If you're reading this, you're more than likely one of the many gamers who had held out hope that the Dreamcast would gracefully ride into the sunset with the US release of Shenmue II, the sequel to one of the best testaments to the system's power and the creativity of developer AM2. Would have been nice, wouldn't it? But, just as the series' lead character, Ryo, discovered when his father was brutally killed before his eyes, life can take some unfair turns. Now that Microsoft has the exclusive North American rights to the game for the Xbox, US DC owners won't ever get the chance to play the game on their console unless they import it. The painful part of the whole mess is the sad fact that Shenmue II is so much better than its predecessor, refining nearly every aspect of the original. It's a polished game that serves as a showcase for the DC and the evolution of the RPG genre, and fans should definitely find a way to play it.
Shenmue II opens a short time after the end of the original Shenmue, following Ryo as his ship docks in China. Armed with an address, some yen, his collection of toys, and half of the artifact he collected at the end of Shenmue, the Phoenix Mirror, Ryo sets out to find his father's killer--Lan Di. Ryo's journey will take him to from the docks of Aberdeen, to the street markets of Wan Chai, to the city of Kowloon, to the mountain villages of Guilin. Along the way, he'll interact with a new cast of characters and learn more about the mysteries of the Phoenix Mirror and its counterpart, the Dragon Mirror. Shenmue II is a combination of chapters three through five in the Shenmue story, and producer Yu Suzuki has always said that the story will be told over the course of several games. Shenmue II offers better pacing than the original, and it has an epic feel that suits the story it tells.
If you've played the original Shenmue, you'll know what to expect from Shenmue II's gameplay. You'll go through the various locations you find yourself in, talking to people, solving puzzles, learning new moves, and soaking up the local atmosphere until your watch alarm goes off and you have to call it a day. While the basic control is exactly the same, there have been some refinements that make the gameplay better overall. You'll move Ryo with the D-pad, look with the analog stick, use the right trigger to run, and use the left trigger to look at items in first-person mode. The onscreen HUD now shows the outlines of the DC pad's face buttons, which have their context-sensitive uses, such as opening a door or talking to an NPC, overlaid on them according to the situation. The "talk" feature is one of the game's most welcome improvements. Aside from gaining useful clues, if you're lost in one of the game's large environments, talking with an adult NPC will usually result in that NPC guiding you exactly where you need to go, which is incredibly useful. In instances where you'll have to meet someone or go to a location at a specific time, you'll get an option to "fast-forward" time and/or warp to a certain location. You'll still be able to roam and pass the time sightseeing if you like, but the new option helps the game's pacing a great deal.
Another gameplay tweak can be found in the game's "quick time events," or QTEs. A lightning rod for gamers, who either loved or hated them, the action sequences, which had players following onscreen button inputs, are back with a few tweaks for the better. The original style, which forced you to repeat the entire sequence if you made too many mistakes, is back, but you'll also encounter two variations on it. The first changes on the fly if you make mistakes--allowing you to pick up the action later. For example, in the beginning of the game, you find yourself chasing a boy through the pier area in Aberdeen. The QTE will end if you make too many mistakes, and you'll find yourself back in the normal game. If you explore a bit, you'll find the boy again and continue the QTE. The other variation usually takes place during an action sequence--you'll see the action freeze for a moment while a set of commands flashes onscreen, and you'll have a split second to enter the commands before bad things happen to Ryo.
The new tweaks to the gameplay, combined with better pacing in its storytelling, make Shenmue II a better game to play through overall. It's rare that you'll find yourself wandering cluelessly through the streets thanks to the support system in the game--you'll be able to save anywhere, and NPCs are far more useful, as is Ryo's notebook. The only slow spots may come when you work to earn money, which you'll need to progress through certain parts of the game. This time, there's a bit more variety when it comes to earning cash in the game--for those who can't hang with the whole "nine to five" thing, you'll find "alternative" methods to line your pockets. If stacking boxes on the dock isn't good enough for you, you'll be able to earn cash by gambling, arm wrestling, street fighting, and working pachinko machines. As before, the game will provide you with an assortment of vices to spend your hard-earned cash on: gatcha gatcha machines bearing assorted toys, street vendors with assorted items, and, of course, arcade machines that offer the chance to play emulated Sega classics such as Afterburner.
The variety of gameplay in Shenmue II is matched by the game's graphics, which push the DC to its limits by creating great, immersive environments. Using a tweaked version of the original game's graphics engine, Shenmue II coaxes some truly impressive visuals out of the DC hardware. Careful coding and slick polygon clipping allow the game to display larger areas and far more people onscreen than the original game. The texture detail is incredibly high, allowing for such fine detail as weathering on Buddha statues, clothing detail, and textures on a variety of surfaces. The various areas offer up as much, if not more, detail than the most impressive areas in Shenmue, which is quite a feat. The character models are well detailed, with quite a few more featuring facial expressions. The lighting in the game has been tweaked slightly to reflect the time of day a bit more convincingly than before as well. However, the most impressive aspect of the graphics has to be their presentation. Building on the cinematic feel of its predecessor, Shenmue II's visuals are far more polished in terms of camera work. The flythroughs of new locations and when the time of day changes maintain a strong visual style. During cutscenes, the camera is constantly in motion, offering unique angles and fluid movement that keeps the game visually interesting.
The graphics are complemented by an excellent use of sound that brings the environments to life. Every area you'll find yourself in will have its own distinctive set of sounds and music playing. Crowds of people and other ambient noise abound in the game and go a long way toward "selling" the game's environments. The game's actual soundtrack alternates between quieter, sparse pieces and suitably grand, sweeping compositions to reflect the action.
While Shenmue II looks fantastic for a Dreamcast game, there are a few flaws to be found. The frame rate in the game does chug a bit, from 30 fps as you move through the streets and crowds, and lack of mip mapping keeps things a bit more shimmery than in Shenmue. Another jarring graphical quirk lies in the way the engine handles the many polygonal characters onscreen. Characters will randomly fade in and out depending on what's being displayed onscreen at a given time. But there's nothing that isn't easily overlooked once you become engrossed in the game's story.
It's a shame Shenmue II will never see the light of day on the Dreamcast in the US. Its level of polish, technical prowess, and creativity make it one of the DC's finest titles. Fans of the series owe it to themselves to track it down and play it via Japanese or European import. It's that good. Hopefully it will shine just as brightly when the Xbox version is released.