Shenmue II (シェンムーII)

The end of the first Shenmue game was one of the greatest cliff-hangers in video game history. After all of the exploits in Yokosuka, the black car, the kitten, the sailors, and the fork-lift truck driving, Ryo had discovered that the treacherous Lan-Di had actually crossed the ocean and returned to China. Shenmue II  begins with Ryo’s arrival into the port town of Hong Kong as he continues his mission of tracking down his father's killer. Initially, the sequel was due to cover the events during the journey across the Pacific Ocean but was cut due to financial difficulties and a scaling down of the Shenmue project. In fact, due to the precarious situation of the Dreamcast and the lower than expected sales of the first game in Japan (the game had been a relative success abroad selling over 1 million units) it was unknown whether the game would actually be released for system, or shifted to one of the other next gen consoles, such as a Xbox or PS2. Luckily, the game did get a release on Dreamcast in Japan, along with a bonus Virtua Fighter 4 disc, and also in Europe at the tail end of the system’s life in November 2001 (It was one of the last game’s Sega distributed themselves before they handed over the reins to Big Ben Interactive).

 Shenmue II's cover, elegant like the game itself

As a young 17 year old Japanophile, my levels of excitement for this game were unrivaled at the time. As I explained in my Shenmue review I was a huge, huge fan of the original and would scour the ever dwindling Dreamcast magazines for any titbits or other Shenmue II related trivia, keeping my fingers and toes crossed that the game would actually see the day of light in Europe. I had been burnt before with numerous games which had been either canceled or moved to other formats and I was really concerned that the same would happen to my beloved Shenmue. Luckily, despite late interference from Microsoft and an exclusivity right for their new Xbox console in North America, the same didn’t apply for Europe and my preorder at GAME was fulfilled and I was able to purchase the game on Friday, November 23, 2001. The game was everything I had been waiting for and more. To save on production time and more importantly cost, the awful English dub seen in the first game had been scrapped in favour of the original Japanese audio with English subtitles. To be honest, most fans couldn’t have been happier with the decision and it is a shame that Sega never released the Japanese version with English subs as an alternative or budget release similar to what they did in Japan with Shenmue USA.

Getting into Shenmue II, it appears at first that little has changed but it is soon evident that the scale of the game is many times bigger than that of the original. The first chapter of the game is set in Aberdeen and the areas of Wan Chai and Scarlet Hills which are a far cry for the quiet streets of Dobuita, Hong Kong is a bustling metropolis full of people and even animals, and there are far more buildings and areas to explore. In fact, the sheer size of the place can be a bit daunting at first and it takes time get to know your way round properly. Also, while everyone in Japan knew your name the crowded streets, detailed cityscapes, and the hustle bustle of navigating popular areas at night, makes you feel like you’re just part of the crowd in Shenmue II. Of course, this is the aim, as Ryo a Japanese boy from a small, suburban Japanese town you are supposed to feel like a fish out of water in the sprawl of downtown Hong Kong.

 Shenmue was ahead of its time, even to this day there are few games that can rival its depth and freedom to explore.

It’s not long however until you will meet new characters and interact with them, and people in China are far more helpful than back home. When asking for directions, many people will kindly guide you there personally; making it much easier to find different location but their walking speed can make it a bit of a chore. However, you can also buy maps for most of the areas, which are shown onscreen in the corner and really help out and once you spend a little time in the town you will have no problems navigating around. It all really adds to the authenticity, like when you go on vacation and have no idea where anything is on the first day and by the end of the holiday you are traversing the area like a local. One thing that makes Shenmue II different from most other games is real the sense of time. Though time passes quickly, with minutes of game time equaling seconds of real time, you experience every waking moment of Ryo Hazuki's life and the people around him also have their own life. Wake up early enough in the morning and you will see the people in the market setting up their stalls as the delivery vans drop off their stock, come later in the evening and the same people will be packing up after their days work.

Each area has a distinct feel

I absolutely love this feature in Shenmue, a real, believable representation of the world we live in created in video game form; I can’t think of too many other examples? However, this rather tepid pace was also one of the criticisms labeled at the first game and this has been addressed for the sequel. You now have the ability to skip waiting sections, such as if you have an appointment with someone at sundown and it is only 10am in the morning, then the game will give you the option of fast forwarding to that time. It is optional, so people who prefer the authenticity of the style in the first game can still wait around playing a game, gambling or just filling up their diary with those elusive entries. At the beginning of each day, you're also given the option to automatically jump to important areas which really helps given the size of the game.

 The arcades of Hong Kong features new games

If you do take the waiting around option then you will not be short of things to do in the sequel. In comparison to Japan, Hong Kong is a cesspit of gambling and street fighting and there are tons of ways you can interact with the world. You can gamble your fortunes away on one of the many dice, or pin games or get lucky at an arm wrestling table or winning in a street fight. Actually, the game’s economy really stretches the opening chapter and you will no doubt find times were you are forced to work on a stall or shift crates at the docks to raise some money for lodgings, and if all else fails you’ll no doubt be visiting a pawn shop to sell your beloved figure collection. The game also features a larger array of games to fill your time with. Billiards and darts return and the latter can be used to your advantage by earning money in challenge matches. QTE games are also still prevalent in the arcades, as are the emulated Yu Suzuki titles such as Hang On and Space Harrier, and there are a couple of new titles like the legendary Outtrun and After Burner II, and the figurines return for those who didn’t finish their collection before.

Collecting capsule toys is strangely addictive

Changes have also been made to the QTEs which weren’t really used too much in the first game were the free battles tended to take precedence over it in many fighting scenes. In the sequel, you’ll be doing plenty of QTEs and they have been revamped to include combination inputs, and are a lot less forgiving this time with some sections requiring split-second timing which can be frustrating if you have replay significantly longer sections. Still, love ‘em or hate ‘em they help keep the movie sections from getting stagnant.

QTEs are back and bigger than ever

There is also a bigger focus on the fighting mechanics in this game and the Virtua Fighter based fighting engine remains robust as ever. While there are problems with it such as the camera which can be erratic when a large number of combatants are on screen at one time, it is generally very impressive. Just like the first game you will learn even more moves to add to your extensive repertoire, all of which can be leveled up by training in one of the many parks and this is something you will need to do as later fights prove much more testing than anything before.

 Perfecting your moves is vital if you are to beat some of the later bosses

To coincide with the new setting, Shenmue II’s story is told with a different approach to that of the first which told its tale through a paper-thin trail of clues and interrogation of the locals as now the saga continues in broad strokes. Rather than meeting obscure characters, to gather tidbits of information, you meet significant figures who can be asked a variety of different questions and in return provide you with a greater wealth of knowledge. As a result the game feels much less personable, as you rarely build up the same relationships with the people you come across. Again, this was probably intended by Yu Suzuki. The story itself is an improvement over the first game and while it doesn't necessarily hit all the same emotional beats, the action orientated focus really entertains. From the moment Ryo steps off the boat, the story moves at a much faster pace than that of the original, and when Ryo comes across the intrepid Ren, things simply go into overdrive.

 The cast of Shenmue II is a big upgrade over the original

Ren, for me is one of the best parts of Shenmue II. He is the yang, to Ryo’s ying. He's brasher and bolder, basically the Hans Solo of Shenmue, being much more entertaining and cooler than Ryo. His presence is a definite plus for the game, and the series in general as it makes the plot far more exciting, not only because it actually gives Ryo a foil and some much needed comedic relief, but gives the plot more direction.

Hook your Dreamcast up to a monitor via VGA and prepare to be memorized

Visually, Shenmue II is probably the best looking game on the Sega Dreamcast and while it may lack the sheer detail of the first game you can’t really help but be impressed by the sheer scope. The cityscape laid out before Ryo is simply breathtaking at times and the art design really helps make each area of Hong Kong appear unique. Yes, there are some instances of slowdown in some of the more memory intensive scenes like the martial arts temple or the Pigeon Park but it is definitely not something that detracts from the game as a whole.

 Slowdown exists in memory intensive sections like this

While not hitting the dramatic highs of the first, the musical score in the Shenmue II is beautifully orchestrated and fits the various moods of the game. Most of it is Oriental inspired and is just beautiful. There are also a ton of little details that really make game; the chattering of people as you walk through the crowds, the fluttering of wings as pigeons fly away and the gushing of fountain water. Shenmue II is full of subtle details that most people would never notice. Like I mentioned earlier, the Dreamcast version exclusively featured Japanese dialogue, which in my opinion is a significant improvement of the ghastly, sometimes cheesy English version. There's however, one giant plot hole sitting there, the first Shenmue makes quite a big deal about the fact that Ryo can't speak any Chinese and has to search Dobuita for people who can translate for him. He then comes to Hong Kong and suddenly can talk and understand everything that's going on. Basically, you have to suspend your belief and glance over this issue, besides maybe he took a crash course on the way over?

Overall, Shenmue II is really all that you would hope for in a sequel. It is uses the same loved gameplay from the original but with many improvements that make the game so much faster, as well as a world so huge that it makes Shenmue's impressive world feel unbelievably tiny in comparison. Again, not everyone will like it, the controls are a bit clunky, and those expecting an action-packed game or a fighter will likely be let down. However, they are missing the point. Shenmue II is a game that is supposed to be savored, not rushed. It is true innovation, a game that provided a real, living and breathing world. Perhaps it may be mundane, it may not be the prettiest, but that is life and FREE mechanic the game’s creator Yu Suzuki set out to make. Overall, it is a very sincere and charming experience and one that immersed and memorized gamers like no other so much that its followers still remain one of the most vocal to this very day. Shenmue II covers parts three through five of the Shenmue saga, and it is criminal that to think at least half of Ryo’s tale remains untold.

Virtua Fighter bonus discs - only came with the special first edition

The First Edition of Shenmue II came packed in Japan with a bonus Virtua Fighter Special Premium Disc set. The set featured a Virtua Fighter 4 Passport which allowed you to connect to the Virtua through the Dreamcast and access information on the then upcoming sequel to VF3TB. Of course, these servers are long gone so these days it is the the Virtua Fighter 4 History disc that is of interest to fans. It contains a special interview with Yu Suzuki, as well as an overview of the history of the Virtua Fighter series, and tons of game footage. At the time it was a great little package and one which Sega tantalized fans with as it was suggest that VF4 would come to the Dreamcast, in the same way they had done with the previous game and the Saturn. It really would have been the ultimate send off for the system. Sadly, it wasn’t to be and Sony signed an exclusivity deal to capture possibly the best Virtua Fighter game of all time.