And so I waited, with baited breath, for the promised Dremcast sequel. I downloaded the trailers, I peeked at the screenshots of the Japanese release. Then I read about how America was being completely snubbed of the release. It was shipped just about everywhere BUT the United States, including an English subtitled PAL version for the European market. Sega didn't consider the risk to be worthwhile, with word of the system's demise spreading in the states like wildfire. I considered importing the title, and very nearly bought the thing a couple times, when I caught a glimpse of the import sitting on the shelf at the local Electronics Boutique. For some reason, though, I held my tongue (and my wallet), and the game remained just out of reach. I guess I just couldn't justify spending fifty bucks on a game that ran on a dead system, especially one that was merely subtitled, not dubbed.
My patience eventually paid off, as Sega revamped the title, added a few new features and finally released it to the American audience on Microsoft's Xbox. Alongside Halo, it was my first purchase for the enormous black and green machine.
To its credit, the title picks up exactly where its predecessor left off. Ryo chases his father's murderer, a man named Lan Di, off the islands of Japan and on toward mainland China, Hong Kong to be precise. Once there, he wastes no time in picking up his quest in exactly the same manner he'd pursued in Japan. He'll approach random people on the street, ask them the same monotonous question he'd just asked the person before, and hope their answer will differ from the rest. It's a really odd manner of gathering information, but on closer examination it's no different than the methods employed by every other RPG in the history of the industry. Wander up to people, chat away, and try to figure out what you're meant to be doing. I suppose it only feels odd because the characters in Shenmue look and feel much more realistic than anything I've ever encountered in, say, Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior.
Bar none, the coolest thing about the Shenmue series is its outrageous attention to detail. There exist hundreds of storefronts, people, objects, games and environments that don't have any impact whatsoever on the story itself. They could've just as easily been left out, yet their inclusion broadens the game's scope substantially. Almost every doorway can be opened, every object, from the fliers hanging in a popular street corner to the televisions hidden away in the corner of a pawn shop, can be examined in detail. You'll start to recognize strangers on the street, to understand where they like to hang out based entirely on what you've seen in transit between different stages of the game. They even carried on the tradition of including emulated versions of Suzuki's arcade hits, this time packing in Afterburner II, Out Run, Hang On and Space Harrier. The location and lighting on the Afterburner machine, in particular, is just hilarious. It looks like a gift from god.
There's no such thing as a cut scene in Shenmue II, everything you see is live rendered. And, while that was a real feat for the Dreamcast (producing graphics on the fly that rivaled those of the PsOne and N64's pre-renders), it's not as impressive on the Xbox. Though it gives it the old college try, Shenmue isn't as visually impressive as Rygar: The Legendary Adventure on the PS2, Metroid Prime on the Gamecube or even Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee on the Box itself. Honestly, though the visuals are improved slightly, this still looks, feels and functions much like a Dreamcast game. The water effects, especially, pale in comparison to what we've already seen the Xbox can do.
Upon closer examination, Shenmue II often looks like a step down, even from its predecessor. The various faces found in the game are notably less realistic than those in the original Shenmue, looking almost cartoony on occasion. While the non-playable characters in the Dreamcast original each looked like someone you'd actually be able to find on the streets of Japan, the poor souls who wander about the virtual Hong Kong in part II look and feel much less human. The engine has a notably difficult time handling big, burly muscle men, who appear more frequently here than in Japan. When these big guys flex their muscles, the shoulder socket seems to pop inwardly and explode out their armpits. It's really a horrific sight, not to mention an ugly glitch in the game.
If you can get past the problems with the random faces and bodybuilders, the game looks above average at best. Not great, but still good. As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of Ryo's world is the tremendous variety in the storefronts, environments and various items, and this is something that helps set it apart from the pack. Where most other programmers would have settled on wrapping the same texture around several buildings throughout the city, Shenmue II takes its time and carefully names, arranges and decorates each place of business. I really can't emphasize how big a part of the game these details really are. Without them, the title wouldn't be half as effective as it is.
Occasionally, Ryo will be drawn into a fight scene, which functions like a strange blend of Final Fight and Tekken. Visually, the transition between "wander and talk mode" and "fight bunch of guys mode" is almost seamless. Very rarely are these fights one-on-one affairs, and you're usually called upon to take down upwards of a half dozen guys at one time. You've got an impressive list of moves at your disposal, with more available as the game progresses, but really only utilize about ten or eleven on a regular basis. When surrounded by a handful of angry thugs, there isn't much point in entering a twelve button combo when a simple running kick will do. On that same hand, even if you were to attempt a long, impressive combo, chances are it wouldn't succeed. If an enemy so much as bumps into Ryo, whatever move he was attempting is instantly halted. This little glitch serves to single-handedly transform fighting from the technical, intelligent martial arts display it's meant to be into your standard hack n' slash affair.
On the large, gameplay is a flawless translation from the Dreamcast original, thanks in large part to the similarities between the two system's controllers. When walking about, Ryo can look around with the analog sticks, run with the "R" button, switch to an immobile first person mode with the "L" button, and strike up conversations with random individuals with both the "A" and "Y" buttons. In keeping with the first title, Ryo keeps detailed notes of his own actions, which you can review by pushing the "X" button. One big change from the first title is the addition of an on-screen map, which comes in very handy when navigating unfamiliar streets. By pressing the "B" button, players can mark their current position on the map, making it much easier to locate important areas such as a hotel or a place of employment.
Yes, just like in the previous title, you'll be working for a living at the same time as you're searching for answers to your own personal questions. While you made your own way in Shenmue part one, driving (and sometimes racing) a forklift and moving as many boxes as possible within a certain time limit, Shenmue II has you carrying boxes with your bare hands. Gone are the days when you could decide your income, based on your own motivation. Once you've carried six boxes, your work day is finished. There are other methods of obtaining income; gambling, fighting in impromptu street battles or selling personal items at the pawn shop, but none are very reliable. It's nice that the series has continued to emphasize how important it is to work for your income, rather than merely slaughtering a few random monsters, taking their cash and returning to town, but I wish there were more variety in what you could do to earn this money. Surely there's more to do in Hong Kong than gamble, fight, pawn or lift boxes.
Occasionally, you'll be drawn into what's called a "QTE", a Quick Timer Event. When you encounter one of these, you'll be suddenly prompted to press one of the four regular buttons (A, B, X or Y) or a direction. If you fail to do so quickly, you'll fail the QTE and Ryo will suffer a grisly fate. This can really serve as a big point of interest, as there are literally hundreds of ways for Ryo to die or take a horrible beating. It's like a tiny choose your own adventure book. Sometimes, these QTEs will arrive several at a time, with one wrong move resulting in a failure for the entire string. A good example of this comes midway through the game, when Ryo is forced to balance his way across a narrow board, several stories in the air. He'll begin to lose his balance, and a directional arrow will blink on the screen. Fail to press it within a split second, and the hero will fall to his doom. Rinse and repeat, several times per board. Multiply that by about ten, for each board in the warehouse, and you've got a relatively annoying bit of guesswork. Unfortunately, the Xbox's D-Pad isn't ideal for these situations. Where the Dreamcast's pad contained four distinct directions, the Box's black controller features a standard D-Pad, sculpted in the middle of a big circle. While this may ease diagonal movement in other games, it's less than ideal for precision, which is something Shenmue II absolutely requires in these QTEs. It's very easy to press Up with a hint of Right, especially when you're in a hurry to do so, which means it's also very easy to fail these sensitive scenes over and over again. Besides, how are we supposed to believe Ryo's this big martial arts master, when he can't even keep his balance on a board that's easily a foot and a half wide?
The musical score to Shenmue II follows in the footsteps of the original; it's epic. Every one of the arrangements in the game serves to broaden the scope of this already impressive, expansive title. It truly feels like you're playing a character in a major motion picture, and it invokes your emotions at just the right moments. Near the game's conclusion, when Ryo stands atop the roof of the tallest building in town, staring into the sunset, you really feel as though you're coming of age along with him. When he first rides into port aboard an enormous ocean liner in the game's opening scene, the music further emphasizes that this is the beginning of a tremendous journey. It really is that solid.
Pity I can't say the same about the voice acting. Every one of the characters is just as wooden and emotionless as Ryo himself, which is one of the dark clouds that seems to have followed this series throughout its existence. Though everyone in town has a distinct voice, they all share similar traits; nobody gets excited about ANYTHING, and they all place intonations on the wrong words with frightening regularity. Ryo himself is one of the least appealing characters I've ever played. His best friend could tell him the world was about to end, and Ryo would react with a dull "Really," Nearly everyone in the world seems to share this disposition, and it really hurts the overall picture. It's hard to get excited about the revelations involving Lan Di and his relationship to Ryo's father, when those making the revelations are themselves completely disinterested in the proceedings.
One of the additions Suzuki and company made for the Xbox version of this title was the addition of Dolby digital surround sound, but even with my console hooked up to my 5.1 surround system through a digital optical cable, I could only hear surround sound in a couple instances. It really feels like a game that was completed in basic stereo and then upgraded to surround, rather than a title that was meant to be experienced that way in the first place. Which, in all honesty, is exactly the case.
The storyline works at a great pace, picking up steam as it goes along until the climax takes place in an enormous building downtown. Ryo endures dozens of QTEs, gang fights, detective segments and boss battles before the whole thing blows off in a rooftop battle that is simply breathtaking. If the game had ended there, I'd have been wholly impressed by the package and hungrily searching for more. Unfortunately, the game goes on beyond that point with nearly two and a half hours' worth of straight dialogue. And it's not even really appropriate dialogue... it's just random conversation, idle chit chat. The game concludes without a single fight scene, very little excitement and a third the drama I was expecting. Truly, this last chapter would have served as a nice introduction to the next title in the series. As is, it only serves to disjoint the game's flow and leave gamers with a big question mark over their heads, rather than an exclamation point.
Another of the special additions made for the Xbox release was the inclusion of both a snapshot mode and a lens filtering system. By pressing the black button, players may take a snapshot of the screen (whether it's a cutscene, a fight scene, or wandering scene), then view it from the disc's main menu. I really enjoyed this little feature, as it wasn't really something that makes or breaks a title but adds a little spice to the mix, all the same. Unfortunately, on the Xbox's S-controller, it's very easy to accidentally nudge this button while in a heated fight scene. As a result, I wound up with several dozen photos of Ryo getting his ass kicked or leaping in the air. Not that they can't be deleted afterward, it's just a simple design flaw. Pressing the clear button switches filters on the screen, so that everything appears in dull color, nostalgic brown and white, plain black and white, or several other options. I had no use for this feature, but again, it's a neat little add-on.
Also included with the Xbox version is a DVD containing the majority of the cutscenes from the original Shenmue for Dreamcast. I found this to be a great, somewhat quick, refresher course before diving into the new events. It'd been years since I last ventured into this world, and I was reminded of several small threads I'd have otherwise forgotten. On that same hand, I can imagine how much the inclusion of this disc would have aided players with absolutely no experience with the Dreamcast. A great idea, and something I wish more gaming dynasties would consider.
Overall, I found myself enjoying the first Shenmue more than I did the sequel. This is still a series I'd be interested in seeing pursued, but no matter what you may have heard, it HAS taken a small step down with this release. While the first game focused much more on Ryo's inability to relate to his peers, his awkward social life and his pure intention to avenge his father's murder, the sequel delves more into the spiritual and political ramifications of his actions. It wasn't quite as much fun as the original, though the overall feel was very similar.
Overall Score: 8.1