The stars had seemed to finally align. The gaming climate, finally primed for the ultimate vision of the prodigious Yu Suzuki, was to be forever changed. All the correct elements were in place – a stellar development team at Sega-AM2, years of planning that saw development change from a Virtua Fighter RPG into something completely original and unlike anything seen before, and a healthy amount of hype. In the Christmas season of year 2000, Sega let loose its much talked-about magnum opus, and would-be counterattack against then-rival Sony, on an eager American public, who had of it the expectations of utmost realism mixed with delusions of grandeur.
Needless to say, the game was Shenmue. And even more needless to say, what we got was not quite what most of us had anticipated, and rather than the splash it was expected to make, Shenmue flopped in the critical gaming waters of the time. But it was really the failing of the public, not the producers, as Shenmue was to be a part of something much greater.
What’s worse, this failing would not have spelled such certain doom for the series if the budget of the game hadn’t been the biggest any game to date. With all manner of funds crumbling away at Sega, the future of Shenmue looked bleak, and fans in North America awaited with baited breath the final word on the sequel. The word came, and Shenmue 2 became, quite conceivably, the best Dreamcast game that never was.
See, Shenmue 2 was supposed to be released here in 2001, like it was in Europe. And although it was happily published a year later on the Xbox, albeit to much reduced-fanfare, it definitely could have been a boon to the ailing Dreamcast and to general fan loyalty to Sega. Because as dull as the first game could get, it was still something special – and everything that the original did right, Shenmue 2 did better, and then some.
Perhaps it’s simply because the second game, spanning chapters 2-5 of the 15 originally planned, was destined to have more thrills, spills, and even a few chills from the outset, owing to the growing momentum of Ryo’s quest. Or perhaps the added excitement was the result of the post-release field testing provided by the painfully slow Shenmue. In any event, Ryo’s quest through 80’s Hong Kong and area – from Wan Chai to Kowloon to Guilin – beats the ramen out of his earlier adventures through his hometown Yokosuka.
Japan seems like a real tea ceremony from the moment Ryo steps off the boat to China. This leg of the vengeful young man’s journey, which began the fateful day Lan Di and his murderous Chiyoumen cohorts invaded the Hazuki family dojo and brutally killed Ryo’s father, is full of more unsavory activities – from street gambling to street fighting, kidnapping to gang-infiltrating – than you can shake a chopstick at. And at the same time, the slower side of life continues on as it did in the first game, as Ryo must handle cargo at the docks, work gambling stands, and sell stuff at pawnshops to make a surefire buck.
Shenmue, although an unmatched aesthetical triumph in its representation of real-life locales, is first and foremost about character development. For all the people we love and miss from the first game, there are a lot more we come to like in the second. The hero cast – which ranges from the wise but sad martial arts Master Lishao Tao, to the good-natured child criminal Wong, to the mockingly, mercilessly mercenary gang lord Ren – are once again more likeable than the robotic protagonist himself. But even he becomes a better, fuller person throughout his travels, as Ryo and company work their way through some truly cutthroat opposition – a huge gang boss and his chainsaw-happy love interest, for example.
Naturally, the game uses the same engine as Shenmue, which means the return of Free roaming mode, for strolling and chatting in the vastly larger quarters of Hong Kong, the cinematic Quick-Time Events sequences, which require fast-reflex button-pressing, and Fight mode, for knocking some heads in Virtua Fighter-style, now with more first-person battles. Additional attractions in the game include gambling (either as a client or the operator) at several games of chance, darts, arm-wrestling, prize fights, and other games meant to rob you of your riches or add to them.
This all forms the livelier front for the true backdrop of the game – the ongoing saga of revenge against Lan Di. The plot here is not all that innovative, being a fairly standard revenge story, but the presentation is stupendous. From the vibrant, detailed realizations of urban China’s neon nights and the sounds of the marketplace to rural China’s mountainous countryside and rushing waters, to the individuality of each and every person’s appearance, mannerisms and voice to the embroidery on their clothes and wares, the presentation is beyond reproach. The game suffers a little slowdown in some of its more populated moments, but given that those moments are VERY populated, it’s mostly a smooth ride through the beautiful Far East. Cutscenes are presented in slightly higher-polygon count, widescreen format, accentuating the action and storytelling power of Shenmue 2.
Control and menus are expectedly a little clunky in the busy, massive 3D environments. You can customize the look-around, walk-around controls to a point, but they’re a little unnatural no matter which you relegate to the directional pad and analog thumb pad, so expect a little fine tuning of your movements before you get the right interactions with people and objects to become available. For the modes other than Free Mode, the controls are fine – fighting, cargo handling, and QTE controls all remain responsive, and happily, the arcade games you can play are all ported with controls (and the rest) intact. And you can get from one place to another fast enough by running – with no penalty of breathlessness – which serves to keep up the game’s pace.
Gameplay-wise, as stated before, Shenmue 2 is a barrel of fun. Gathering clues and hitting key destinations forms a good chunk of the action, but there’s always something spicing it up along the way. The only truly dull moments occur when the game forces you to earn enough cash before going forward, cause if you don’t have nearly enough, it can take a very long stint at repetitive tasks to earn the needed dough.
+ Pros: Each of Shenmue 2’s four discs provides a unique experience to create a movie-calibur world, brought alive by sharp graphics and attention to minute details.
– Cons: Sound encoding quality could have been better, and Ryo’s dialogue can be very one-dimensional, a little too reminiscent of the first game – too dull and uninspired.
Overall: Four years and counting after the last game, Shenmue 3 seems a distant prospect on Sega’s unsure horizon. And although the series is so dearly incomplete, it is definitely worth the longing for a sequel that it invariably causes in those who play it. Entrancing, enlightening and oft requiring the patience and discipline it in turn espouses as the path to fulfilment, Shenmue 2 will leave its mark on not only your gaming skills, but your person as a whole.
Written by Katie Montminy.
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