Two years and one cancelled Dreamcast release after the first "Shenmue," US gamers finally can get their hands on the second installment of Ryo Hazuki's quest for justice and capsule toys. This week on "Extended Play," we look at the Xbox port of Yu Suzuki's underrated story-based masterpiece, "Shenmue II." It's relatively close to what Dreamcast owners in Japan and Europe played, but with some graphical tweaks, English dubbing, and a new snapshot feature that lets players take a picture of anything in the game.
| Shenmue II |
ESRB rating: Teen
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
'Shenmue: The Movie'
To counteract the oddity of releasing a sequel on a system that does not have the first game available for it, "Shenmue II" includes a DVD of "Shenmue: The Movie." This movie, released theatrically in Japan, is essentially a 90-minute summation of "Shenmue: Chapter 1 - Yokosuka." Obviously the inclusion of an Xbox port of the original game would have been nice, but the movie is a fine substitute. Note that, since it's a standard DVD, you'll need either a standard DVD player or the Xbox DVD playback kit to watch it.
Hong Kong here I come
"Shenmue II" picks up with Ryo arriving in Hong Kong, a couple steps closer to finding the mysterious Lan Di. Lan Di murdered Ryo's father for unknown reasons, and Ryo has resolved to discover why and exact revenge. Unfortunately, Lan Di is a very dangerous and well-protected man, and Ryo is, well, a bit hotheaded about things. He arrives in Hong Kong with no plan of action beyond a name given to him by an ally in Japan and a burning need to get to the area known as Wan Chai.
From there, "Shenmue II" becomes the story of Ryo's adventures in this strange new land filled with colorful and sometimes shady inhabitants (whose language Ryo now speaks, apparently). Part detective story, part kung fu action movie, part coming-of-age drama, "Shenmue II" wears many narrative hats and balances them exceptionally well.
While "Shenmue II" is not a bad-looking game by any means, its Dreamcast origins are evident in places. Character models now have higher polygon counts than before, and the view distance is much greater, but certain areas still have problems, with people suddenly fading into existence, particularly in Kowloon. It's still, however, a far more visually solid version than the Dreamcast edition. Especially nice are the places where fabric movement has been added to characters' clothing and even awnings over shop stalls. By pressing the "black" button, you can switch through a variety of different image filters that can make the game look like it's been shot on old film stock, turn everything black and white, and other interesting effects. "Shenmue II" actually looks best through the default filter, but they do help add variety to your snapshot album.
Most of the sound work in "Shenmue II" is exceptional. Ambient sounds are used extensively to set the mood and enhance the environments Ryo travels through. The noises of the Hong Kong pier create a convincing waterfront soundscape, while later sequences in the mountains of mainland China have a more tranquil sound design that befits the events there. The excellent musical score remains a highlight of the series, as well.
The same voice dubbing
Those who played the US version of "Shenmue" are no doubt wondering about the English dub voices. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how much amusement you derived from the first game's dubbing), the same voice-over company was used for "Shenmue II," meaning that much of the voice acting is just as goofy as the original. It's not awful, or even particularly bad. Some of the word choices and intonations simply sound odd. Even early in the game, the quirks of the voice work become evident. Near the start of the game, Ryo is searching for an area called Wan Chai, and is almost run over by the character Joy as she speeds by on her motorcycle. When Joy warns Ryo of the hazards of wandering around in the streets of Hong Kong, Ryo angrily replies, "Where's Wan Chai?!" without missing a beat. Ryo's one-track mind is part of his character, but dialog like that doesn't quite play out as a real conversation would.
Modes of play
"Shenmue II's" gameplay is divided into three basic components. You'll spend most of your time in a free roaming mode that lets you go wherever you wish. This mode lets you interact with most people and objects in the environment and is key to progressing in the story line.
As Ryo is new in town and doesn't really know much about where he is, much of the early part of "Shenmue II" is spent doing detective work. Some players may find this business a bit slow, but Ryo's quest to avenge his father unfolds at a very natural pacing rather than jumping from one convenient plot revelation to another. The interaction with other characters and the breadcrumb trail that leads Ryo closer and closer to his goal is essential to the mood of the tale.
Throughout the game, action sequences are played out using a reflex-based system called Quick Timer Events, as well as Free Battle street fights. The QTE system allows for cinematic events while allowing the player a modicum of control over the outcome. It has been compared to the "Dragon's Lair" series, but QTE is far more interesting and user-friendly than the old laser disc adventure games ever were.
Free Battles will be familiar to "Virtua Fighter" players. Most pit Ryo against multiple opponents and play out as a simplified version of "Virtua Fighter." Later in the game you'll also get to compete in street fighting events for cash, some of which are fairly tough fights. Several fights incorporate twists such as QTE sequences mixed in as throw escape maneuvers or specific enemy weaknesses Ryo must exploit in order to stand a chance against his opponent.
Take your time
Although several stretches of "Shenmue II" contain a healthy amount of action, it's really not a "Fists of Fury" type of game. "Shenmue II" is a title best savored and explored at your leisure. There are numerous things to collect and experiment with on the streets of Hong Kong and Kowloon, many of which enhance the experience of the game. You can just rush through the game, only doing what is necessary, but there is much fun to be had playing various pachinko and dice games, collecting Sega capsule toys, and seeking out classic AM2 arcade games. These mini-games will become unlocked in a quick-access Shenmue Collection as you discover them, making it possible to jump in and play a quick Free Battle match or get your fix of "Out Run" without having to actually find them again in the main game.
Not everyone will "get" the "Shenmue" series. The game tells a finely crafted and interesting story at its own pace, and those without the patience to appreciate it may not understand what all the fuss is about. However, "Shenmue II" succeeds at just about everything it sets out to do. Anyone looking for a unique title with a great story need not look any farther.
Buy this product from Amazon.com