Shenmue II

The second chapter of Yu Suzuki’s masterpiece debuted for the Xbox, although it had come out for the Dreamcast in Japan and Europe before Microsoft picked up the rights for a Stateside release. I enjoyed the first one and finally got around to the second one. You don’t have to play the first one to understand what is going on here as the Xbox version comes with a full length DVD movie created from the events from the last chapter. It’s really well done and puts you in the mood for the sequel.

“Shenmue II” reviewed below was for the Xbox.

Stranger from Across the Sea

The year is 1987 and you play the part of Ryo Hazuki, a teenaged boy seeking revenge for his father’s death at the lethal hands of a mysterious man he knows only as Lan Di. Ryo’s father was a master of the martial arts, but his skills were no match for the man who took his life. Why Lan Di left you alive is a mystery, but it was obvious that your skills were no match for his. But Ryo is determined to avenge his father and solve the mystery of his death. Why did he have to die? What is the secret of the Phoenix Mirror that you found hidden by your father? Lan Di took the Dragon Mirror from him… What makes these relics worth dying for? Who are the Chiyoumen? After a series of adventures in Japan in the first Shenmue, Ryo is finally headed to China following the only lead he has to a person that may have the answers he seeks.

He Does Not Know of the Strength Hidden Within Him

“Shenmue II” is a sprawling action adventure title that takes you into the city of Hong Kong as you search for leads to your father’s killer. Built on top of the FREE (Free Reactive Eyes Entertainment) system developed in the first game, Shenmue II allows the player to experience the world of Yu Suzuki’s martial arts tale in a variety of ways to bring the player closer to the world in the game. Starting out, the player will notice that the game is played from a third person perspective with everything and everyone rendered in 3D. What the player will also immediately feel is how lively everything appears to be. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, can be spoken to or be seen walking around doing their own thing. From the moment that you leave the ship on the docks, you’ll immediately walk right into a mass of people one of which will want you to listen to some of the excellent music in the game. For a small donation, of course.

As for the city and Ryo’s other surroundings, most of the doors you see will take you somewhere. The staggering amount of unique places that you can go to and interact with is incredible. The number of people that you will also see in the streets, in the shops, and the animations that help to define each one from the kung fu students demonstrating their arts before the eyes of their peers to elderly masters practicing of T’ai Chi in the park is also part of the experience. Make no mistake, the world that AM2 has put together is pretty huge and it can get easy to find yourself lost on the streets. Fortunately, there are maps that you can buy in each area…depending on whether or not you have the cash for them. AM2 has managed to capture the flavor of another world in Shenmue II and many times you might just find yourself wandering around to see what’s out there. The only downside to any of this is that in being a port from the Dreamcast, many of the graphics appear to be dated (especially some of the textures on several of the characters) in comparison to what the Xbox is capable of producing with its other titles, even considering the ones that came out for it at the time of its release. Still, what you see on the screen manages to capture much of the flavor that AM2 was aiming for and it still shows through.

What Ryo will also find out quickly is that knowing what you have to do is much easier than in finding out how to get around to it. Not everyone will be eager to help the stranger from Japan and you’ll also have to deal with how to survive in the big city. That means you’ll have to find a way to make some money in order to keep a roof over your head. That means you’ll need to take on a job.

Fortunately, there are a lot of opportunities available for you to experience in the game that allow you to earn some coin depending on what you like doing. From moving crates to gambling, to throwing darts, Ryo will find several ways that he can earn money for rent. He’ll also meet up with a few people that may help him out by showing him where to find jobs, or give him a lead as to where he should go next. Fortune tellers aren’t there only to take your money, either. If you need help in finding out where you need to go, you can always check in with them as they ‘divine’ what lies in your future.

Ryo also follows his own schedule. He gets up at eight and automatically heads back to a safe place to sleep at around eleven at night. There are also moments where Ryo will be required to meet with people at certain times. While at first this may seem like a hindrance, Shenmue II has done a good job in making sure that the player doesn’t have to be forced to wander around and find something to do in order to wait. As mentioned before, you might be required to wait for someone at a certain place. When you go to that place, the option is offered for you to either wait the full time there or to opt out of the choice and go on your merry way. This has made it easy to manage Ryo’s social obligations and I never felt cramped for time or forced to wander blindly in the city waiting for things to happen. Ryo also has a notebook that automatically keeps track of everything he discovers including the people that he has to meet up with making it even easier to manage this part of the game.

This will eventually bring him face to face with the unsavory elements that live in Hong Kong, those who believe that a fist to the face is a much better welcome than just saying hello. Ryo has the skills to defend himself, though, not only thanks to his father’s training but to the excellent fighting engine included in Shenmue. Yu Suzuki and his AM2 crew show their Virtua Fighter roots in the game as Ryo faces off against a variety of enemies determined to make him feel welcome. Combination moves will lay most of Ryo’s enemies out on the ground and the smooth controls in these combat segments game make them fun to play through. You don’t have to be a Virtua Fighter expert, either. The fighting is simple but challenging enough for players to grasp and enjoy without having to dig up a copy of the fighting title to warm up to.

In addition to the basic moves and combinations that Ryo starts off with, he can learn other moves and special attacks from individuals in the game willing to share their knowledge. Some will even go through a session of training with him so that he can understand the move they are trying to teach. Others are a little more ambiguous, handing you a scroll describing the technique instead of taking you through it. Learning how to use certain techniques against your foes will go a long way to surviving the more difficult battles that will be thrown in his way later on in the game.

All of this comes together with decent controls that make not only the fighting but the interaction with the world a breeze. The interface is almost transparent, the inventory opening only when you want to read a scroll or take a look at maps. Most of what Ryo can do in the world is handled through the controls at your fingers from talking to people to choosing what to say with the direction pad. Ryo can also take a closer look at items that you might see lying around or if you are in situations that require you to search. You’ll focus in on drawers and the like, but sometimes the camera can be a little skittish making it difficult to focus on certain items if they happen to be close together. There is also the issue with controlling how Ryo walks around. The controls for moving him about are akin to driving a tank in sneakers which is a huge contrast to how effortless combat feels. While it works, it can be pretty frustrating to get him walking precisely to where you want to go when looking for interactive hotspots or to get him pointing at something that you need to look at.

Even with these shortcomings, though, the player will almost never leave the game world thanks to how seamlessly the controls make the experience.

The Strength That Would Destroy Him, The Strength That Would Fulfill his Wishes

The game also brings back QTEs, or “Quick Time Events”. These can pop up anywhere, even in the middle of a fight, and are meant to be dramatic tests of your reflexes as well as enabling Ryo to do some pretty brutal things to his enemies without having to give them an ‘honest’ fight. For example, there are a variety of chase sequences that Ryo will be pulled into such as following a band of thugs that have stolen something from him. As you watch Ryo chase after them, you may see them suddenly stop and fling boxes or junk into his path. As you follow Ryo, you’ll suddenly get an arrow pointing in the direction that you need to react with on the controls. If you don’t, you’ll get to see Ryo collide with the boxes. The chase isn’t necessarily over, but you’ll lose a little ground. QTE’s also make use of the buttons on your controller. Sometimes you might have to jump to avoid a table or a hole in the floor instead of moving out of the way. Miss, and you’ll fall further behind or worse. By the time the chase ends, depending on how well you did to keep up, you’ll either have a chance to confront your quarry or watch as Ryo wonders where they went leaving it up to you to try and track them down in other ways.

Reminiscent of games such as Dragon’s Lair, there are even sequences that are built entirely out of QTEs such as when several thugs confront Ryo and he just has to get through them. A chain of QTEs will come onscreen and it’s up to you to try and keep up with them. By doing so, you’ll see Ryo take out those foolish enough to pick on the fresh faced kid with a variety of moves. And as mentioned before, you’ll even run across the occasional QTE in a fight allowing Ryo to dodge a killing move turning it against his enemy or strike when they least expect it finishing them off. In both of these cases, failure is severe and leads to a quick end but the game is forgiving enough to allow you to retry most of these events without having to repeat much of what came before.

There are moments, however, where QTEs are more of an annoyance than they are a challenge. For example, in a pitched fight against someone, if a QTE comes up and you fail no matter how much stamina you’ve retained and how thoroughly you’ve owned your foe, you may lose the fight to a move that he would have otherwise just shrugged off. Other odd places where QTEs show up and do not make much sense are in some of the aforementioned scenes where Ryo faces off against several opponents at once. While it’s nice to watch Ryo dismantle everyone that runs up to him with a few button presses making for a dramatic scene, there were times when I would have wanted to go into a straight up fight and rely on his repertoir of moves and combos to take victory for myself. Instead, if you miss a QTE here, you may see Ryo fall to a punch that he would have repaid with a swift kick to the jaw. That’s pretty frustrating, especially if you had to go through a chain of QTEs beforehand and now have to repeat them all.

When He Is Ready, He Shall Seek Me Out

But the main thing underpinning the entire Shenmue experience is the strength of its story. Ryo is far from being the master that his father was, and yet he’s on his way to find and avenge his death against a man who had easily dispatched him as one would a fly. You’ll watch as Ryo makes contact with a variety of people in Hong Kong who can either help or embarass him. There are also masters of the martial arts that try to teach him that revenge is not the path to the justice that he is seeking and the depth that the story goes into describing their viewpoints and in making a quest out of their concerns is pretty remarkable. One or two of the challenges that they make Ryo go through may actually prepare the player for certain parts later on in the game.

As you take Ryo through the world of Shenmue II, the presentation of the story does an excellent job in trying to make the player feel the same frustration and elation that Ryo experiences onscreen. The slow motion finishes of your fights as a guy spins away into the air from a roundhouse kick to the face to the disappointment that Ryo shows as he is schooled by a true master easily translates over. You start wanting him to take out the punks that stole his stuff. You WANT to show off what you’ve learned in order to impress someone wishing to test your skills.

You’ll also find yourself embroiled in the underground of Hong Kong as you try to follow the only leads you know of in tracking down Lan Di. The characters come to life with their own unique personalites and subtle agendas. The only thing I’d have to say that detracts a bit from all of this is the awful voice acting in the game. One of the masters that you meet, a key one, sounds as if she’s half asleep most of the time. The monotone delivery of her lines almost put me to sleep at the controls but fortunately the game saves itself by making her as much of a hardass as she is anesthesia for the ears. When she makes an appearance or tries to help Ryo by showing how he compares to a true master, her actions speak much louder than her words. Even Ryo isn’t immune from sounding a little too generic in the game along with most of the citizens. Fortunately for the rest of the audio, the musical pieces and the sound effects of the game really do a lot to add to the title. The music is especially well done and there’s even an in-game jukebox allowing you to listen to the different tracks.

The ending itself is another story entirely. Not only is it completely interactive, but it does feel like a huge cooling off period for all of the action and QTEs that you’ve had to face to get that far. I can’t spoil anymore of what it is without ruining what you actually do there, but if you are someone that likes a lot of story to go with your action adventure titles especially as a reward for surviving the challenges it has put in your way to get that far, it should provide a level of satisfaction that you otherwise wouldn’t get from similar titles. The only hint that I can give is that most everything is revealed at the end. And a few more questions are asked.

A Dragon Shall Emerge from the Earth, and Dark Clouds Shall Obscure the Heavens

Shenmue II did a lot of amazing things for a console title of its day. While the city is huge and a lot of the people and places that you can talk to are limited only by what Ryo himself knows and what the game allows him to do (he won’t go out shopping for groceries, for example, or pick a fight with a street vendor at will), I felt that if they had wanted to, AM2 could have made the game even more free ranging than it already was. What if Ryo decided to start a fight with a street gambler over losing his money? Or took a job other than as a crate pusher? While the game keeps you in character by not allowing you to do such things and while the storyline is linear to the extent of requiring the hero to follow along and complete certain challenges to advance the story, they were still allowed to roam freely in the city in between jobs. While there are quite a few minigames and challenges (even Afterburner and Hang On are arcade games in Shenmue II that Ryo could play), it would have been interesting to see if it was possible for Ryo to join the Heavens (a street gang in the game) by doing jobs that would get him in their favor as only one wishful example. We might never know if this would have been something that Yu Suzuki and AM2 were planning to do, though.

While there was talk about the third chapter of Shenmue in early 2004 from Yu Suzuki and Sega, nothing further emerged on whether work was proceeding on an actual followup. This is disappointing especially with a series that has had as many ambitious ideas as this one. The series went to great lengths to make Ryo an important part of the series and to the player by introducing the ability to carry over what he learned in one chapter to the next. This was in keeping with Yu Suzuki’s vision of having Ryo grow from an inexperienced teenager who started off in Japan into someone who would be able to stand toe to toe with his father’s murderer with the maturity and the balance that would become a part of his character making the player more responsible for much of what Ryo would learn and experience throughout his journey. While this was broken in the States when it went from the Dreamcast to the Xbox (unless you were in Japan or Europe), Shenmue II’s arrival on Microsoft’s new console still brought the experience home minus that particular part. Now, it looks more likely that the series will be continued online as part of Shenmue Online which was slated to undergo testing this year in Korea and China but again plans for a Stateside release are still up in the air. The promotional movies look good, though, but they do little to sate the curiosity that fans will undoubtedly have for what was supposed to follow next. As stated before, Ryo learns many of the answers but there are several more questions that are asked at the end that we may never end up seeing resolved…unless they are taking those loose threads into the planned online property.

As it stands, Shenmue II stands as a proud chapter to Yu Suzuki and AM2’s grand masterpiece of an epic story that they had envisioned across sixteen seperate chapters. It has a lot of what action adventure gamers look for in a game: great story, a lot of action, and a huge detailed world to explore. The only downsides are how some of the QTE events may pop up and leave Ryo ‘weak’ to events he otherwise would have plowed on through such as some of the fights he is faced with to the somewhat questionable voice acting…the lead included. In addition, the replay value is extremely low. There aren’t a whole lot of extras (other than in reviewing the neat snapshots you may have taken with the in-game camera) to make you want to play the title all over again and not all of the loose ends are tied up leaving you hanging for some of the answers. Otherwise, taken for what it is, it’s a great followup to the first Shenmue.

Fans shouldn’t miss out on the latest chapter in Ryo’s adventure. Newcomers won’t feel lost thanks to the included DVD outlining the events of the first chapter and the fighting engine in the game is not so difficult as to make those unaccustomed to a fighting game feel as if they will never advance deeper into the story. Action gamers wanting a good tale to go with their gaming owe it to themselves to experience this martial arts tale of a young man seeking to avenge his father and to see whether or not he is ready for what he will be expected to face.

– World 1-1

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