Platform: Dreamcast, Xbox
Developer: AM2 of CRI
Review Date: 1/27/02
Well, Microsoft REALLY pissed me off with this one. Literally, less than a month before its scheduled release, Microsoft bought the "Shenmue" franchise and pulled the American Dreamcast release of the highly anticipated "Shenmue II", robbing fans of the anxiously awaited sequel and denying the Dreamcast its final triumph. Just another sad reminder of the business side of the entertainment industry, and while I'm sure that being backed by Microsoft is probably the best thing for the future of the "Shenmue" franchise, the timing was AWFUL and it only infuriated the fans who had been patiently waiting for this game. Now, as an Xbox exclusive in the States, American fans will have to wait until Christmas 2002 or beyond to continue the story of Ryo Hazuki. But that's not for me... Interestingly enough, the English version was still released for the European Dreamcast, so fans of the series can still play it with little to no difficulty. The biggest problem is that you can't use your saved file from the American version of the game unless you hack some of the bits (which I wasn't about to do).
Anyway, the game picks up right where "Shenmue" left off, with Ryo Hazuki leaving for Hong Kong to find answers and avenge the death of his father. "Shenmue II" covers chapters 2-4 of the story arc and takes Ryo to Hong Kong, Kowloon, and Guilon. This game is much more serious about resource management, and the first thing that happens when you get to Hong Kong is Ryo gets mugged and loses all of his money. Homeless, friendless, and broke, Ryo's first priority is to find lodging and get a job. And a few friends wouldn't hurt, either. Thankfully, Ryo is a dashing and charismatic young man, and he meets several girls who help him out. Joy, Xiuying, Fangmei, and Shenhua are all extremely delightful and helpful characters, but I found myself more interested in the exchange student at the Tomato Convenience Store and a Caucasian martial artist named Eileen who refused to talk to me no matter how many times I pestered her. That's just like me to go for the ones who couldn't care less about my existence. (Ironically, only after finishing the game did I learn that both of these characters play a much larger role if you approach them correctly. Those Shenmue developers were extremely clever to make these characters subconsciously stand out from the rest, and now I'm going to have to play through the game again.) Unfortunately, Ryo's got issues with women and can be a real jerk at times, but after getting his ass kicked around a few times, he learns a little respect. Very much like the original "Shenmue", the majority of the game is just one giant goose chase as you follow various clues and talk to different people all over town. And if you thought Hong Kong was a rough place to be, just wait until you get to Kowloon...
Visually, the game is superb and pushes the Dreamcast's hardware to the limit. The bustling marketplaces in Hong Kong are stunningly recreated and it's wonderful to just wander around and look at them. And then when you get to Kowloon, things are even more fascinating to look at. The sound is also excellent, although some of the dialog sounds a little clipped - probably due to compression and the fact that there's SO MUCH dialog for the literally hundreds of characters milling around. Thankfully, this time around the dialog is all in Japanese with English subtitles, as the inappropriate and often dreadful English dubbing in the first game was a sore spot with a lot of fans. Curiously, in this game it seems odd that everyone is speaking Japanese when they should be speaking Cantonese instead... Although all of the characters in the game are Chinese (except Ryo, of course), many of them act in a decidedly Japanese manner, which is often disconcerting. It's kind of like watching a Hong Kong movie with Japanese sensibilities. The music is brilliant, with musical genius Yuzo Koshiro involved once again.
The gameplay is essentially the same as the original, but the QTE's are a bit more complex and combo actions are difficult to process and execute. I literally got stuck on one action for twenty minutes because I couldn't read and comprehend the instructions quickly enough. Free battles are essentially the same, but occasionally you're forced into fighting in first-person perspective, which is extremely disorienting. There aren't any training areas (that I could find) where Ryo can practice his martial arts skills, so battles are much more of a random button mashing exercise than they were in the first game. There are still video game arcades, soda machines, and capsule toy machines, but it's hard to justify spending your hard earned money on them when you're just barely scraping together enough cash to pay your hotel bill. In addition to "Hang On" and "Space Harrier", "Outrun" and "Afterburner II" can also be found in "Shenmue II."
As far as game design is concerned, the game seems much more scripted than the original - especially after you get to Kowloon. And when you get to Guilon, you'd better have a dedicated three hours of time set aside because there are only two or three places where you can save the game. While not as emotionally gripping as the first game, the story is consistently interesting, although there are times when it seems to drag. Just enough questions get answered, which raises some other very interesting questions. Just what was Ryo's father up to anyway? We also learn what Shenmue is, and by the end of the game I was just waiting for space aliens to somehow get thrown into the mix. I guess we'll have to wait for "Shenmue III" to find out. Technology-wise, load-times are still a bear, but the biggest problem is with slow-down and pop-up people. In crowded places where there are dozens of people milling about, they often won't become visible until they're literally right in your face, making navigation a little tricky and annoying at times. It will be very interesting to see how the Xbox version will look and how it will handle these technical issues. If you can't wait for the American version or have political issues with the Xbox platform, then the European DC version is definitely a good and enjoyable way to go.
Notes on the Xbox version: As you would expect, the graphics in the Xbox version of the game are considerably nicer looking, even though the game essentially looks the same. The water effects are dramatically better, the distance blurring is non-existent, and the pixel dancing effects of interference patterns are drastically reduced. There are still pop-up people though, which surprised me. Not surprisingly, the American release of the game is unconvincingly dubbed in English. Corey Marshall returns as Ryo and does a respectable job, but the supporting cast is still pretty weak. Even though the game takes place in Hong Kong, it seems more appropriate to hear people speaking in Japanese than in English (if that makes any sense at all). Other than that, the game plays out identically. The Xbox controller maps perfectly to the Dreamcast controls and everything is quite intuitive.