Designer, Yu Suzuki has a long history of gaming hits beneath his belt. His name has been stamped on such arcade classics as Hang-On, Space Harrier, and the Virtua Fighter series, to name but a few.
Considering that the vast majority of his career has been spent making action-oriented, arcade coin guzzlers, it’s a surprise to see such variety in design when looking at his most recent console titles–namely the Shenmue series. Rather than focusing on combat as the game’s central focus, players are immersed into the world of Ryo, a Japanese boy searching for the man who killed his father. In this second installment, Ryo travels to Hong Kong in search of answers, and sets out on a path of self-discovery, interacting with countless individuals during his lonely quest. Without a doubt, the sheer size and complexity of the game world in Shenmue II never ceases to amaze. Additionally, Mr. Suzuki’s radical approach to the concept of gaming challenges the basic definition of interactive entertainment. The end result is a definite work of art, though not without a few flaws.
We find Ryo at the start of the game, aboard a ship that’s pulling into harbor in Hong Kong. All he has with him is a napsack on his back, and a note in his pocket. Through NPC interaction, he finds his way through the various quarters of the city, encountering characters ranging from banal shoppers to seedy criminals to martial arts masters. Occasionally, aside from asking questions and navigating the streets, action sequences are triggered. Initially, Ryo loses his possessions to a street gang, then, through some investigative wandering, he is offered multiple chances to catch the perpetrators, first via a series of Dragon’s Lair style ‘Simon Says’ tests, and later through 3D unarmed combat. After losing all his cash, a mysterious sport bike riding hellion named Joy assists Ryo, finding him a place to stay, as well as securing work at the shipyard to pay his way.
Players are treated to an almost fully interactive version of Hong Kong. Every character encountered can be approached and interacted with, although responses fall under the same basic categories depending on the situation and tasks at hand. American console gamers might find it difficult to adjust to the subtle behavior patterns of the Eastern NPCs, who often speak softly–yet carry large sticks. Dialogue, while generally efficient and effective, sometimes comes off as awkward, especially with the almost comical voice acting. Never in my life have I met a polite and articulate warehouse foreman, yet in the world of Shenmue, such an aberration exists. Which brings up another interesting issue on the definition of gaming itself.
It seems in the past few years, developers would have us believe that life merely consists of shooting, maiming, stealing, and hand-to-hand combat, with the occasional puzzle break thrown in for good measure. Yet here, in virtual Hong Kong, the simple act of stacking boxes in a shipyard is turned into a test of reflexes. Fail, and you’ll drop precious cargo. Succeed, and you’ll earn some money to pay for that flea-infested hotel room you’ve been staying in.
As the story progresses, Ryo meets various masters of the martial arts, picking up tidbits of wisdom and skill along the way. Again, combat, training, and everyday mundane tasks break up the adventure, where much time is spent just looking for the right person to kick off the next sequence of tasks and events. In some ways, Shenmue II can be likened to an 80’s Hong Kong spin on Morrowind. All the adventure aspects are there, with dialogue and soul-searching to match (minus the trolls and wizards, of course). For those not interested in fantasy, it is a welcome substitute, though graphically, this title is slightly behind the times, and not nearly as lush as Bethesda Softworks’ masterpiece in terms of visual aesthetics. Aside from that, the limited response system, buggy path finding of the NPCs, and often confusing layout of each city quarter can lead to hours of wasted roaming, which can be frustrating at times.
Originally slated for release on the Dreamcast, Shenmue II made its way to the Xbox following Sega’s demise in the hardware business. It’s evident in the textures and modeling that this game was intended for less-powerful hardware. Frequent object fade-in and level loading suggests that code was optimized for the original platform, and not Microsoft’s bulky beast. Model polycounts and textures do not fully utilize the platform’s power, and when stacked up to other games from that release period of fall 2002, the game seems dated. While character modeling generally falls into the ‘stiff and blocky’ category, facial texturing and animation is impressive. Mouths sync well to dialogue on surprisingly human faces, yet Ryo and Joy seem like displaced Anime orphans, whose heads look completely fabricated in direct comparison to other in-game characters.
If there were one design flaw to stand out as the proverbial black eye of Shenmue II, surely the control scheme would be it. Oddly, the game’s controls seem as though they’re tailored for a different console. I found myself repeatedly trying to move with the left analog stick, but to no avail–the D pad and right trigger grudgingly became my method of navigation. Moving about in confined spaces becomes a lesson in frustration, often causing Resident Evil flashbacks and cold sweats. Mini-game movements vary, but often fall under the Dragon’s Lair rulebook of D-pad timing, which can sneak up at a moment’s notice.
Game sound is solid, though voice acting seems rather stereotypical and hammed up at times. Such are the pitfalls of translating such a huge game, with thousands of lines of speech–that in mind, the development team did an admirable job on the whole. Still, after being spoiled by the film-quality dialogue on show in the Grand Theft Auto series on PS2, Shenmue II’s hokey storybook lines fall flat, but again, since this game is an import, it’s a forgivable offense.
Level design is solid, successfully immersing the player into various sections of downtown–the good, and the bad alike. For added variety, playable versions of Mr. Suzuki’s arcade classics are available within the game world, as well as some gaming stands like Lucky Hit, fighting competitions, gambling, and the like. Often, these little diversions provide a welcome break to the virtual ‘work’ encountered along the quest. Each city section is rather small, usually containing a variety of indoor environments to explore as well as specialty shops, market stands, and inhabitants, all with similar conversation trees.
In many ways, Shenmue II is a fictitious life-simulator, an interactive movie, an RPG, a third-person adventure, and a fighting game all rolled into one. The adrenaline rushes are spaced out, interspersed with lots of roaming, routine conversations, and laborious errands. For all the toil one must endure, it’s hard not to smile after a session, which proves yet again that perhaps the simplest of things in life, whether real or virtual, can be strangely fulfilling. As traditional adventure titles become less prevalent, it’s an encouraging sign to see such care and ingenuity bringing the genre into the 21st century. Shenmue II is a fighting game with a conscience, as well as a coming-of-age story. While the concepts and feasibility are far-fetched, the sheer scope of the game world is staggering. That aside, AM2’s ambitious adventure/action saga succeeds far more often than it fails by providing an engaging story with rich character development, exotic locales, and creative twists on gameplay. It is not nearly as open-ended a game as Morrowind, Grand Theft Auto III or Vice City, but then again, it is a far older project with roots from another platform era. Should there be another entry in the Shenmue series, I for one would be very interested to see what changes propel this saga forward in terms of story, as well as technology.
Shenmue II is an ambitious project of staggering proportions. If you like your adventures with a dose of nobility, humility, and style, Shenmue II is the right choice. It’s not perfect, but certainly deserving of high merits on multiple fronts. Included is a bonus DVD. For the current price of less than $20USD, it’s definitely a decent addition to any gamer’s collection.