Shenmue II  Screenshot

I grew up in a collectivist society, which stresses community effort and family over the dog-eat-dog individualist philosophy. Both terms are extremely generalized and say little about each culture, but there are subtle things that are the key in determining which is which. I never had much use for directions or street names. Growing up on the small island of Guam, directions were given by indicating landmarks of everyday things, like a tree, blue trimmings on a house or strange looking stones. We had street names, just like they do in Shenmue and its Xbox sequel, but apparently the entire community found that they were more of an inconvenience. Sometimes people would even walk you to where you need to go, if it was on the way.

There is rock sitting by the sea in Guam, called "Bear Rock." It was first named "bare rock" by the locals, because it looked like a nude girl or maybe even a penis. When the Americans came and asked about it, they thought it was because it was in the shape of a bear. But when you saw it, you knew you were at Agfayan Bay. You will quickly discover the similar ways of how you reach a certain area in Shenmue II. Ask someone in the game for directions and they will point you to a certain landmark, like behind the fish vendor or with the green door.

At first glance, one may look at such a function in a videogame as a convenience, or in the case of the Shenmue series, an "improvement" over the original, where directions were harder to come by. And it may be true, because there are other functions that provide the gamer with convenience that wasnt there in the first game. But the way I see it, its a celebration of that specific lifestyle, the kind of life Yu Suzuki might have lived growing up. To say that Shenmue is to reflect life is to do a disservice to the game. There's no way the game can capsulate something as vague as that and its simply not true because for most American audiences, this isnt even their life. This is a foreign game with foreign concepts made by a foreigner about a foreigner in a foreign land.

Shenmue II is a role-playing game (RPG) through and through, picking up where the first left off. For those who didn't play the first chapter, there is a DVD movie included that shows the events of the first game, bringing those players up to speed. Lan Di, later revealed to be a leader of a notorious Chinese gang called the Chiyoumen, killed Ryo Hazuki's father. After a number of events, Ryo boards a ship headed to Hong Kong, where Lan Di is said to have gone. Ryo's determination is fueled only by his wish for vengeance, and he is armed with nothing else but his wishes and an arsenal of martial arts moves, learned from his father and various other masters. This is where the second chapter begins.

Shenmue II Screenshot

The game features a mish-mash of game-playing styles. The most prominent of the two are the RPG aspects, which involve gathering information, inspecting objects and running from place to place, and fighting, which in and of itself is divided into two different features. One is the Quick Time Event (QTE), which asks the player to press the flashing button or direction with split-second timing, similar to the Dragon's Lair games. Another is a fighting engine based off the Virtua Fighter series. Anyone familiar with the original game would know what to expect. If you're not, Chi's review of Shenmue is more than thorough.

The game features other improvements besides the ease in finding directions. A main complaint about the original game was the needless idle waiting for an appointment. The game runs on its own real-time clock, with about an hour in Ryo's world being a minute in ours. Instead of playing the game finding the numerous side-quests, players can skip right ahead to the story by choosing to wait at the specific time. It is then a matter of a few seconds until the story gets moving along. The game puts time restrictions during the days. After all, Ryo is a growing boy and needs a good sleep. But you'll be able to warp to where you were the previous day before being interrupted by the in-game curfew. Also in the original, the few hours before you do hit the sack were the only hours you were able to save. This time you have access to an in-game save at almost anytime except for at key plot points.

All these improvements prove a point. That is that the Shenmue series is all about telling a story, and many impediments on the player in continuing the story were halted thanks to those features. Even when you fail a Quick Time Event or a Free Battle, you are immediately sent back to the beginning of the cinema that triggered the event, even giving you the option to skip it, just so you can try again and continue. Yu Suzuki is here to tell a story, and if that means making the playing experience more convenient and less frustrating for the player, then so be it.

However there are still several factors that nearly made me want to stop playing the game altogether. There are two instances in the game where you are required to raise $500, and the means of getting them is not a fun task. There are several ways, including lifting crates at the harbor or trying your hand at the many gambling games around town. But all of those sidequests are, to put in gamers terms, low on the fun factor aspect. And that's where many of the concerns of this series lie. Many menial tasks await the player, having you work your way to the next plot point. Sometimes, in the form of battles or conversations, they are interesting and engaging. But often times it is frustrating, and the videogame generation (the same as the MTV generation), is not weaned on this kind of gameplay. It'd also be nice to be able to pause during cinemas. I can't remember how many times I missed my phone calls because I was in the middle of a key plot point. Another concern that should be helped is the clunky controls. Its often difficult to navigate Ryo in narrow pathways and crowded streets. Its among the most awkward interfaces I've ever experienced, easily gets in the way of the immersion, and if Suzuki wants to tell us his story, he needs to get a few more things fixed.

Shenmue II Screenshot

And what a grand story it is. Like his creation Ryo, Yu Suzuki has embarked on a life journey of his own. Shenmue made evident the ambition of this project, and the sequel only affirms it. The series is looking to become among the premiere epics of the videogame world, including the Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill series. They all create a world of their own, existing within our own world, with rich histories and characters. Shenmue looks to be the biggest of them all, and may become what the Godfather series is to Francis Ford Coppola or The Lord Of The Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Just like those pieces of art, Shenmue is finding its own identity in the realm of videogames. Every artist must work within his medium, and videogames cannot exist without the players. Suzuki knows this, and tries his best to engage his audience while at the same time trying to provide a profound experience that can be found in any other medium.

That is why Ryo is a martial artist. That is why a vengeful motive is needed. That is why there is a fighting system that is extremely satisfying to master. That is why the QTE commands are there, so the players can trigger the next footage of the story. Shenmue cannot be a movie or a novel because it isn't. The amalgam of gameplay elements exists because the story of Ryo Hazuki must not be compromised, but a wide audience of players also should experience it in order for the series to be a success. The story is compelling; the characterization is subtle but beautiful. The game peaks in an emotional and violent climax, only to lead into this chapters surprising finale, a quiet meditation on nature and the stark differences of lifestyle between the urban and rural, and material and spiritual. The stark contrast presented at the end of the journey, between the unrelenting tumult of city life, Ryo's small-town life and the end of the game, only affirms my belief that this game focuses on everyday collectivist life. It is a nostalgic view of ancient traditions and value systems lost after the dynamic equilibrium of nature loses balance because of modernization and mass consumption.

The series, especially this installment, has become among the most memorable game-playing experiences of my life. I remember Ryo's hometown. I remember his friends. I'm just as perplexed as he is concerning the events. Sometimes the demands of the gameplay are frustrating, but even odd jobs like book carrying serve a purpose, as is explained in the game. A standout quote from the game comes from Shenhua, whose introduction to the story was a long time coming. A human is just another animal in the forest, she said. In her world, that may be true. But in Ryo's world, the human influence is rapidly growing. When the web of interdependency in nature is broken, ecosystems collapse, and the qualitative changes of Earth are rapid and disruptive. Still, the city has become its own ecosystem, and the mutual dependency of mankind is what ties its citizens together. Ryo's world is like ours, and Shenhua's world exists outside of it. Its just like the Shenmue series, existing outside of the videogame realm, and also restricted by it. The greatest compliment I can give this game is that it has convinced me that the only thing that keeps my world together is the existence and peculiarities of others, and that there is little difference between street signs and a rock that looks like a bear. Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

According to ESRB, this game contains: Gambling, Use of Tobacco & Alcohol, Violence

Parents only need to worry if they are against exposing their child to gambling, alcohol consumption and fighting. Besides that the game is not gratuitous in its violence or language. There's also little room for sexuality, since the protagonist is as dense as they get concerning the opposite sex.

Fans of the original game can't miss out on this one. The game is significantly more balanced when it comes to action and narration. The in-game save decreases the need for finishing events in one sitting. Many features help pass the time, including the many mini-games you can play, which are all playable at any time once you access them in the game.  

Casual gamers are warned: this game is difficult to get into because it is so conceptually radical. Rent before you try, because this game is not for everyone. Anyone interested in new forms of videogame narrative is in luck though.

Hearing-impaired gamers are accommodated with subtitles for all speech. The voice acting is lacking for the most part, though Ryo's voice has an endearing dry charm. The music is phenomenal, using ethnic Chinese and Japanese instruments and adding more feeling to what is already an epic story. The graphics are serviceable, sometimes breathtaking and other times underwhelming. If (and hopefully when) Sega releases the next chapter, a graphical update is in order.

Gene Park
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