If you had to pick the definitive game on the Dreamcast console it would have to be Shenmue. Yu Suzuki's masterpiece was like no other game before it and was impossible to pigeonhole into a genre. It has elements of an adventure game, an action game, beat 'em up game and to some extent an RPG. This may seem like a weird combination but Yu Suzuki has created such a subtle blend of the genres that somehow it feels natural and what's more it's completely engrossing.
I would imagine that most of you out there already know what happened in the original Shenmue but for those who don't know here's a brief summary. Ryo Hazuki's (the character you control) father is killed by the evil Lan Di. Lan Di was after a mirror that Ryo's father had, although there was also an element of revenge in the murder that we are not made fully aware of. Lan Di goes to Hong Kong after obtaining the Dragon mirror in order to search for the second sacred mirror: the Phoenix mirror. If both of these sacred mirrors fall into the wrong hands it could spell disaster. What Lan Di didn't realise though is that Ryo's father also had the second mirror. Ryo, who actually saw Lan Di murder his father is out for revenge and by the end of the first game has the Phoenix mirror and is on a ship bound for Hong Kong. This sequel begins with Ryo arriving in Honk Kong.
Shenmue II is played in a kind of real-time. Ryo has to keep his eye on the time. Certain events only happen at specific times. For the most part Ryo can do as he pleases but there are some restraints. At 11pm he must return to his lodgings to sleep for instance. Ryo usually has to pay for things he wants, as well as for his lodgings, so it's a good idea to try and earn some money by either gambling, working or visiting a pawnbrokers to part with some of his belongings. The jobs are never exciting but you only have to do them when you need the money, you don't have to do them everyday if you don't want to. The area of Hong Kong where Ryo is, is quite large and is broken up into smaller areas. Initially finding places can be tough. Ryo can either ask people where he must go or find them for himself. It's far better to ask someone. More often than not they will take you to the place you want or point you in the general direction. There are map machines scattered around and Ryo can buy these and also mark specific locations on them, which is a tremendous help.
There are various elements to the gameplay in Shenmue II. There's the free quest mode, which is basically roaming the environment as you see fit. You can either follow the story or simply browse around the shops or earn money doing various jobs or gambling. Then there's the free battle mode in which Shenmue's combat elements get a chance to shine. The fight moves have been taken from the Virtua Fighter series so you know the mechanics are going to be up to scratch. Next is the QTE (Quick Timer Events) mode, which are basically interactive cutscenes. In a QTE you have to press the button or direction as soon as the button or direction icon appears on the screen. A QTE can be a fight, puzzle or task. Failure to press the relevant button quickly enough will usually result in you having to do the QTE again. It does not lead to a game over thankfully. A QTE can be very dramatic and is a nice way of getting you involved rather than simply having to sit there whilst a cutscene plays out. There is a point worth mentioning with a QTE though. When the button icon appears onscreen a sound, which increases in tempo, is given. This doesn't really effect the gameplay as such because the idea is to press the button as soon as possible. There is also a sound, should you not do the QTE properly but, as the QTE will just repeat if you fail, then this noise is of little consequence. There is one QTE where Ryo has to catch a single leaf between his fingers. In order to do this Ryo has to concentrate on one leaf until the camera zooms in and a slight sound is given out, then he must grab the leaf with his two fingers. This could potentially cause a problem for deaf gamers but I noticed that there is a slight blurring of the leaf at about the same time of the noise. To be honest the blurring of the leaf is a better guide than the sound anyway.
SEGA have included some nice extras in Shenmue II. If you walk into an arcade in the game you'll find arcade machines of classics such as Outrun, Space Harrier and Afterburner 2 to name but a few. Once you've played on these during the game you can play them at any time from the main menu. A very nice touch indeed. An exclusive extra to the Xbox version is the ability to take screenshots at any time by pressing the black button. These pictures can be viewed at any time from choosing the snap-shots option from the main menu. The Xbox version also allows you to change your graphical filter by pressing the white button. This allows you to play the game in black & white as well as a sepia tone. Of course you're not going to want to play the game like this but it's effective to take photos when using one of these filters.
Shenmue II was originally a Dreamcast title and to be honest, it shows. That's not to say that there have been no refinements made for this Xbox version though. The slowdown that plagued the Dreamcast version has been removed and the resolution of the game has been increased to make the graphics and textures seem so much sharper. There is still evidence of its Dreamcast roots though. You'll often see people fade in and fade out as you walk down a busy street. It doesn't look bad but it's obvious that the game wasn't built for the superior Xbox hardware. Don't get me wrong the game looks good but it doesn't use the power of the Xbox as well as it might have. The one grumble I do have though is that the camera angles can be poor on the odd occasion whilst your having a battle which can make it awkward at times.
Shenmue II is absolutely superb for deaf gamers. The actual game is fully subtitled*. Indeed you can choose to play with just text and no speech at all. The text is quite large and is very easy to read, even on a small TV. In conversations you have to press the 'A' button to progress and there is plenty of time to read the text. In fact there are only two complaints with the overall package. The game comes with Shenmue digest. This is a short compilation of the events of the first film and this is not subtitled. Also in the package is a DVD movie of the first game that is essentially a film compiled out of the first game's cutscenes. This would have been great to introduce newcomers to the game but alas it's not subtitled. However on page 3 of the manual you can learn about the important events from the previous game, it's not as good as the movie but at least you're not in the dark about the important events. To help you keep track of what you should be doing Ryo is equipped with a logbook which details what you have done and what needs to be done and can be looked at whenever you like.
This has to be one of the best games ever to appear on any console. Of course if you've played Shenmue II on the Dreamcast there is probably little here to tempt you into playing through again. For those gamers who have yet to experience the Shenmue series or for those who have only played the first game, this is a must own title. The gameplay is as deep and involving as any game you can buy on the Xbox. The only downside is that there are no known plans to release the third title in the series. Let's hope SEGA sees sense and announces it pretty soon.
Game Rating: 9.2/10
*There is a section in Kowloon where Ryo has to listen to a tape recording. There are no subtitles for most of these conversations (they are not important anyway). Fast forward the tape to number 591 and a unsubtitled message will play. After the message Ren will ask for the message to be played again (this time it's subtitled).