doesn't make sense that they couldn't afford some better talent. Or at least give an option to switch to the superior Japanese voices. If you ever wanted an example of monotony is, just wait until you meet Xiuying. If I didn't know better, I'd say she only recorded her lines either right before she was going to be bed or right after she woke up.
The score, however, is flawless. Every city's tune matches it perfectly, which once again speaks wonders to how much they focused on recreating a real experience of going to China. You can hear customers haggling with stand owners, children playing, idle conversation, etc. All of it is just inane babble when you really listen, but it's well-placed enough in the background that it does a great job of building atmosphere.