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There were many who claimed that Shenmue was reason enough to own a Dreamcast. While I can't say that I agree about that, the game was very impressive at times. Its graphics were outstanding, it had a musical score better than most other RPGs etc. But the game did not get far plot-wise... as the largest part of the first episode was about getting yourself a ticket to Hong-Kong. After being forced to work on the pier for almost an entire disc, I had strong doubts about buying the second game. Fortunately, I changed my mind.
Just like in the first Shenmue, there are two types of battles in Shenmue II. There are Quick Time Events and Free Battles. In the Free Battles, you can move around and attack like crazy with all the different moves you've learned. This is very similar to a fighting game, although much more chaotic and harder to control. Since you can't really die in Shenmue II, most players just end up button mashing through the entire game... something that works all too well. Just like in the first game, you learn a whole lot of moves in Shenmue II. Unfortunately, the chaotic real time battles does not provide much chance to make full use of these. The Quick Time Events require much more precision though, but you won't see a game over screen if you fail here either (you just have to redo the whole scene). In a Quick Time Event, you have to follow a movie and press certain buttons at the right time when the game tells you to. These are more entertaining than ever in the second game, as there are now longer and more difficult combinations.
The interface is somewhat annoying this time around as well. The controls for Ryo can be extremely frustrating if you move too fast... it often felt as if he had a life of his own, running a few extra steps, turning around all of a sudden etc. The menus are, just like in the first game, very few. Ryo's notebook is just as handy as in the first game, as his notes are very realistically written, and it also gives hints to the player. The inventory is just as uninteresting as it was in the first game... you never seem to use it at all in the game, save for a couple of times.
The first episode in the Shenmue saga had one of the greatest musical scores I have ever heard... and the same can be said about about Shenmue II. While it seemed to be quite an average soundtrack in the beginning, it only got better and better the longer I played. Especially the tracks played on the last disc are truly wonderful, and incredibly well composed. No matter where you are in the game though, the music fits perfectly into the setting. The sound effects are just as annoying as they were in the first game, unfortunately. While the battle effects were okay, the loud blipping sounds in the menus hurt my ears.
Even though Shenmue II is very similar to its predecessor in many ways, it is still an original title. There aren't that many games even today with gigantic cities like these... and with so many characters to talk to (and they all have voices). Unlike in most other RPGs, Ryo mostly explores new areas or look for clues instead of fighting his way through the game. If you're looking for a game with tons of action, you might want to look elsewhere. While Shenmue II is indeed exciting, it also requires quite a bit of patience. The game is also realistic in many ways... Ryo has to work to earn money (there are several part-time jobs in the game), and sleep every night (you can't just stay at an inn at any time during gameplay).
The localization job is also quite impressive. I really liked the Japanese voice-acting, as it fits much better into the setting of the game than english. The translation might not have been that accurate at all times, but it was okay. I did experience some grammatical errors, and a few spelling errors as well. However, I really enjoyed the different reactions from the citizens when Ryo started to ask them questions. Some of them won't even answer, some are just annoying, and others are happy to be of service.
The graphics are truly wonderful in this game. When I played the first Shenmue, I was convinced that it was the most beautiful game for the Dreamcast at that time. Shenmue II is even better. The cities are wonderfully detailed, the character models are beautiful, and the face expressions of the characters are truly fantastic (even if they can look quite weird sometimes).
Story-wise, Shenmue II follows up directly after Shenmue. Ryo arrives in Hong-Kong and instantly start looking for clues about Lan Di (the one who killed his father) and his father's mysterious past. He meets up with a lot of new people... some of them friendly, others not. The plot really moves forward in Shenmue II, as three of the sixteen chapters in the Shenmue saga are covered at the same time in this game. However, don't expect to know too much when you finish this game either... there is a lot more to the series, even if the future of these games has seemed quite hopeless after the fall of the Dreamcast.
Playing Shenmue II a second time would probably make it a lot shorter, since you'll be tired of playing around with all the different mini-games, talking all the interesting people and so forth. There is only one ending of course, but there are a lot of scenes in which you can make a slight difference. Although, the outcome is sort of the same, so it's not really worth replaying the entire game just to see those small changes. Shenmue II also very simple, just like its predecessor. You cannot die, instead you'll just replay the same scene over and over until you succeed. Also, very few of the scenes offer much challenge. All in all, the game shouldn't take longer than 30 hours to complete. If you want to see everything the game has to offer, you might end up around 40 hours or more.
In the end, Shenmue II was a very pleasant experience. It's one of those games which I actually enjoyed the entire time I was playing it. There is never a dull moment, and you'll rarely lose track of where you're going (since the people are a lot more helpful this time around). There are tons of story-sequences, some of which are very memorable and touching. Overall, there were lots of improvements since the first game, and it was a lot more fun to play. If you thought Shenmue was a total disaster though, don't expect this game to make up for it. However, if you liked the first game, but thought that something was missing in it, you can be sure to find that something in Shenmue II.
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