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Shenmue II

Review By:  Siou Choy

Developer:   Sega/AM2
Publisher:   Microsoft
# of Players:   1
Genre:   RPG
ESRB:   Teen
Online:   No
Accessories:   Memory Unit
Date Posted:  

1-29-03

In the last days of the late, lamented Sega Dreamcast, Sega made a shocking announcement: the sequel to one of their most talked about, popular games, Shenmue II, would not be released in North America; and this despite the fact that it was readily available in both Japan and Europe. Needless to say, there were a lot of gamers out there who were more than a little taken aback at this odd marketing decision. As might also be expected, this resulted in a lot of people scrambling to get a hold of an overpriced British import version of the game, along with, at extra expense, a mod-disk to enable them play the damn thing in the first place. Thankfully, for those who weren’t able to get a hold of one or didn’t want to sink all that money into a dead system, Microsoft has released Shenmue II for the Xbox this past Christmas season.

What does this mean to me, you ask? In a nutshell, you get to return to the lonely and self centered little world of one Ryo Hazuki, as he tries to avenge the death of his father (yeah, I know, sounds like every hokey kung fu, Bronson, or Seagal movie ever made, but it’s not that bad). For those of you who need it spelled out for you, the Shenmue series revolves around the thoroughly detestable Mr. Hazuki’s bumbling efforts to explore and unravel the mystery surrounding the murderer Lan Di and the secret of the two mirrors the elder Hazuki got offed over. Essentially, the Shenmue experience consists of this: playing as Hazuki, you spend hours on end wandering around aimlessly, being rude and unfriendly (covering up with the occasional "excuse me" and "thank you", as if this makes up for his obnoxious attitude and brusque demeanor) and making a general nuisance of yourself. Beyond (as might be expected) making a hell of a lot of enemies, this also means you’ll find yourself talking in his inimitably bizarre fashion (sort of like a bubbleheaded 1980’s valley girl incongruously putting on airs of pretension and class). Chances are, you’ll wind up walking around for weeks imitating his weird staccato inflections: "Ex-cuse may" "how-would-you like-to-play lu-cky heet?" No human being, including, most likely, the voice actor himself, actually talks like this; and with no apparent motivation behind the utter alienness of Hazuki’s speech patterns, the gamer has no choice but to accept the strangeness as if it were normal (cue the X-Files theme).

The most prominent complaints about the original Shenmue centered themselves around the issue of the game’s pacing. Even the game’s most ardent fans were quick to admit that things moved far too slowly, with wayyyyyy too much dead time between important game/story advancing events, and nothing much to fill it. One could argue that it was, therefore, perhaps the most accurate representation of teenage life in virtual gaming history, but that doesn’t exactly help the cause here. That said, let me be the first to bear the good news: the pacing in Shenmue II is much better. Things move faster and at times, depending on the situation, you’re actually able to skip ahead to the appointed time rather than having to kill time aimlessly till then. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case; but it occurs frequently enough that a little dead time is actually welcome, allowing you to rack up cash gambling, moving crates, arm wrestling, or pawning off crap you were supposed to have won in the first Shenmue (the saves were supposed to carry over, so whatever you left Japan with would have been all you’d have had to sell in Hong Kong, a nice bit of realism wiped out by the change in systems). That said, things still tend to drag. Some events present little obstacles to advancement in the game/story, and these can go on literally forever until you master them. Thus far in my game, the most annoying and long winded of these were the several days of carrying piles of books from the temple to the courtyard (Ryo is just aching to drop them, with QTE arrows flashing madly before you in rapid fire fashion, and about 15 piles to do, with a brief (for the speed the game allows you to progress at) time limit, forcing day after day of do-over…and that’s just for the first day (the story requires you to do this for at least 3!) and the "grab three leaves as they fall" routine, which requires some fancy herky-jerky dual joystick manipulation of the game’s camera view, which fights you all the way by refusing to remain stationary for more than a heartbeat. Better yet, these occur simultaneously in the plot, offering foreboding portends of future game-foolishness.

Shenmue II can be broken up into several types of gameplay; Free Quest, Free Battle, Quick Timer Events (QTE) and mini-games. As already hinted at, the free quest takes up most of your gameplay time. Here you get to explore at your own pace (read: slow), talk to people (who, as in real life, generally have nothing of any real substance to say), buy things (generally a waste of money, as Ryo doesn’t seem to need to eat; so blowing your cash at foodsellers, soda machines, and capsule machines amounts to flushing your funds down a toilet) and take part in various other situations. The misleadingly titled "free battle" comprises those points in the story when Ryo is attacked or practices his martial arts. The game’s fighting system is fairly simple to start with, but through the course of the game, gradually offers several "special" moves for Ryo to master. QTEs require you to input the command seen on the screen to complete a task. Failing too many times can end the QTE and you’ll have to find another way to trigger said QTE so you can progress in the game (occasionally, the game will offer you the chance to redo the QTE immediately; other times you have to wait a day or find another area that will trigger it). There are a lot of mini games and jobs that you can take part in during the course of your adventure in Shenmue II. You can make money arm wrestling, moving crates, or manning some gambling tables. Mini games include the ever popular Outrun, Afterburner II, Hang On, and Space Harrier (hey, the game designer had some deep inner need to plug his own crap, what do you want from me).

Hong Kong is a big place and you can easily get lost in it. When Ryo needs to get to a certain location, he can ask the people on the street for directions, unless you want to spring for an overpriced map (considering that, if you play by the rules, you only earn about $50 a day working (if and when you choose to do so), the $10 minimum on anything but soda and capsules (which cost $5) seems a bit exorbitant). In some cases, the person you ask will actually walk you to the spot you’re looking for. This can be extremely frustrating, however, since the people seem to move extremely slowly and tend to bump into other NPCs in the game (it takes them a good 3-5 seconds to figure out how to get around each other). It is, of course, possible for you to break away and stop following the person at any time. This results in the amusing situation where, after breaking away, winding up totally lost, and somehow finding your way to the location, you manage to bump into the person you were following, who’s apparently been standing there like an idiot the whole time, just to have them tell you that "we’ve arrived." Stick to asking directions from shopkeepers, who have to stay put. Everyone else is fair game for this sort of nonsense.

The music in Shenmue II, if a bit stereotyped, at least attempts to be authentic, and gives a nice feel for the setting. Each area gets its own theme music, as do certain characters in the game – you’ll never run into Joy without some third rate 80’s heavy metal blaring in the background. The only drawback concerning sound is the voice acting. As mentioned earlier, Ryo’s inflections are so bizarre, you have to wonder what galaxy they pulled him in from; other characters tend to sound overly exaggerated and caricatured (if the game weren’t so silly, the P.C. thought police would be on it like flies on shit).

The only real change from the Dreamcast import version to the Xbox version, beyond any graphical enhancements, is in the addition of the ridiculous "photo" option, which allows the Lara Croft/DOA Volleyball-obsessed teen pervert the opportunity to take still frame captures of virtual girls to beat off to. Personally, I used it to take pix of Buddhist temples, toilets, and the sleazebag who tries to get you to arm wrestle down by the docks, but that’s just my weird sense of humor.

The original plan was that Shenmue would run 5 parts. Given the time between releases, the speed at which the "big 3" have been shuffling out new systems (remember when the Dreamcast was brand new? What was that, 3 years ago?), the teeth-grindingly slow pace of the games themselves, and the apparent level of interest, this projection is a dubious one at best.

Highs:

  • Intricate, if glacially paced storyline, that if sped up significantly, could really grab your interest.
  • Plenty of mini games and assorted nonessential nonsense to keep you busy, so you don’t notice the time between story events quite so much as you would otherwise.
  • Very nice graphics overall, particularly in regards to the backgrounds, which along with some above average setting-appropriate music give a real feel of being in (a significantly glamorized and depopulated) Hong Kong.

Lows:

  • The dubbing is pretty bad. People tend to come off as real caricatures, and we won’t even discuss Hazuki’s bizarre delivery and inflections, which are obviously not native to this planet Earth.
  • Following people is a real time waster. Granted, you generally end up following friendly old folks and children, but you’re far better off asking directions from a shopkeeper (who won’t leave their post) and figuring things out for yourself.

Final Verdict: 

Shenmue II is a really big improvement over the original. While the first had some nice comfy hometown Asian atmosphere, there really wasn’t much else going for it – the sequel seems to move from plot point to plot point a mile a minute by comparison. The ability to skip ahead to appointments was such a blessing after struggling through the agonizing clock-watching of the first Shenmue, those who never owned the Dreamcast (shame on you!) could never imagine. The atmosphere is much busier and livelier (as befits one of the world’s most populous and interesting cities), there’s more to do and explore, and overall, the game is more fun.

The one setback is the likeability (or more to the point, the lack thereof) of the central character. You have to wonder why anyone wants to help Ryo, between his unusual (to be kind) speech patterns, his arrogant, wholly self-centered demeanor, and his overbearing rudeness to everyone over the age of 8. While a few of the characters may see him as a charity case (Joy and Master Lishao Tao) spring immediately to mind), it’s a miracle he wasn’t run out of HK, not to speak of his little hometown of Sakuragaoka, on a rail for the way he treats people (his reactions to "girlfriend" Nozomi and her departure for the states in the original Shenmue were priceless – how long do you think this guy’s remaining a virgin?). Having to spend the entire game (or in my case, two games) in the shoes of such a complete asshole is wearing in the same way one is embarrassed for people making a fool of themselves in public or onstage: you know it has nothing to do with you, but it’s chair-squirmingly uncomfortable all the same. Maybe Shenmue III should revolve around how Ryo finds a good woman to straighten out all his bullshit, and he finally gains a personality. Hell, at this point, even a little respect for other people would be a blessing. I know he’s supposed to be a revenge-obsessed straight arrow teen, but please. People generally don’t get through life acting like this.

Overall Score: 8.5

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