After the huge success of Yu Suzuki's Shenmue creation, it seems sad in reflection that the Dreamcast console did not survive to carry on his unique vision. By the time Shenmue 2 was released, the console was dying and to make matters worse, Microsoft stepped in and secured the exclusive American rights for the game to be released on their first console the Xbox. This meant that SEGA only distributed Shenmue 2 for the Dreamcast in PAL format, meaning of course Europe only. American's would have to wait for Shenmue 2 or import the game. Lucky Europeans got to play it a year early because of this, yet the game was different to the first. Gone were the American dubbed vocals from the first Shenmue for the characters, and instead the original Japanese voice actors and language were left untouched with the simple addition of English subtitles. More importantly however, was that those that played the original DC Shenmue and completed it could carry on with their previous completed save file which is unique for each gamer's experience of how they went about finishing the first. Ryo Hazuki, the main hero of the series could retain his martial arts moves and the experience/proficiency gained from all those practice sessions players indulged in, as well as the amount of money they were left with and the items that were picked up along the way. So the biggest question was, could Shenmue 2 really surpass the greatness of the original?
Graphics: 10/10
The first thing you notice when stepping off the ship that Ryo traversed to get to China, is that the graphics are much improved and are quite outstanding. How they improved upon the original's game's graphics is amazing in itself, but certainly the detail has been cranked up and the textures used allow for far more colour composition and detail. Most evident are the character models and their faces, namely Ryo's which the cut scenes show off to good effect. The environments, whereas somewhat sparse in Shenmue are now bustling with many Chinese civilians going about their daily trade or business, and the streets are very crowded. On the screen there may be as many as eight people at once during the Free Quest mode, combined with the now extravagant buildings and locals of China. The palette of colours used for the buildings are far more advanced, and at times the dazzling colours can appear a little in your face compared to the slightly blander ones from Shenmue. For example, much of the stonework of buildings in say the street of Aberdeen appears very bright and a little hard on the eye, as occasionally does the overuse of red in some structures. But this is China after all, and the oriental feel is captured with perfect gusto. The most outstanding scene for me was the first time you encounter the vivid red trees dotted around Hong Kong in particular areas, and the last disc which focuses on rural Japan and its contrasts to urban society are some of the best level settings in a game that I have ever seen. At the same time, there are also a lot more scenes inside buildings in this game, and each have amazing textures, highlighting the cracks in the plaster of the wall, concrete floors breaking away, stone cobble streets etc. The lighting in this game is also much improved, with it almost dancing across the walls of caves from torches or light fixtures emanating their limited light into dank hallways. Weather effects which were a big part of Shenmue's success for me still remain, the Magic Weather system that Suzuki has devised. The sky and weather in the game for the most part remain very sunny unlike the first game's abundant rain, and the sky is extremely vivid and light, crystal blue, the sun causing lens glare, as well as the purple hue of unsettled weather in Guilin or Pigeon Park. I did find at times that I missed the rain, and with the environment's being so infused with activity and style, you very rarely notice that it is raining. Unfortunately, with so much being put up on the screen at once and in such grandeur, some scenes bear slowdown due to the DC's hardware being pushed to the limit. This at first for me, in contrast to Shenmue which has none that I noticed, ruined the game a little such as Pigeon Park which has many people and trade stalls as well as a grand and huge flowing fountain double tier centre piece. However, this is not evident in all the game and you soon become accustomed to it and think nothing of it. Only Pigeon Park remains a stumbling block.
Sound: 7/10
Unfortunately much of Shenmue 2's music is not very memorable when compared to the near perfect Shenmue OST. Some of the old tunes are reused, particularly the main theme which is still just as emotive and captivating as it always has and will be, and makes you wish there had been more done for this game. What is there isn't poor, but just lacks that polished orchestral epic scale. The last disc and Shenhua's song is a standout moment for this game, and you'll just want to listen to it again and again as well as the Orphanage theme. Other sound, i.e. the environment and special effects are much improved upon the first game. Most impressive of all is the sound added to give the impression of a fully populated and active community going about their daily business, as you continue your exploration and quest for Lan Di. A great little touch is the clapping of stall traders and shops as you go by as they attempt to gain your attention. Sound effects during battles are all excellent and very satisfying to hear such as the thud of the elbow assault move or it's counter move.
Gameplay: 8/10
Always the main core of the Shenmue experience, and you will find many revisions to it in the sequel since the original game. First off all, and rather annoyingly, the controls have altered. The L button on the DC controller now looks, instead of runs and the R button runs (essentially they have swapped over commands). While this may have been the best option in the first place, since mastering Shenmue it becomes an instant inconvenience. However, this is easily altered back in the options menu. Likewise, the notebook function is now on the yellow X button which also acts as the action button for opening doors/picking up object when next to them. This can cause much hassle as you may want to open a door, only for the notebook to pop up instead because of a new clue jotted down etc. All the menu systems have been given a face lift, most noticeable the moves list which is now much more coherent and nice to look at. The greatest addition though is the use of the Y button which now acts as a separate command to talk to people about ways of making money. Making money in Shenmue 2 no longer relies on a steady 9.00 - 5.00pm job at the harbour. Instead, it can be gained from working shifts lifting crates at the pier, gambling by either playing a selection of new games like Lucky Shot (drop a ball down a board of positioned pins and if it lands in the red marked spot as opposed to the white cross, you win!!), or arm wrestling or street fighting. You also have the genius addition of pawnshops where those collectables like capsule toys finally become financially useful, although there are different rates at each rival pawnshop. The crate job, in my opinion is fun and a steady course of reliable income, but quickly becomes boring. It is not a patch on the forklift job in the original game which required more skill and a time limit, whereas crates require QTE's (pressing the button command on the screen in a time limit which corresponds to the controller to accomplish an action). Gambling is great but very addictive and risky! Conversations in the game are now far more efficiently set out by means of a menu that pops up when talking in Free Quest mode which allows Ryo to ask about a certain place, objective etc. This beats just pressing the A button like in Shenmue. One unfortunate aspect in this game is that there seems less time to mill around and just talk to people about daily life which the original game did so well, and instead Ryo's objectives are firmly placed in mind when talking. While the talking and gaining clues aspect to the game is its strength, I still miss this element. Perhaps the award for best addition should go to the WAIT command, where you can push an event forward instead of waiting for the time to pass in game which sometimes can take a couple of hours. Need to meet a guy at 5.00pm but arrived at 11.00am too early? Just wait for the command to pop up and you can press it, otherwise the free hours are yours to explore. The greatest travesty in this game is that you can no longer practice your martial arts moves outside of the random characters sparring and learning moves. While it was a little hard and inflexible in Shenmue, it was one of it's best RPG elements. Also missing is some of the freedom of the original, such as searching through drawers, cupboards, using a torch, buying batteries etc. While they still remain, they are in far more simplistic form. The biggest sense you get from this game is the need for action and the story to move along at a steady pace. Arguably the original was a little slow for some people's liking. The characters in this game are just as excellent as the original, and you meet many on your adventure. The streetwise Joy is a revelation, although some early cut scenes overuse her motorbike movements (i.e. up close screeching). You really grow to love her, as does Ryo who is a little unsure at first. Wong the orphan street kid is a great addition and a real bond develops, as does Ren the leader of a street gang who you finally enlist to help you. Fangmei, a little girl and the side quest of gaining her affection is a typical classic Shenmue moment. However, the best character for me was Xiuying, the female master who has great depth and an intriguing back story. She is also the most skilled martial artist in the game despite her unlikely appearance, and her teachings to Ryo as well as his at times edgy relationship with her really contrast with Ryo's quest to gain vengeance. She is his conscience for the most part who, although he doesn't always agree with her, respects her. Game play at the beginning is slow, perhaps slightly boring until you realise what to do and go. Their is a tendency for an over reliance on using street maps to pinpoint where you are and where you are going, which hampers the game a little (although imbues a sense of Ryo and the gamer being a tourist in a strange land). Although much time is spent in Hong Kong, you do not become as familiarised with it as Ryo's home in Japan, but become more acquainted by key sites such as the Man Mo Temple. You move on to new territory soon after anyway. I must say I prefer Ryo's home environment as it has that feeling of familiarity and a personal aura that becomes very welcoming and calming to play, but you cannot fault the sights in Shenmue 2, most of which are near perfect in design. There is too much reliance on QTE's in this game this time around for my liking, which can become frustrating, as well as the new feature of a dpad and buttons flashing on screen telling you what to press quickly or fail. These come up so quickly and can be hard to work out first time, and this took me some time to get used to. The enemies in Shenmue 2 are a little disappointing and seem little more than caricature at times, but the strong supporting cast of Ryo more than makes up for this. When this game is excellent, there is little better out there, when it is slow and at times repetitive with say QTE's or backtracking, it is merely good. There are many plot developments and devices in the sequel which are just excellent, such as the street fighting challenge later on. There is much more fighting in the game as well, Free Battle style, and you immediately notice that Ryo is much fluid in his movement. The last disc with Shenhua, although really just a prologue with QTE's, is an absolute revelation and classic Shenmue. The boss battle in at the end of the game is brilliant, as is the moment you defeat him. However, I found all the Free Battles rather too easy. After battling Chai in Shenmue, it makes them look like weaklings! and reinforces the fact of why Suzuki would ass Chai, he is too hard and out of sync with the games difficulty level.
Lifespan: 10/10
I certainly cannot fault this game for its sheer size and depth. It eclipses the original Shenmue in many ways, the areas Ryo explores and the towns as well as the game being on 4 discs, one more than the original (albeit the last acts as a prologue to set up the next game in the series). It will take you probably about 25-30 to complete initially, without indulging in the fabled Shenmue collectables of capsule toys, the arcade machines and darts etc. If anything, I felt the game was a little too long, and could have been condensed in parts. Shenmue is a 16 chapter tale, and whereas the original game was just one chapter, this sequel contains chapters 2-7. That is quite a big part of the story, but it feels that maybe just too much has been overloaded at once. Granted in some chapters there is little significant moments that move the tale on in a big way, that's reserved for the last two discs. It is welcome to witness Ryo finally grow as an individual which the first Shenmue lacked, so we see his transformation into an adult and a worthy martial artist, as well as him learning more about the harshness of the real world.
Overall: 8/10
This, alongside the original Shenmue, remains the most original game in recent memory and the DC's shining light in the gaming world, albeit arguably it's last triple AAA title before the console's demise. I found the game a revelation, and at the same time a little disappointing. It is still a great game that has made many improvements but still remains a little flawed. Many of the ingredients that made the original Shenmue game and undoubted classic have been taken away and replaced by newer material, and while this is amazing in itself, a part of me harbours for the simplicity of the original, as well as the touching moments of character development between Nozomi and Ryo and the emotion generated between them which was essentially, a love story. What is brilliant about this game, is that you are getting a game experience unlike any other, seeing Ryo grow as a character and learn the art form of a martial artist master, new friendships made with great characters, and the tale enter new mysterious ground ready for Shenmue 3. While the ending to Shenmue may have been the most emotional, the ending to this sequel is by far the most mysterious and interesting, opening up further possibilities for how this quest Ryo has decided to follow will end. I can't wait!!!
Many Thanks to contributor 'TheHellboundheart' for this Fantastic review.