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You don't play this game - you live it...
on 28 April 2003
Tired of your life working in a drab office or bored with lessons at school? Then escape from your humdrum existence, fly to the mysterious Orient and take on a new life - the life of a young Japanese man, Ryo Hazuki, on a self-imposed quest to find his father's murderer.
Owners of the late lamented Dreamcast may have taken part in (notice I didn't say "played") the first chapter of this adventure, which took place in Yokosuka, a port city in Japan. This second instalment moves the action to China, beginning in the port of Hong Kong, continuing in the slums of (the now demolished) Kowloon Walled City, and finally culminating in the wierdly beautiful mountains of Guilin. Your character of Ryo has almost unprecedented freedom of action as he moves around the most fantastically detailed environment ever created for a console video game. To help him survive his travails, Ryo needs to make friends, earn money, and learn how to fight. If he gets bored, he can go to the local arcade and play games, or try his hand at a huge variety of patchinko and other gambling games. He can try his hand at arm wrestling, and he can even earn money with his martial arts abilities. Or he can just look at the amazing sights.
But this is only to discuss Shenmue II in terms of gameplay. This does not touch on the other, most important, aspect of this experience, and that is the emotional connection you get from it. The characters you meet are real people with characteristics and personalities you can easily identify with - all of which makes this the most engrossing experience you will have outside the movie theatre - or real life.
Five years work went into creating characters which move realistically and say different things every time you speak to them. They are worth meeting.
In some games you can learn to steal cars and kill people - in this game you learn the value of friendship and respect for your fellow man, and the importance of avoiding the evil path. At the same time this game does not lack excitement and engrossing gameplay.
To get the most out of the Shenmue series, you really have to explore on your own - discover Hong Kong for yourself, and learn about its people and its customs - you do this as you would in real life, by going to places and talking to people. If you blindly follow strategy guides and do the minimum needed to get through the storyline, you will probably find it quite boring, particularly to begin with. But immerse yourself entirely in the game, explore the world, extract every ounce of experience from it, and it will always have a place in your heart. Shenmue is my second home. Make it yours, too.
Some reviews of this game upon its release in the United States panned it because the graphics quality doesn't seem to be a huge improvement on Dreamcast quality, which is seen to be outmoded. This attitude may blind you to the fact that graphically it is still better than 90% of other games. Minor characters are indeed quite blocky, but when you consider the density of the background detail, it is more than made up for. Every box, litter bin, bicycle and pathside flower is a 3D object. Criticism of the graphics quality also fails to take into account the unparalleled animation. Every conceivable action within the game by any character, major or minor, has been motion-captured. When you want to speak to any one of a thousand game characters, the camera automatically goes to a cinematic style, with perfectly natural cuts back and forth between closeups and midshots; if you are standing at an angle to the character you are speaking to, they don't swivel robotically, or magically jump to different positions, like in every other game I've ever played - they turn their heads and if need be twist their upper bodies to face Ryo in a perfectly realistic, human manner. The smallest action performed by Ryo is captured cinematically, in a way which is so seamless it obviously goes unnoticed by players and critics. Ryo actually opens doors, he doesn't magically appear on the other side of them after a blackout. Same with picking objects up.
In addition, the *only* load times are those between game areas. From the most minor conversation to the longest plotline cutscene, all play interruptions initiate immediately. Considering the amount of graphic detail, the number of different conversations and actions available with all the characters with whom you might interact, and the cutscenes which may be initiated in an area, the load times that there are are remarkably short - and always were, even on the Dreamcast.
Replay value? It's quite impossible to explore everything this game has to offer in just one play through. But more than that - I'm in my third year of Shenmue-playing - I return to this game and its predecessor more than any other in my collection, and it can still surprise me.