Ryo Hazuki arrives in Hong Kong to continue the epic saga that is Shenmue - but is this game any better than the first?
By Rick Larson
When the original Shenmue was released in Japan on Dreamcast, just two days before the turn of the millennium, import gaming fanatics got a glimpse at what was to become one of the most exciting and beautiful videogame series of all time. Shenmue combined a milestone in technical achievement with lovable characters, an orchestral musical score to die for, and the most enchanting, engrossing game environment many of us at Kikizo have had the pleasure of playing.
After a Japan and Europe-only Dreamcast release of the second in the series, Shenmue II debuted in North America exclusively on Xbox last year. Now that the Xbox rendition is finally arriving in Europe, it's the perfect time to take a close look at how the sequel develops the series. Shenmue II comes complete with the Shenmue The Movie DVD, a story comprising of clips from the first game, to bring Shenmue virgins up to speed. It's worth pointing out that whilst the original Shenmue covered the first Chapter of Yu Suzuki's epic vision, Shenmue II covers four Chapters - three, four, five and six - and yes, the second Chapter (the boat trip to Hong Kong) has deliberately been omitted for the time being...
So, Hazuki is back in his struggle to avenge his father's death. Shenmue II brings us to Hong Kong in search of Lan Di. As soon as the opening music begins, gamers are once again pulled into Suzuki's masterpiece. The game starts out as Ryo's ship docks in Hong Kong. The entire area is full of life, as other tourists leave the ship and get acquainted with their new surroundings. Ryo is not only surrounded by tourists, but also crowded by salesmen selling all sorts of items such as maps and collectibles. It gives the feeling of both excitement and confusion of being in a brand new place.
After a short time you'll be able to settle down a bit and start your exploration for the Phoenix mirror. With only the knowledge that he must find a man called Lishao Tao, Ryo sets out on his adventure. The setting is much different than Ryo's home in Japan. This is no little town named Yokosuka, this is Hong Kong. There are people everywhere, and not all are friendly.
Not long after you begin to explore, Ryo is mugged and looses his bag. This leaves him alone and broke. After a short period of time he will find his belongings and start to become acquainted with new characters, many of which are criminals that Ryo will have a few disagreements with further down the line...
As with the first game, the storyline wonderfully written, taking many twists and turns throughout the game. Ryo makes a few enemies early on in the game, many of whom attempt to befriend him for their own reasons. Wong, Ren and Joy are a few of the people who aid Ryo in his quest. Wong is the young boy who steals Ryo's backpack early in the game. Ren is the leader a local gangs known as 'The Heavens'. He joins Ryo hoping their adventures will bring great riches. Joy, the new ginger-haired babe, takes a liking to Ryo and tries to help him in everyway she can. (Although even with all her efforts to get on Ryo's good side, he bizarrely ignores her). Ryo needs to learn how to talk to the ladies. All of the characters add a great deal of life, and a real engrossing flow to the game.
AM2 have brought back many of the great features that made the first Shenmue so wonderful. Gamers are left open to explore anywhere they like. There are several mini games to interact with, ranging from arm wrestling to memorable arcade games such as After Burner 2. Many games found in the streets can earn Ryo big winnings. Most even give the opportunity to run them as a part time job to get a little extra cash! The ability to haul crates around also returns, but this time you must do it by hand and perform a type of QTE (Quick Timer Events) to get them to their destination. This can be a little frustrating because your partner is constantly swerving, instead of going in a strait line making things harder than they have to be.
While Shenmue does revolve around its story, the game is made up of several genres including RPG, action/adventure, puzzle, and fighting. The fighting element of the game is well designed and loosely based on the Virtua Fighter series. It isn't incredibly deep, but it's very effective and gives players many moves to learn throughout the game. There are so many gameplay elements, it hardly surprising it was given its own genre - F.R.E.E. (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment).
A few new features have been added to keep the game fresh. Players are now given the ability to take photos throughout the game. These pictures are put into a scrap book which can be later viewed in the opening menu screen. Mini games are now unlocked once they have been encountered during the game, and available at the menu screen to be played any time. These new additions are very welcome, especially the mini game option. Being able to play them for free saves a lot of money for other items in the game!
All is not prefect in the sequel however. There are a few annoyances that do somewhat hurt the game. Although the graphics are beautiful, they lack a bit compared to most Xbox games because of its Dreamcast heritage, when it looked truly next-gen. It would have been nice to see a little more use of the Xbox hardware, over and above what we've got - which in comparison to the DC version is basically a higher polygon count, greater draw distance, and higher screen and texture resolutions. (However - the graphical art style and visual look of the game is still outstanding). The controls can also be a bit frustrating; the movement is still controlled by the D-pad which causes movement to be jerky and a often annoying to control. This could easily be ditched and replaced with a new analog based control system.
The pace of the game, and the level of interaction, have also been hindered somewhat in this sequel. Many people complained that the first game's story was too slow. Sega tried to correct this, but may have gone a bit too far. The game often seems to rush players through things. It still takes many hours to complete, but the story moves perhaps a little too rapidly. It also seems that the amount of interaction has been lessened, compared to the first game. Rooms that Ryo stays in have very little in them, while rooms with a lot of items just seem to be there as decoration. Few of the items in these rooms are interactive.
Another drawback is that several of the mini games and jobs seem tedious. Dropping a ball and carrying crates aren't that much fun, and make earning money boring at times. Can we have some more enjoyable jobs in Shenmue III please? Perhaps Ryo could review some of the arcade and Saturn games in Yokosuka and Hong Kong? Albeit in a mindless, Animal Crossing-style, 'write as beautifully as possible for the computer to read!' kind of way.
The sound is mostly effective, but a lot of the English voice acting is very sub par. Frankly, it would have been preferable to have the Japanese voices with English subtitles - like on Dreamcast. At least that way, a certain amount of the game's oriental aura and immersion is retained. Better still - decent voice acting wouldn't have gone amiss. It also gets very annoying hearing the same voices and comments repeatedly. This is really only a factor with unimportant characters, but you'll be talking more with them, than with many of the important ones. Of course, the background music and sounds are very pleasant, and the Shenmue theme song is as mesmerizing as ever.
Even with these drawbacks the game is hardly pulled down. Shenmue is a one of a kind game, and is a great addition to the Xbox library. The story, and the sensation of living a new life cannot be found anywhere else. Yu Suzuki has once again created a memorable masterpiece that will have gamers addicted for hours on end. It also leaves a HUGE craving for the next game in the series, with its cliff hanger ending. Yu Suzuki and AM2 have done a wonderful job creating such an amazing experience.
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|A long and well-edited preview trailer for Shenmue 2 on Xbox.||2.11min||14.1MB||MPG|
|The original Shenmue is summed up in Shenmue: The Movie. Here's a trailer from this cool DVD, that comes with Shenmue II.||1.37min||10.4MB||MPG|