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Shenmue II (Dreamcast PAL version) Review: An Epic Sequel Delivering on What Was Promised for the First Game

Thanks to all who commented on my last review. I think the point of this one is that if you didn't like the first game because you felt it had too many pacing flaws, etc., you really may want to give this one a chance.

Personal Note:

As a big Sega Dreamcast fan, I felt I had to at least try to play through Shenmue I and Shenmue II, even though I wasn’t too excited about it. A while ago I came back to Shenmue I (after a hiatus), finally finishing it and found it to be highly flawed, which made it difficult for me to enjoy the game. Still, although I was reluctant at first, I decided to persevere and give Shenmue II a chance since I’d heard that it improved on the original in important ways and had a much larger and more vibrant world. Playing through this game was part of my search for games I would consider my favourites and best of all time. I ended up being pleasantly surprised and I’m glad I gave this one a chance since it actually became one of my top ten games of all time, though I still consider it somewhat flawed, and perhaps a bit slow paced for casual gamers.

This is a long review! (and may contain a few spoilers)

Introduction:

Work for Shenmue originally started on the Sega Saturn in 1996, and it was conceived at some point as Virtua Fighter RPG by Yu Suzuki. Eventually work was shifted towards the Dreamcast, and the first game was released on the Dreamcast in 1999 (JP) and 2000 (EU, NA) to critical acclaim, although some reviewers at the time, for example, Frank Provo, writing for Gamespot (US) in 2000, noted the problems it had that kept it from being what it was hyped up to be. In my own review of Shenmue I for the Dreamcast, I noted the slow pacing, the inability to save anywhere outside of, the protagonist, Ryo’s bedroom, the clunky controls, the different game styles, like forklift racing, that do not work well, the lack of direction, and general tediousness, and lack of story progression. These were all elements that prevented the first game to truly be a more mainstream action-packed fun game for most gamers in my opinion.

The first Shenmue was the prologue of the story where Ryo Hazuki’s father gets killed in his dojo in Yokosuka, Japan by the main antagonist of the series, a high-ranking member of a Chinese cartel, Lan Di. This prompted Ryo to try to find Lan Di to exact his revenge. The last game leaves of with Ryo heading for Hong Kong, in the hopes of finding Lan Di, and it’s where this game picks up the story. Originally there was supposed to be a game or part of one about the story of Ryo’s trip to Hong Kong on a ship, instead that was released as a manga. The second game starts of with Ryo’s arrival in Hong Kong’s harbour.

This game was never released on the Dreamcast in North America, the Dreamcast version only saw a release in Japan, and Europe in 2001. It was released in North America on the original Xbox a year later in 2002, however, since there was no version of Shenmue I for the Xbox, the save file from the first game could obviously not be imported. I have the original Dreamcast PAL version, and the Steam version, but decided to play an emulated Dreamcast PAL version since I have my Dreamcast stored right now. The Dreamcast PAL version has Japanese audio with English subtitles.

Gameplay:

The game makes important changes to the gameplay in the first game. I’m guessing that the team that worked on Shenmue I learned what worked and what didn’t, based on reviews and feedback, as the first game was so experimental. They tweaked the gameplay to improve on what the original had fault with. Finally, you can save anywhere in the game. You don’t have to trek all the way back to your room for that. Also, you don’t come back to the same bedroom every day, with the same routine boring routine, for a refreshing change of pace. Additionally, waiting for important appointments or events is much better now thanks to the ability to fast forward in time for that event. Previously the game had a game time that you could not fast forward in any way, even if there was little to do while waiting for an event. Instead of having to explore for yourself of where you have to go, this game has a much better sense of direction, with people that you talk to guiding you where to go, just go around and ask them. Oftentimes they will even offer to walk you to a location you are looking for. All of this really helps with the pacing of the game.

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It’s true that you don’t have the small town feel of the first game, with characters that you get to know and converse with as in the first game, but still overall I feel that the improvement in pacing and direction more than makes up for this. On the other hand, the world of Shenmue II with its initial setting in Hong Kong (for the first two discs), which moves then moves on to Kowloon (third disc), and finally Guilin in China (fourth disc) is huge and beautiful with plenty to explore. The game feels vast and does have its well-hidden secrets, for those that like exploration in their games.

The gameplay is still similar to that of the first game. Much of it has to do with talking to people figuring out clues of how to find Lan Di, and about the mirrors that Lan Di wanted to get from the Hazuki dojo. Aside from that you have your QTEs (quick time events) which are much like in the first game. I used a Logitech controller that has a circle D-pad so that helped to mess up my inputs making it difficult to do some of the QTEs. Some of them can also be a bit too fast, but if you do them enough you can memorize many of them. Remember to save when doing long QTE sequences. Outside of that you still have places to practice your martial arts moves, and this game, thankfully, has a lot more action and fighting than the first game. The way the story unfolds it feels at times like you’re playing a Kung Fu action film.

The QTE based work to earn money, and in exchange for stay, for example, moving boxes at the warehouses, or moving books in the library, can be a bit tedious but doesn’t feel as unfair as some of the tasks in the first game. Although there are times when you need to earn a lot of money, for example, come up with $500 to meet Ren, and depending on how you want to achieve that goal this could take a long time, there are tricks to doing this quickly. For example, some gambling games are based on chance. You can play them, and if you win, you save, and do it again which could end up earning you a lot in little time. If you lose, don’t save the game, reset it and start over. This can make this task take 30 minutes instead of hours and hours. There are also many other tips that can help this game to speed along. One of which that fans from the first game may like is that you do get your bag stolen at the start of the game, so you may want to buy stuff at the outdoor stall nearby to help you keep some of the value. A lot of the minigames themselves however, based on gambling are honestly tedious and not fun. I found the fighting to be enjoyable especially after building up some basic techniques (I’m a fan of fighting games). I haven’t played a lot of Virtua Fighter, but I like the fighting in Shenmue II better than what Virtua Fighter I’ve played. There are also some puzzles in this game which can become a bit tedious, but most of the game is fairly doable and not too unfair. Honestly this game would have been even better if it were possible to unlock a fighting game mode at the end of the game. The fighting really shines in this game.

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Again, from the gameplay perspective the QTEs, when executed poorly, can be one of the worst and most frustrating parts of the game, especially when they are so fast, or you are using a D-pad which may register wrong inputs easily. Though overall considering how the story progresses and being full of action and variety the gameplay is fairly balanced and solid.

Graphics, Music and Tone:

Aside from the fighting, I think this is where this game really shines. For a Dreamcast game the graphics here are amazing, on par with the Gamecube and Playstation 2. Hong Kong is a beautiful, vibrant, sunny, varied, and bustling metropolis that is a pleasure to explore. It’s a lot to take in, all of the streets, the Harbour, the Warehouses, the shops, the mall, the different districts, parks, etc. It almost makes you feel like you are travelling there and appeals to me as I travelled quite a bit before the COVID-19 pandemic (and some other issues) put a stop to it. When Ryo comes into Kowloon by bus and it goes into an aerial view of the bus coming to Kowloon it reminded me of travelling again and made me kind of feel like I was on that trip. Kowloon is also huge and beautifully designed, there are lots of malls full of shops and people.

The relationship and chemistry between Ryo, and the badass Ren is works very well, considering their different personalities, with Ryo kind of being the straight man, honorable, righteous and honest, and Ren being cunning, sly, and artful. It’s sort of an unwilling or unlikely partnership reminiscent of a Kung Fu buddy film. Ren is always doing stuff on the sly and has tricks up his sleeve. One of the most memorable parts of it for me are when they are roaming through the floors of the building, running from the cartel men in QTEs, and fighting in fast paced action, this exemplifies what I described above. The other characters are important in the story and memorable as well. The story of Shenmue does also move along quite a bit, much more than in the first game, and we learn about Ryo’s father and his relationship to Lan Di.

The final fight on the roof on the third disc seems like the end of the game, but in the fourth disc, with new clues to Lan Di’s whereabouts, Ryo is headed for Guilin China, where he finally meets Shenhua, a main protagonist of the game. Most of that part of the story involves them wandering through beautiful surroundings on the way to the village, talking to each other, and participating in QTEs.

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I have to say that while I really enjoyed the story and action in this game the ending with Shenhua seemed rather strange to me, as it implied, she had some magical powers, which doesn’t really seem congruent with the rest of the game. It did leave me wanting to see the conclusion though.

I really enjoyed the music of this game more than that of the original. It had less of the traditional music of the first game, and more movie thematic type music. A lot of the music was appropriate depending on the nature of your current actions, for example, when the situation was tense. The game still does have some traditional East Asian inspired music as well.

Bottom Line:

This game improved on the original in many ways including the ability to save anywhere, fast forwarding to important events, much more direction, guiding you where you need to go, a much faster pace, and being loaded with action. It is filled with QTEs, and 3D fighting sequences which are very enjoyable if you like 3D fighting games. The QTEs can be frustrating if they are too long, quick, and made worse if using a controller with a D-Pad that can easily register wrong input. The world of Shenmue II, namely, Hong Kong, Kowloon, and Guilin are huge and detailed with tons to explore, many side quests, mini games, and well-hidden secrets, and beautiful scenery to look at and wander around. A lot of the game feels like a Kung Fu buddy action film. The chemistry between Ryo and Ren is great and they make a great team. There is quite a bit of story progression, and we learn more about Ryo’s father and Lan Di. The music is very good as well, although some of the jobs, mini-games, and tasks you have to do can be frustrating and tedious. If you don’t know some of the tricks to make money fast, etc., in this game, the parts when you need it can become tedious. Overall, the positives of this game really outweigh the negatives, in my opinion, and this feels like the Shenmue adventure that the first game failed to deliver.

One of the swan songs of the Dreamcast (although that might more properly be Rez), this game is a must try for those that are into action games, along with life, and social simulation. I would personally recommend that casual gamers just watch Shenmue the Movie, which is a film based on the enhanced cutscenes of the first game (included in the original Xbox release but available now on YouTube), instead of playing the first game, and just play this game to have a more enjoyable experience. Considering all of its positives this game ended up in the bottom of my top ten games of all time, which is saying a lot.

(Side note: as you already know the game is now widely available on Steam, Xbox One, and PS4)

Overall: 8.7/10 Great

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