"Excuse me, do you know a place where sailors hang out?"
Those are the words that launched a thousand ships. All right, perhaps I'm exaggerating a little bit there, but they did help launch the ship where we last left Ryo Hazuki, on his way to Hong Kong.
Perhaps, and I'm sure that I am going out on a limb here, you didn't leave Ryo Hazuki anywhere. Maybe you don't even know who he is? I know, it sounds silly to me too, but for anyone who somehow managed to miss one of the most unique gaming experiences that Sega's Dreamcast had to offer, Shenmue, a brief synopsis might be required.
In Shenmue, you were put in control of the Ryo in question, as he set out to avenge his father's death at the feet of a man named Lan Di. It was essentially RPG elements, mixed with Virtua Fighter with just a pinch of Simon Says. Believe it or not, there's no better explanation than that. You began with more questions than answers, and you pretty much ended that way too, but at least you got to drive a forklift.
While the entire first game took place in Japan, your quest for truth eventually leads you to discover that Lan Di has already left the island, and gone to Hong Kong. You follow, and that is where Shenmue II picks up.
Built on the same exact engine as its daddy, Shenmue II is the same style of game, named FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) by its creators. You are in complete control. Talk to whomever you want to, buy as many Sega brand capsule toys as you like, and drink as many sodas as your young
bladder can handle, which as far as I can tell is as many as you can afford.
The point is that Hong Kong in the game is really its own place, packed with different people, places, and buildings, almost all of which are completely at your disposal. The detail that they went into in the game is completely indescribable, and it would be a crime for me to even attempt to explain it. It's something that you just have to see.
The QTEs (Quick Time Events) are back too, though they're a lot tougher and more plentiful now. For you newcomers, QTE's are a series of button pushes that you will have to do quickly and suddenly at certain points in the game to keep Ryo from falling off a ledge, or getting hit in the head with a flying watermelon and that sort of thing.
For those of you familiar with the first, you'll be right at home here. Everyone in Hong Kong has (mostly) his own personality, his own routine, and his own look. You'll still find yourself running across town to ask someone something, just to find out that you have to go back where you came from to ask someone different. This is a far larger place than Yokosuka ever was, though, so you might as well tape the Run trigger down. You won't be doing much strolling, and Ryo's robotic, and oftentimes frustrating control will make you want to walk even less.
It's not all that bad though, since AM2 has given you a new feature to make your playing time far less tedious. The Wait feature allows you to skip forward in time, instead of having to go kill ten hours of game time at the arcade. Is it 10 a.m. and you have to meet someone at 6 p.m.? Well, put those quarters back in your pocket, just select Wait, and it'll be 6 in no time.
The second major addition to the pace of the game is the fact that rather than just asking for directions from someone - and you will, over and over again - you can actually walk with people to your destination. It can be slow at times, especially when you ask one of Hong Kong's older residents, but it's much more efficient than wandering blindly. Since it switched into a first-person view, you'll also get a good opportunity to use one of the exclusive features of the Xbox version: the camera. Use that time walking to capture the perfect image of that schoolgirl's rump for posterity.
That poor girl's behind is probably all of the graphical joy that Xbox owners will be able to get out of this game. It was a Dreamcast game originally, and it still looks like one, despite a better frame rate, less slowdown, and some enhancements to certain cut scenes. Gamers spoiled by Halo and Splinter Cell may find the blocky character design and simple backgrounds to be a bit hard on the eyes. Luckily, Dolby Digital saves the day. The streets seem livlier and more immersive, while the voices and other sounds of a bustling city are crisper and stronger. Unless a game is built around sound, the most that you can hope from it is that it serves to make the game more of an experience, which is accomplished with an "A" grade here. Granted, the voice acting isn't going to win any awards, but if you can listen to Ryo say "Maybe I should have some more fun" and not crack a smile, then I don't hold out much hope for you as a person.
Graphics and sound, although important in their own way, are not really what you and I should be concerned about with this particular game. The interaction between the unique characters in the game is what made Shenmue so endearing, and Mr. Yu Suzuki has outdone himself this time. For those who enjoyed the original, the thought of Ryo having any interactions with anyone who isn't Nozomi, Tom, Goro, or Gui Zhang might make you a bit wary, but your fears will be alleviated not long after you step off of that boat, with the introductions of such people as Joy (the hot biker girl) and Wong (a young kid who makes your first few hours interesting). Yu continues his tradition of fantastic character design and development, and he probably does it better here than he ever has.
From Xuiying to Fangmei to Jianmin, there are a lot of unique personalities to experience, and they are all woven into Ryo's story flawlessly. Ryo's interaction with Ren, the leader of a Hong Kong street gang, is the highlight of the game. Ren's brash and selfish character compliments Ryo well, and it's interesting to see how they affect each other's personalities as the game progresses. It is far too complex and magical to put into words, but it's the sort of thing that makes you wonder why video games aren't considered art.
I love Shenmue II, and it is easily my favorite game ever. However, I'm here to tell you if you should buy it. If you can handle a long, sometimes slow game with fantastic story elements and an unbelievable atmosphere, then yes, you should. I'm also the first person to admit that Shenmue II isn't for everybody, so if you aren't sure, you should probably give it a rental first. Regardless, do yourself a favor and at least try it. Games like this don't come along every day, or even every lifetime.
Read TNL's Exclusive Interview with Sega's AM2!
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