It's both strange and disappointing that the game review you're currently reading is based on a European release. Not that I have anything against Europe, of course. But everybody knows that Europe always gets the short straw when it comes to videogaming. Some games get delayed and some are never released in that territory. We North Americans have it worse than the Japanese, but relatively, there is no comparison. So why, then, I am playing a European version of the sequel to one of my top five, all-time, favorite Dreamcast games? Well sadly, it's because sometimes making money is more important than appeasing your fan base.
Now, we've all had time to speak our minds and blow off some steam concerning the fate of Shenmue II. Most of you will be waiting almost a year before you get your hands on this game. And even worse, it will be on another console! But if you are looking into importing the title from Europe, then you should know what to expect from the game. And my friends, that's what this is all about.
It's always difficult to begin when faced with such a formidable game as Shenmue II. I suppose I'll say merely this: If you enjoyed Shenmue: Chapter 1 Yokosuka, then you will enjoy its sequel. Plain and simple. But for Yu Suzuki and the rest of the AM2 staff responsible for the game, I'm sure that was the easy task. Making the naysayers change their tune would prove to be the more difficult task. Does Shenmue II accomplish this? That's hard to say. But I think it comes as close as possible to doing so without alienating the fans the previous game had already garnered.
As previously mentioned, Shenmue was often criticized for having lerthargic gameplay. As such, the sequel is rife with new features to help speed the game up. Most importantly, you'll notice immediately that the pace of the game has been sped up drastically. Events responsible for moving the plot forward happen with much greater frequency in the sequel. There's not a moment that you don't know exactly what you are supposed to be doing or where you're supposed to go. In the predecessor, there were times when it felt like you were required to simply wander aimlessly and talk to random people in order to trigger the next event. Now, you'll have a much clearer picture of exactly what needs to get done. This fact alone makes the game much more enjoyable than the first.
Unlike the predecessor, Shenmue II almost never forces you to wait for an event to happen. If you're supposed to meet someone and you arrive early, the game will offer you an option to advance to the time when the other party is arriving. That's right, you won't have to spend all day at the arcade playing Sega classics anymore. But don't fret too much... If playing arcade games, soaking in the scenery, and taking your time is your thing, then you can do that too.
Similarly, at the start of a new day, you will often be given an option of a number of different starting locations so you don't have to walk all the way to a certain point just to get back to what you were doing the night before. And this is very helpful considering the size of the environments in Shenmue II. If you thought Yokosuka was large, just wait until you step into the streets of Wan Chai. The city is separated into several different sections which are each nearly as large as all of Yokosuka. And to put things into perspective, Wan Chai is but one of four major areas in the whole game. To say that the game is huge would be quite an understatement. Luckily several new features have been introduced to help you navigate these mammoth environments. First is the new map system. At several places in each area, you'll be able to purchase a map. Once purchased, the map appears in the bottom of the screen. Also, you'll often be required to find one building in these large areas. This can be done by checking one of the maps in the area, like in Shenmue. Or you can simply ask an NPC where it is. Not only will they usually give you very detailed directions, but some of them will offer to take you there! Little advancements like these really help during the early phases of the game when you're trying to learn where everything is. They'll also help you avoid some of that random wandering that was so prevalent in the predecessor. And you won't have to make it back to your bed to save either. Shenmue II allows you to save at any time in the normal game, as long as you aren't in the middle of a job or plot event. There are also several places for you to sleep at night depending upon what area of the game you are working in at any given time.
The mere scope of the environments in not all that's impressive about them. They look simply fantastic! Shenmue II sports a graphic engine the likes of which has never been seen on the Dreamcast. In fact the only game that comes close to looking as good as Shenmue II is the original Shenmue. But don't be fooled... AM2 has pushed the Dreamcast to its limit with this one. The huge environments have very little draw in. Each building, sidewalk, table, chair, crate, and every other environmental nuance has been rendered with an insane amount of detail. And what a lot of detail there is! If you played the predecessor, you know just how detailed the environments in Shenmue II are. The textures have also been improved dramtically for the sequel. Ivy-covered buildings look just as gorgeous as they should... dank apartment complexes feel like they've been there for years. The lighting is also beautiful. Ryo Hazuki, our main character in the Shenmue series, casts a realistic shadow as he walks. Colored lighting is used marvelous to reflect the time of day and whether or not a character is indoors or outdoors. This game is beautiful. It's without a doubt a testament to the power of the Dreamcast.
Just as important to the immersive nature of the game as the graphics is the sound. The major change from Shenmue in this department comes in terms of the voices. The first game was localized for American audiences with an English voice over. And while it was not the worst dubbing I've ever heard, it definitely had moments that could grate on ones nerves. Shenmue II, however, features the original Japanese vocal track with English subtitles. Most purists, including myself, will find that this is far more pleasing to the ears than the English dubbing in the first game. Also, because the game is set in Asia, it gives the whole experience a more authentic feel. While the game was probably not dubbed due to a lack of funding and time, Sega made the right decision by leaving the voices alone in Shenmue II.
The music and sound effects in Shenmue II are also very solid. The score has a very Eastern feel and lends itself nicely to the game. I never found it annoying and there are certain themes which are very entertaining. The sound effects are also very well done. From the ambience of a city street to the slapping sound of hand-to-hand combat, every effect is crisp and clear. It would be nice to hear the whole thing in 5.1 surround sound... and who knows, maybe that will be a feature in the upcoming Xbox port.
The most important thing about Shenmue II is the way it weaves the next few chapters in the epic tale of Ryo Hazuki. If the game failed in this task, then it would be nearly worthless. But the game keeps you glued to your screen, always waiting for what may come next. The characters presented in this leg of the journey are intriguing, detailed, and well developed. Yu Suzuki has proved that he knows how to weave a story together. Now all we have to do is wait for the rest of the series to be released.