Shenmue II Review
While Shenmue II for the Xbox is a solid game that offers some improvements on the Dreamcast version, it will mostly appeal to die-hard fans of the original.
Released in 2000, Sega's Shenmue was arguably the company's most ambitious project at the time. The brainchild of Yu Suzuki (best known for creating the Virtua Fighter series), the game set out to provide an entirely new type of gaming experience by combining elements of fighting games and adventure role-playing games in a realistic, clockwork world. Set in Hong Kong during the '80s, Shenmue told the story of a Japanese man named Ryo who journeys abroad to avenge his father's murder. Shenmue wasn't a commercial success in this country, and its unusual design met with a mixed response, but the game was certainly a showcase for the Dreamcast's technical abilities. A subsequent sequel continued the story and addressed some of the original game's shortcomings, but unfortunately, Shenmue II, which was released a year later in Japan and Europe, never found its way to the US. That is, until now, as Microsoft has secured the exclusive North American rights to the game and ported it to the Xbox. Given the promise of a marriage between Sega's most ambitious franchise and the most powerful console on the market, the expectations for this game have been running very high. However, the end result doesn't quite live up to those expectations--for one thing, it's easy to tell that Shenmue II was originally a Dreamcast game, since its technical aspects aren't nearly as impressive now as Shenmue's were in 2000. And while Shenmue II for the Xbox is a solid game that offers some improvements on the Dreamcast version, it will mostly appeal to die-hard fans of the original.
In Shenmue II, Ryo's quest to track down his father's murderer, a mysterious man called Lan Di, serves as the story's driving force. Ryo's investigation into his father's death has involved him in a greater mystery revolving around two ancient artifacts (the phoenix and dragon mirrors) and an old prophecy. At the end of the original Shenmue, Ryo's search had led him to set off for China, hot on the trail of Lan Di and in search of the truth behind his father's murder and its tie to the phoenix mirror. Shenmue II picks up where the first game ended, with the opening sequence showing Ryo's freighter pulling into a Hong Kong harbor. You'll take control of Ryo as he steps off the ship. Armed with only an address and the name of a friendly contact, Ryo sets off on a quest chock-full of plot twists that will send him throughout China. If getting a handle on the story seems a bit daunting at first, don't fret--the game provides you with two primers. The first is an in-game "Shenmue Movie" that sums up the main events from the first game in a few minutes, and the second is a much longer summary in the form of "Shenmue the Movie," a DVD packaged with the game.
Shenmue II's gameplay offers as much variety as its story, combining many different gameplay styles culled from a wide range of genres. At its core, the game is basically a hybrid of traditional RPG and action RPG elements--you'll find that standard exploration, puzzle solving, and character interaction will make up a large part of your time with the game. However, you'll also find fighting sequences that use a simplified Virtua Fighter-style fighting system, numerous minigames, and quick time events (QTEs), which are timed sequences that require you to quickly match onscreen commands with controller inputs, much like in the classic arcade game Dragon's Lair. While its main structure is linear, Shenmue II is extremely open-ended in terms of your options. Your main focus is always Ryo's search for information on his father's death, but you'll also find a wealth of diversions, mostly in the form of the minigames. In some cases, the minigames are essential to the main quest, such as working jobs or gambling to earn money in order to progress. However, you'll also be able to take a break from the high-stress vengeance-seeking lifestyle and play near-perfect ports of classic arcade games such as Space Harrier, Outrun, and Afterburner II, which you'll come across in your travels. You'll even be able to do some shopping and spend your hard-earned cash in vending machines bearing assorted toys or on a variety of goods from street vendors.
If you've played the original Shenmue, you're likely to be pleasantly surprised by how much Shenmue II improves on the original's gameplay. The pacing has been considerably tightened, as has the storytelling. If you're lost in one of the game's large environments, talking with one of the locals will often result in that character guiding you exactly to where you need to go. In instances where you'll have to meet someone or go to a location at a specific time, you'll have the option to fast-forwarding time and/or warping to a certain location, to minimize the amount of pointless waiting around you have to do. You'll still be able to roam and pass the time sightseeing if you like, but the new option helps keep the game from getting dull.