Shenmue 2 – Review

I originally played through Shenmue 2 on the XBox when it came out in 2001, so it’s been a solid 20 years since I last checked in on Ryo Hazuki. The most interesting part of playing this game is just how small and insignificant it makes the first game feel, which I wasn’t expecting. That’s because when I remember back to playing these games I had all these great memories of playing through the first Shenmue, with it’s engrossing story and memorable scenes, with the second game being little more than a footnote in my memory.

To put all this into context, Shenmue 1 is the first chapter of the saga. Shenmue 2 covers chapters 3 to 5. The missing chapter 2 is a comic book story that covers the boat trip Ryo takes after he left Yokosuka, Japan. It makes sense when I go back to my review of Shenmue and take note of how short the story is and how it basically just feels like it’s the opening to a grander story, because that’s exactly what it is.

Shenmue 2 takes place in Hong Kong and then ventures a bit into mainland China in the final, brief, chapter of the game. This is probably where I have one of my biggest complaints about this game, the location. It feels a little odd that the game went into Hong Kong in these chapters. I feel a personal disconnect from what I felt when playing Shenmue 1, perhaps it’s my own bias towards Japanese architecture and culture.

When you get off the boat at the beginning of the game you’re in Aberdeen harbor, it’s honestly one of the ugliest locations in a video game I’ve seen in a while. The buildings are all this horribly textured red brick. The lack of geometric detail and lighting, combined with low quality texture work, just makes the whole image hard to look at. It starts to get a little better as the game progresses, but even then you’re mainly inside large buildings with repeating geometry and texture work.

A really ugly environment.

Yes, this game is pretty ugly to look at. Some of the NPCs will make you laugh because of the way they’re represented. It almost feels like the Japanese developers are kind of taking the piss out of the Chinese people in their game. You do have to take into consideration that this game is a port, not a remake. It was originally developed for the Dreamcast and Microsoft made a deal to get distribution rights for the XBox in the States, which means the game models aren’t improved or anything for this title.

I went back and forth on being impressed that a Dreamcast could render scenes in such detail, but other times I was really scratching my head at just how bad things looked back then. I can really see a remake of these games with the Dragon Engine from the Yakuza developers Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio. I would personally love a complete remaster, but I don’t see a world where that would be financially viable for a studio to commit those levels of resources and money for this brand.

So let’s talk about playing the game. The map system is almost completely useless here. You first need to buy a map for each and every area you load into. The city is broken up into multiple parts, so one map will not be enough. The names of building will not be on this map, they simply give you something in the corner of your screen to orient yourself with. If you want to find a specific place, you have to ask people for directions or find a map directory in the world that you can zoom into and look for your destination. I ended up just pulling up a map on my laptop and keeping that up, way easier.

A big complaint that I had on the first game was the amount of time I waisted just sitting around killing time as I waited for the next scheduled event to take place. In this game that’s almost completely eliminated. You can fast travel in specific instances, it’ll always give you the option to wait and speed up time. If you run out the clock on a day it’ll bring you back to your resting spot, then the next morning, it’ll give you the option to continue from yesterday and warp you back. It’s nice to see the evolution and problem solving at work. If you just want the story then this is a great quality of life feature added over the first game.

The fighting is better than it is in the first game. In Shenmue I felt like I had almost no control over a fight and just smashed the same few attacks and I’d eventually win the match. There’s a bit more strategy involved in this one, especially when you get to the later parts of the game and have to do a series of street fights to progress. It’s by no means a great fighting system. You wont have fun doing it and you wont look forward to fighting at all. Just keep at it and you’ll get through it.

Let’s not even get into the QTEs and how stupid they are. You have to do button presses at various story moments and fight sequences. This is not a good mechanic that holds up to the test of time. It was meant to provide a more cinematic experience but really it just frustrates the player if they mess up. You end up not caring about what’s happening because all you’re doing is trying to input a dumb sequence of button presses so you don’t have to start the whole sequence over again. This is a slam against all instances of QTE throughout all video games, it is simply a commentary on how they were implemented in this title.

If you intend to play this game I recommend that you use a guide to get you through the story. I don’t have time in my life to play this game the way you were supposed to when it came out. I don’t want to run around asking people where to go and piece together all the clues. Modern games would just give you waypoints on your next objective, pointing you to a restaurant you’ve never been to, this game makes you figure all that out yourself. I didn’t just want to beat this game or see the story, I was aiming to get the platinum trophy for both Shenmue 1 & 2 so I followed a trophy guide. Luckily, it was a fairly straightforward platinum and doesn’t require you to have to do a bunch of extra tasks, which is really nice.

I did come to this game for the story. I wanted to play through all three titles just to see what happens at the end of the third game. I think I owed it to my younger self to experience all the Shenmue that I can and to at least get the platinum trophy in the first two games. I’ve been looking at what’s involved for the third game and I’m not sure I care that much about collecting herbs, but I’ll see what happens when I get there.

What can I really say about the story in this game? It’s slightly better than the first game. I’m simply talking about the story itself here, not the way it’s presented or anything like that. There’s a bit more action towards the end of the game that really makes you feel like you’re actually in the second act of the game. Things are happening, granted, there all happening in a 17 story building that seems to go on forever and everything looks the same. You start to learn about the mirrors and what they do. Some mystical/magical things happen with the mirror that isn’t physically possible. Lan Di is talked about a lot and you get to see him at the end battle, but he’s not involved and just hangs off a ladder attached to a helicopter. This is literaly the weirdest game ever made.

The final chapter of the game has you going into mainland China to rescue a girl in a river chasing a deer. She seems to have magical capabilities or something and keeps reciting a poem that references you coming to her. You get to run around a forest for what seems like forever. You see the Shenmue tree and use a sword and the mirror to make a sword float in mid air. What does it all mean?!

I don’t even know…

Do you see what I’m saying? I have no idea. This is what I was left with 20 years ago, an image of this. This is what all of us Shenmue fans had to go on. Then Yu Suzuki crowdfunds a sequel to this game and it gets greenlit. I hope he can wrap up this story in the sequel because I really don’t think he’s going to get another shot at it.

Final Score – 7.1

I think it’s a better game than the original. As hard as it is for me to say that it is a better game. The setting and the sheer volume of memes from the first game make it more memorable by a mile. Is this a good game that people should actually play in 2021 though? No. Only people with a soft spot for this series should even think about going back to these games. It’s fascinating to see what they were trying to do with the technology they had at the time. They were clearly overambitious and bit off more than they could chew. If you have never experienced a Shenmue game then you really need to give it a try, it’s interesting for sure.

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