Shenmue II is the second installment of Yu Suzuki's ambitious Shenmue series; a reinvention of the interactive movie. The recipe? First, develop a story and bring it to life via a painstakingly realistic virtual world. Next, make the player an active participant in the development of this story via a hybrid of fighting and RPG gameplay. Presto, Shenmue. As far as virtual worlds are concerned, Shenmue II has some of the most complex and realistic game space ever. It has bump-mapped the bitmap world of the traditional RPG without loss of scope, and made the CG movietime the realtime. The gameplay and story, however, have had a difficult time fleshing out of this virtual world. Many felt Shenmue I had too much detective duty and too little action, making it more of a chore than it needed to be. While Shenmue II does greatly improve the gameplay of its predecessor, the gameplay is still imperfect, and there remains an underlying tedium to the gameplay that limits its accessibility. Nonetheless, the UK version of Shenmue II is a closer realization of Suzuki's impressive vision for the Shenmue series.
The opening of Shenmue II demonstrates its dramatic graphical improvements: At the end of Shenmue I, Ryo set sail into the sunset underneath a pixilated, bitmap sky, upon a pristine ocean with no other boats in the horizon. As Shenmue II opens we see that this sky now blends seamlessly into the 3D environment, and that Ryo's ship now shares a more active sea with 3 other boats as he heads towards the backdrop of a 3D rendered Hong Kong. As Ryo steps onto Hong Kong soil, over a dozen people chat, do business, harass, play and walk along all at once. People and objects are more abundant, better rendered, and better animated than their predecessors, which is miraculous considering the Dreamcast's limitations. This is especially true of the gorgeously realistic models of the supporting cast of the story, such as Ren, Don Nu, and Lishao Tao. These distinct and believable characters contribute immeasurably to this story-driven game. The architecture found in Shenmue II is gargantuan in size, and diverse in design. From the urban zoo of Kowloon to the verdant backcountry of China, each disc contains an environment and story as large as all 3 discs of Shenmue I. The landscapes and buildings are adorned by equally well designed, hi and med-res textures that shine in a subtly changing blanket of colors and shadows courtesy of Shenmue II's proficient lighting system. All of this graphic expansion does come with increased slowdown, but rest assured that it is brief and not dramatic. There is also momentary, selective fadeout of certain objects, and occasional fogging, but all of this is done tastefully, without any significant detraction from gameplay.
Shenmue II makes skillful use of music and sound. There are excellent musical themes appropriate to the various Chinese sub-cultures and localities found in the game, which makes the environments more authentic. The sound effects are very hi-fi: Shenmue's environments are almost as diverse acoustically as they are visually. The most innovative use of sound, however, occurs when Ryo must listen to a 10-minute long tape recording for clues. In this sequence distinct sounds are vital hints. The dialogue, which is in Japanese, is also well done, and superior to that of Shenmue I. The main characters voices are appropriate and add immeasurably to the dialogue, and consequently to the quality of the story and gameplay.
Suzuki has wisely increased both the pace and the action of Shenmue II's plot, but not quite to a high enough degree. As good as they are, cinematic sequences and every day dialogue can thankfully be skipped over, as can the waiting period for time specific events which frustrated many players of Shenmue I. A more even distribution of story and action sequences also contributes to the smoother flow of Shenmue II. The non-interactive story sequences are more exciting than those in Shenmue I due to better acting. Also improved are the well designed interactive action sequences, such as QTEs (Simon Says), Virtua Fighter fight scenes, and new stealth action scenes a la Metal Gear Solid. These latter sequences are new to the Shenmue series, and are very cool. Made with Ryo's sidekick Ren in mind, they represent Shenmue II's innovative incorporation of the supporting cast into the gameplay. Despite these highlights, many of the action scenes are downright boring and repetitive, such as the carrying of books and crates, even though they pass much more quickly than in Shenmue I. There is a greater selection of sidebar games, especially the Virtua Fighter-esque battles. One's skill in these scenes is essential to the advancement of the character, but unfortunately button mashers will also pass. The fighting engine remains troublesome, as one's orientation changes frequently. Too often right becomes left, up becomes down, and the execution of moves becomes unnecessarily difficult. Finally, the two arcades in the game provide a collection of Suzuki's arcade games, including the holy grail that is Afterburner II.
As an interactive movie in which gameplay revolves around the story, Shenmue is not for everyone. Although it has definite fighting elements, such scenes are too few to satisfy the purist fighting gamer. It is my hope that the next installment of Shenmue will minimize the many mundane and repetitive tasks found in Shenmue II. While they are 'realistic', Picking up firewood isn't fun in real life, let alone in a game. Furthermore, some sidequests, such as the collection of miniature Sega-related toys, lack any practical value. Sure, Shenmue II impressively captures many of life's intricacies, but it needs to make many of them more relevant and fun. Both the design and the pacing of the tasks must be improved, as the plodding nature of Disc 4 clearly shows. Still, the mere experience of walking through the incredibly rendered worlds relieves some of this tedium. In spite of its flaws, Shenmue II is a great improvement over Shenmue I, and is a quality game with many highlights. It demonstrates that Suzuki's pioneering vision is feasible, but also that he must improve particular aspects of the game. Fortunately, the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts when it comes to Shenmue II. Many discount the story as cliché, and this does have a certain ring of truth. But as Shenmue fleshes out the hackneyed storyline via its visual realism, you become immersed in the world, and the result is anything but cliché. Wait for the XBOX version or import a copy for the Dreamcast UK, because Shenmue II is a stunningly immersive experience, the only of its kind. It is a wonderful testament to the creative power of Yu Suzuki and a fitting last big hurrah to the legacy of the Dreamcast.