When I finished the first Shenmue last week, I wanted to wait until I had a few days off from work before digging into the second installment. I knew that it was bigger and longer, so I figured it’d take even more time to work through. That assumption was right on the nose. While the first Shenmue took me... probably a good 10 hours give or take, mostly from having to wait a lot, Shenmue II took me 26 hours, and that’s just plowing through the story and doing some jobs for money. Plus the game has an actual wait system, at least when it makes sense, meaning I wasted no time just sitting around. And I enjoyed every last second of my adventure.
The story picks up right where Shenmue I left off, with main protagonist Ryo Hazuki sailing across the ocean to Hong Kong in search of Lishao Tao, Yuanda Zhu, and Lan Di. Along the way he meets a colorful cast of characters who he befriends as the story goes on. From the young Wong, the beautiful Joy, all the way to the ever impatient Ren. There’s so much more meat to the story this time around and that’s what makes it last so long. It has so many conflicts and relationships it establishes and builds, and it has so much it wants to teach the player about martial arts.
Speaking of martial arts, the combat system of Shenmue in general has easily become of my favorites. The game is easily a brawler like its younger sibling Yakuza, with the player typically getting surrounded by multiple opponents and having to beat on all of them. However, something about Shenmue just feels tighter and better implemented. Maybe it’s that battles feel slower, almost like a dance, and the button combos for specific moves actually take into account whether it’s a punch, a kick, or if both limbs are involved in the attack. I feel like I’m actually performing these moves because the button combos correspond to the movements necessary to perform it. After learning so many moves by the end of the game, I felt like a kung fu master. The final two big opponents were very challenging, and I had to leverage quite a few moves to effectively defeat them. And even then I still felt like I was learning the intricacies of the combat system. I didn’t feel like I could spam the same move and win every battle, unlike Yakuza where I end up using the same combos over and over again because the most effective strategy almost always ends up being “Wail on your opponent and don’t let them move.”
Also, the implementation of quick time events in Shenmue II feels further refined. Unlike a lot of games that use QTE’s in rapid succession to get the player involved and not have them sitting around even though the button presses don’t really correspond to anything, Shenmue actually has each QTE perform a move. A punch, a kick, tripping something, kicking scaffolding down, jumping over a hole in the floor, each one is a single button press, sometimes two or three but each one corresponding to a necessary motion. Maybe I’m just overthinking it, but I love the QTE’s in this game because they make sense, and they serve the purpose of making Ryo look like a badass when he just backhands ten goons in a row while casually strolling down an alley.
However, while Ryo does get his badass moments, the game does have moments where he gets his ass handed to him, showing that he’s still got a lot to learn and plenty of room to grow and the game does a great job at showing his growth.
Now, probably my biggest complaint about the first game, at least on PC, was the lack of native gamepad support, and it was a bit tricky trying to set up gamepad support myself, so I gave up on it and had a rough time since the PC controls could be frustrating. However, after doing some sleuthing on Steam, I found out that the default gamepad configuration preset(Which has to be selected, it’s not automatic.) does work on games that don’t natively support gamepads, and I used that to play. It gave me a much better experience and combat become easier as a result. The only downside is that the game will display the old Dreamcast button prompts for QTE’s, and the PlayStation 4 controller that I was using definitely isn’t a match. For example: Dreamcast A = PlayStation X, Dreamcast X = PlayStation Square, Dreamcast B = PlayStation O, and Dreamcast Y = PlayStation Triangle. So whenever a button prompt for “X” would appear, I’d accidentally hit the “X” button on the controller which is actually “A.” So my recommendation is to use either an Xbox or a Nintendo controller because it’s at least a better match for the prompts than a PlayStation controller.
If there is one thing missing in Shenmue II, it’s that feeling of nostalgia I got from the first game’s 80's/90's aesthetic. Since the setting has moved from a seaside Japanese town to the sprawling Hong Kong, it’s far less familiar, more exotic. There’s a sense of virtual tourism to Hong Kong because it’s so different and a bit of a time capsule in and of itself. I enjoyed the setting because it presented a lot of new opportunities for the story, though I did miss that familiarity that got me so attached to the first game. Thankfully the story and characters of Shenmue II manage to carry it completely.
Now, there is one character I do want to talk about because it’s kind of relevant to current debates. That character is Yuan:
Now, if you didn’t know any better, you’d probably make the assumption that Yuan is a woman. Yuan is not, or at least was not intended to be. The truth of the matter is that in the original Japanese release, Yuan was an effeminate gay man who dresses in womens clothing, but does not refer to himself as a she. On the other side of the Pacific however, the decision was made to make Yuan a full-fledged woman. So if you’re playing with the English dub on or even with English subtitles, Yuan will either sound or be referred to as a woman, but if you know your Japanese, you’ll still hear the male pronouns in the Japanese voiceover. This is technically censorship albeit a case nearly 20 years old and that was retained in the new HD re-release because that’s not really something you can fix without tampering with the voiceover or subtitles, and Sega wanted to keep these versions as faithful as humanly possible to the original releases, hence why the graphics received no touch-ups aside from the HD screen resolution.
Putting that aside, Shenmue II is a fantastic game. Obviously, I don’t recommend playing it before you play the first Shenmue. It’s a very narrative driven series so if you skip one, you miss important story. And while there’s only two games for now, Shenmue III is on the horizon so it’s best to just play everything in preparation for that, especially since there’s likely to be at least two more titles after that if statements from the developer mean anything, though that depends on Shenmue III’s success. So I highly recommend the game, I recommend everything about it, though obviously you should play it with a gamepad if you’re on PC. Also, cranking super-sampling up to maximum alongside having FXAA does wonders for the games image quality on PC. Not a single bit of aliasing in the entire game, goes for the first Shenmue as well.