Title :Shenmue II
Platforms :Microsoft Xbox
Publisher :Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB Rating :Teen
Game Rating :8.6
Review by :Ken Gagne

"Hello. My name is Ryo Hazuki. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" 

Such vengeance is the goal of Sega's Shenmue II, a Microsoft Xbox game that continues the saga begun two years ago on the Sega Dreamcast. 

Ryo, a sullen and laconic young man, left Japan at the end of Shenmue, searching for the man who murdered his father and stole an ancient artifact. The sequel begins in 1987 upon Ryo's arrival in Hong Kong with little more than a letter of introduction to a master who can aide him in his quest. Gamers new to Ryo's sojourn can view a 15-minute movie encapsulating the key moments in his previous adventure. Additionally, Shenmue II includes a DVD-Video of "Shenmue: The Movie", which expands the cinematic sequences and gameplay of Shenmue into a 90-minute affair. Yes, it seems silly to watch movie footage taken entirely from a video game, but it's a novel and entertaining way to capture the first game's story. 

When you're ready to begin the sequel, you'll find this 3D adventure series is heavy on exploration. Many people were turned off by the original Shenmue's slow and realistic approach to storytelling: accustomed to more fantastic fare, players would spend hours opening every dresser and knocking on every door, only to find clean underwear and no one home. The sequel keeps Ryo busier, but it's no more exciting. Players soon learn they must find a part-time job to earn money with which to pay their rent, buy maps, and offer bribes. Moving crates at the pier is far from the most grabbing opening to a video game I've encountered. 

Fortunately, the mundanity of his chores does not descend into such trivialities as eating and washing. When Ryo's goal is stymied by the time of day, he may advance the clock to a more accommodating time. Sometimes he can't do so — forcing players to find odd things to kill time until a new day dawns. 

It's not always, or even often, drudgery, though. Ryo spends much of his time talking to Hong Kong's citizens, discerning his next course of action, but there's plenty of action, too. When violence is the solution, Ryo can execute a variety of Virtua Fighter-style kung fu moves. There are Quick Timer Events (QTE), which require he respond quickly to on-screen displays, similar to Dragon's Lair. Shenmue II is also well-adorned with mini-games, including arcade classics Space Harrier and Out-Run. 

The foreign setting also has its quirks. A stranger in a strange land, Ryo arrives in Hong Kong with no home and no friends. The sizable cast of characters present in his previous adventure is not so readily available here, but the lack of familiar faces also presents more opportunities for surprises. 

Shenmue's controls are a mix of Resident Evil and Zelda. Movement is relative to Ryo, where Right turns him clockwise and Up moves him forward. Ryo has some difficulty maneuvering in tight quarters, which is an annoyance and not an impediment to actual gameplay. For interacting with his environment, the contextual functions of the Xbox's four main buttons are visually mapped on the screen. A button which normally displays Ryo's notebook will instead open a door if he's near a building. This system is comprehensible and efficient, unless players want to use a function not available in the current setting (such as opening the notebook instead of a door). 

Each of Hong Kong's many citizens can be interacted with verbally, comprising hours of voice acting. This dialogue varies wildly in quality, though, and is often stilted or overacted. Graphically, the people Ryo encounters still have the tendency to coalesce from and evaporate into thin air, ruining the sense of the realism as Ryo walks through a bustling Hong Kong marketplace. But as his own journey continues, so does the suns' across the sky, casting different hues and shadows upon the ground. As an added bonus, players may take snapshots at anytime, creating a personal album of important places, people, and experiences. 

Shenmue II is engrossing, but also at times plodding. Ryo's quest is as much hard work as it is conflict and intrigue. At the end of this full-course meal, encompassing a variety of lukewarm and hot dishes, lies a cold dish: revenge.

This article is copyright (c) 2002, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 11-Nov-02