reviews\ Nov 3, 2002 at 7:00 pm

Shenmue II - XB - Review

When we last left Ryo Hazuki, the young Japanese school boy hero of the Dreamcast’s Shenmue, he was hot on the trail of Lan Di--the leader of the Chiyoumen Chinese criminal underground--who killed his father right in front of him.  In his search to find Lan Di, Ryo discovers that his father had a questionable past and that he was also the guardian of two mysterious mirrors--the first Lan Di obtains after killing Ryo’s father and the second one--the Phoenix Mirror--Ryo finds hidden in the basement of his dojo.  After fighting a gang called the Mad Angels, Ryo discovers that Lan Di has already left for Hong Kong.  Gamers can view the story in the DVD movie included with this sequel about a young man’s quest for revenge . . . and it is highly recommended that gamers watch it before playing the game.


Back in its day, Shenmue was a half-RPG and half-fighting game that impressed gamers with its open anything, knock on any door and talk to any person that you just happen to stumble upon in the street.  You can still buy anything you want--from a can of soda (any flavor you want) to tiny capsule toys you find in those vending machines.  You can even play 1980s arcade video game classics such as Afterburner II, Outrun, Space Harrier and Hang On or play a quick round of darts and other assorted mini-games.


Still, while fun as the mini-games are, Ryo’s mission is to find his father’s killer and the streets of Hong Kong is just too massive to find one man.  Once again you are to follow lead after lead looking for people that know other people who might have an idea where the Chiyoumen hang out.  Of course, there are a number of things that get in the way.  For one thing, Ryo’s cash flow is limited so he must find ways to earn money (e.g. get a job, gamble or fight for it).  Secondly, the day quickly turns into night in this world and sleep is a necessity.


This time, however, Ryo gets a little help from people he befriends during his long search.  He meets an assortment of characters that aid him on his quest such as Joy, a wild young girl on a fast motorcycle that gets Ryo his first job lifting crates at the docks.  Then there are the martial arts masters he meets throughout the game who teaches Ryo new moves to add to his repertoire of moves he learned back in the first game. 


While not a fighting game per se, Shenmue borrows its fighting controls from the Virtua Fighter games with different punches, kicks, grappling holds and a wide variety of combos.  On more than a couple of occasions, Ryo must battle multiple enemies.  Thankfully you can turn to your move scrolls to remember how to execute a specialty move you just happened to have learned.


And making its return are the Quick Timer Events (QTEs for short) that are implemented by pressing the corresponding button or directional pad when the game quickly flashes the symbol on the screen.  Usually these events occur during a chase or a quick fight and the outcome of the event moves the story forward. Take to long or press the wrong button one too many times and you’ll have to start all over again until you get it right.  Strangely enough, there are no scenarios for failed QTEs so there is no limit to how many times you attempt it.


There are just a few things that really hinder this game from being the perfect game.  For one thing, the pacing of the game might not agree with certain gamers that want to keep the truly fascinating story moving.  Gamers might find that they wouldn’t have enough time to reach area X in time before Ryo decides to call it a day. Secondly, the camera sometimes does not do a good job of tracking Ryo when he is up against more than three opponents in a tight space. 


The graphics are surprisingly similar to the Dreamcast version with very little in Xbox enhancements, but that doesn’t mean the graphics are bad at all.  In fact, there are characters and places that look simply amazing.  Each character you meet off the street (and there are literally more than a thousand characters) has his or her own distinct facial features.  Gamers who have never played the game will love the heavily detailed city and watching all those people go about their business.  And there are cut scene animations that are wonderful to watch.


From the opening theme to the closing credit music, Shenmue’s score is both beautiful and very moving.  You know you’re playing a true epic by the lush score that follows throughout the narrative or when Ryo gets into a fight. Every moment and character seems to have its own theme music, putting a personal touch to both people and locations of interest.  It really is a wonderful soundtrack.  The voice acting, on the other hand, is a different story.  Aside from Ryo’s stating of the obvious or repetitive remarks, the Japanese to English translation is still a little rough in spots.  Still--and this is the most impressive part--there is an abundance of background noises that correspond to the area you happen to be in such as chattering people at the cafe or the pigeon’s flapping their wings at the local park.


Shenmue II is a sweeping epic with a story that will hook you with its great characters and Ryo’s transformation from schoolboy to a man with a destiny he cannot comprehend.  And while the game still suffers from some of the same ailments that plagued the first game (day turns into night too quickly while you’re doing something important and there are too many unanswered questions and leads that go nowhere), this is an adventure gamers should not miss at all. 


#Reviewer's Scoring Details


 Gameplay: 8.6
This is definitely a case of: If it isn’t broken, why fix it?  The controls are simple enough and there is an icon for everything from opening a door, examining objects and asking about specific topics of interest.  The fighting mechanics are even a breeze, although there are certain combos that require plenty of practice in order to execute correctly.  Otherwise, Ryo’s fighting style is similar to those seen in most arcade fighters.


Much of the game, though, is investigation.  Ryo finds himself combing Hong Kong for clues and more clues lead to more clues until you feel that you’re pretty much going in circles.  If you miss your window of opportunity at any point in the game, that’s okay, you can always accomplish a task the next day.   


Graphics: 8.0
There is not much that sets this sequel apart from its Dreamcast original and that is saying a lot since the first Shenmue is simply gorgeous.  The character details in this game are simply amazing, with certain characters looking better than others.  There are characters with distinct facial features such as moles, wrinkles and other physical characteristics that make up a person.  It’s great to see that not many characters look identical to one another.  Yet sometimes a character movement might seem stiff and a bit awkward.


Yet the cut scenes in the game are true eye-candy with its fluid animation and vibrant use of color.  With the night comes a soft “dreamy” glow that comes from the streetlights, making the heavily detailed city a dream-like quality.  There is much to see in this city that seems so alive thanks to the moving people and the busy shops. 


Sound: 8.4
High praise should go to the musical score that is, again, one of the game’s highlights.  Not only does it give the impression that you’re playing an epic, but its sometimes cheerful and sometimes sad melodies give the story its own personality.  Almost every character has his or her own music; for example, Joy has a heavy metal theme song that follows her around.  Gamers will suddenly know when a character is coming just by the music.


The voice acting, sadly, does not make quite the impression the rich score does. The rough translation from Japanese to Chinese makes for awkward conversations and is sometimes delivered in an unintentionally funny manner.    


Difficulty: Medium
As you progress, battles become harder, especially when you’re up against a boss (unfortunately, Ryo does not face off with Lan Di).  QTEs can also be quite difficult at first, but since you can do them over again, it is just a question of memorizing the button sequence.  The game’s biggest difficulty comes from tracking down each lead.


Concept: 8.9
Aside from the fact that the Hong Kong featured in this game is fully-interactive and seemingly alive (shopkeepers go about their business during the day and then close up their shops late at night), gamers will be hooked by the story.  We’ll see the shaping of Ryo the young man who is consumed by his hatred and how it affects those around him.  In this game he discovers the secret behind the Phoenix Mirror and we learn more about Lan Di and his ties to Ryo’s father.


There are new features presented here such as the ability to take snapshots of favorite scenes in which you can view them in a scrapbook.  And you can also play any mini-game you just happened to have played during the course of the game in the main menu.  It was also great that they included a DVD of the first Shenmue so first time gamers can be introduced to the characters and the story that lead up to the events of the sequel.


Overall: 8.7
With it’s mixing of genres and brilliant story, Shenmue II is an unforgettable experience gamers should not miss.  Although far from perfect, the game’s lengthy quest is a worthwhile journey to take on even if you’ve never played the original.


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