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The GoodShenmue II works extremely well as a sequel. Many of the original title's mistakes are corrected, and everything that made it great has been improved upon. The game's graphics are slightly more detailed and much more colorful. The environments provide a great deal more variety. The voice acting, heard here in the original Japanese, is more convincing and emotional than the dry English dub heard in the first title.
The Quick-Timer Events (QTE) from the first title are here as well; they are more common and better-executed than before, but they are not so common that they become tedious or take away from the game's sense of interactivity. Though not all gamers have spoken fondly of the QTE system, I happen to like it quite a bit, particularly in fight scenes. I am primarily an adventure and RPG gamer, and lack the hand-eye coordination to attain true mastery of 3D fighting games. In fact, I am pretty much a button masher. QTEs give me the opportunity to see Ryo perform exciting martial art feats that I would not be able to accomplish manually. Also, with the QTE system, the game's creators are momentarily freed from having to use camera angles suitable for a game, resulting in set pieces that are truly cinematic in scope and feel.
Speaking of camera angles, I must pay respect to the 3D "camera work" of Shenmue II. To date, it is the only fully-3D adventure game I have ever played in which I never had to fight with, or even think about, the camera. I was always looking at exactly what I wanted to see. Past 3D adventure games, such as Sierra's Gabriel Knight III, have had very clunky cameras by comparison, and constantly needed adjustment in order for the gamer to see what was necessary.
I am not qualified to speak in great detail about Shenmue II's fighting system, but I found it to be an improvement over the first title. It is possible that I was simply getting better as I played, but I found myself to be using a little more strategy and a little less button mashing than before. Also, the game features more one-on-one contests against intelligent and difficult opponents than in the first title. The original Shenmue tended more often to pit Ryo against large groups of anonymous and unskilled fighters.
It is also worth mentioning that Shenmue II features what is hands-down the best boss battle in any computer or console game of any genre that I have ever played. In pretty much any action or RPG game, your last battle differs very little from your first - you just use the "Attack" command (or hit the fire button) a lot more times. A pure one-on-one fighting game might get more complicated than that, but unlike in an RPG, you are typically under a 90 second per round time constraint. Shenmue II gives you the best of both worlds. There is no time limit, the opponent is very difficult, and the final victory is nothing short of spectacular. Near the level of a Rocky or Karate Kid film finale, this is where the Shenmue series comes closest to becoming perhaps the first true "interactive movie".
The characterizations are much improved over the first title in the series. While people often still speak to each other in the curt one- or two-word sentences displayed in the first Shenmue, one gets the impression that there's a bit more going on beneath the surface than before. The all-nice-all-the-time (and let's face it, a bit boring) Fuku and Nozomi are replaced by Joy, a blunt but kind-hearted motorcycle girl, Xiuying, a martial arts master with a past not unlike Ryo's, and Ren, a gang leader who becomes a tenuous ally. These are characters with their own motivations who reveal enough about themselves to be interesting, but hold enough back that they retain a feel of mystery. You will also spend a great deal of time getting to know Shenhua, the enigmatic peasant girl featured prominently in dreamlike sequences in both the first and second Shenmue titles. When she finally makes her appearance, she does not disappoint.
Shenmue II's pacing is much improved over the first title. Where Shenmue had the burden of introducing a 16-chapter story and dragged in some sections, this game is nothing but plot development from start to finish. Although it will take a bit longer to complete than the first title (say about 4-6 more hours), it contains four chapters of Yu Suzuki's original story rather than just one and should hold the gamer's interest all the way through.
Lastly, Shenmue II features perhaps the best and most intensely satisfying ending I have ever experienced in a console game (the field gets a little tougher if you include PC games - I'd have to think about that one). Anti-climactic endings are a common fault in the adventure game genre, but Shenmue II avoids that by treating the gamer to an ending sequence that is roughly 4-6 hours long depending upon your opinion of when the game actually "begins to end". I don't want to give anything away, but I will say that the game isn't shy about giving you a big payoff for all your hard work.
The BadThe biggest problem with the Shenmue series was the fact that it came out on the Dreamcast, plain and simple. Sega suffered a series of setbacks in the 1990s after the success of the Genesis console, beginning with the expensive and confusing Sega CD (1992) and 32x (1994) upgrade packages. The Saturn (1995) only worsened the blow. The three packages were expensive, and had poor software support, many of the most popular titles overlapping with the Genesis. Who wanted to pay $400 for a Saturn so they could play a marginally better version of Mortal Kombat II than what they were already playing on their Genesis? Further, the three items were released so close together that the casual gamer simply didn't know what to buy. The Dreamcast was an excellent console that still holds up today, but it was not enough to dig Sega out of the hole they created. By that time Sony had built the Playstation into an empire, and with the amazing graphics and backward-compatibility promised by Sony for the Playstation 2, most casual gamers did not purchase the Dreamcast, choosing instead to hold off on their next-gen console purchase until they had seen what Sony could do. The Dreamcast became a console for early adopters (at the time of its release, no other console game close to the Dreamcast from a technical standpoint) and hardcore Sega believers. The Dreamcast was also plagued by the same poor third-party software support as the Saturn, 32x, and Sega CD - particularly in the RPG genre. Sega had barely anything to offer the RPG fan, as compared to Sony and the mighty behemoth that is Squaresoft. All of these elements conspired to make the Shenmue series little more than a cult favorite in the United States - and a very expensive one, at that. The first Shenmue holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive computer game ever made. Budget estimates range from $20 to $80 Million! Obviously, high budget + low sales = not good.
Why does this matter to you? Well, you need to go into Shenmue II knowing that the story does not have a resolution, and we may never find out how it actually ends. Shenmue was conceived as a 16-chapter saga. The first game in the series covers chapter 1, and Shenmue II covers chapters 3-6 (probably explaining the game's better pacing as compared to the preceding title). Chapter 2, chronicling Ryo's boat ride from Japan to Hong Kong, was skipped. Creator Yu Suzuki's plan was to have the series span approximately five games and one or two computer-animated films. Now with the story having barely even begun, the Dreamcast is dead and Sega no longer has the funds necessary to release big-budget epics. It is entirely possible that we will never see another Shenmue game.
The news isn't all bad, though. Yu Suzuki's name still carries much clout in the industry, and he has expressed a desire to complete this series. As recently as Summer 2003, he stated that were Sega to give the go-ahead, he would proceed with development of Shenmue III, condensing the remainder of the original 16 chapters into one final series installment. In the Summer of 2004, the Shenmue.com website was redesigned, and an announcement was made: The universe of Shenmue will resurface as a MMORPG, Shenmue Online, to be released in China and Korea in Spring 2005. No US release date has been announced. It is a possibility that were the MMORPG to be a success, the profits could be parleyed into a third installment in the story-based series. Time will tell.
Returning the focus to Shenmue II: Some my find fault with the pacing of the game's final disc. It is, more or less, a two-to-three hour conversation between Ryo and Shenhua with brief spurts of interactivity. I love an opportunity to really get to know characters in an RPG or adventure game, but this may not be to everyone's liking. Furthermore, I was slightly disappointed by the supernatural elements in the game's ending. Up to this point, the story of Shenmue could more or less have taken place in the real world, and the fact that Yu Suzuki's Hong Kong is a world that lives, breathes, and goes on with or without you only serves to heighten the sense of realism. The introduction of supernatural elements breaks the gamer's suspension of disbelief, reminding him or her that this is, in fact, just a video game.
Lastly, in creating a world much larger and with much greater breadth than the original Shenmue, some of the first title's depth had to be sacrificed. For instance, the first title had a few markets where numerous (basically useless) items could be purchased. Although the fact that you could buy various snacks or a gallon of milk had virtually no bearing on the game's plot, it did add to the illusion of realism. Shenmue II, in contrast, has dozens of various shops, differing little from one another. In most cases, a shop is only window dressing. You can not actually browse or purchase any items. It is a small complaint, but Hong Kong doesn't necessarily live, breathe, and provide the same level of interactivity that Shenmue's Yokosuka did.
The Bottom LineThe world of console games is significantly different than that of PC games. In an industry that considers Tomb Raider to be an adventure game, it is somewhat logical that Shenmue II would be considered an RPG despite not really resembling a Final Fantasy-type title. Coming mainly from a PC game background, however, I think that Shenmue II is much closer to a traditional PC adventure game than it is to an RPG. This being the case, I believe that Shenmue II represents the most important step forward for the adventure game genre in several years. Okay, so it doesn't exactly have puzzles, but adventure games have always been more about letting the gamer interact with a story than using item A with item B to get item C. Game designers should really take note. This title has all the right pieces of something that could really revitalize the PC adventure game genre, if a publisher actually had the guts to invest in a major adventure project.
Shenmue II is first and foremost a really great story to take part in. And it isn't so much that the story is anything groundbreaking - the basic revenge plot has been done time and again - but never before in a console title has it been presented with such amazing style. From the opening cinematic to the spectacular climax and trailing action that follows, this title is an experience that should not be missed by anyone who really loves great games. Shenmue II is probably the greatest console game that I have ever played.