Shenmue 2 is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the sequel to Shenmue. Released on the Dreamcast back in 2001 and 1999 respectively, the two games came to PS4 in August 2018 as a high-definition (HD) port of the original games. They are identical to the originals — typos and all; the only notable addition to these games is the Japanese language track for both games. The graphics are improved, but they’re not the stunning overhauls you’d get from Crash Bandicoot or Spyro the Dragon.
As with our review of Shenmue, this article will not examine whether the game is any good — when Shenmue 3 was announced at E3 in 2015, it broke the world record to become the fastest crowd-funded game, raising $2m in a jaw-dropping 9 hours. The game has a clear cult following, and fans are eager to get their hands on the next instalment, which is due to be released in 2019. Instead, this is a question of whether or not the game lives up to the standard of modern games, and if it’s worth buying in 2018.
Yu Suzuki, the creative mind behind the Shenmue series, has long planned for the 11-chapter saga to run over four or five games. The second instalment in this franchise picks up almost directly where the first left off, with a boat ride to Hong Kong being the only border between the two. Although the review guide the developers sent over claims you can play these in any order, I strongly recommend you play the first one first: as your character, Ryo Hazuki, steps of the boat in Hong Kong, all you have to explain who you are and why you are here is a couple of lines of exposition in your trust journal — and you’ll only find that if you go looking for it. Without the first game for context, you’re really missing out.
Fortunately, Shenmue 2 is a much faster-paced game than the first one, with cutscenes, characters and heavy guitar riffs being thrown at you in your first 10 minutes. This is a welcome change from the monotony of the first game. Where Shenmue is a good story of one man’s revenge for the murder of his father at the hands of the mysterious Lan Di, buried under hours of staring at your watch and playing arcade games that looked dapper in the 80s in a desperate bid to make time pass faster, Shenmue 2 is a good story tucked away behind hours of minigames and quick-time events (QTEs). You’ll spend a good portion of your time in the game carrying boxes for money, carrying books to pay for your rent, or engaging gangs in QTE battles. These sections are, frankly, awful. They are poorly designed and completely detract from the game as a whole. Although the franchise pioneered QTEs as a mechanic, they have come a long way in the past two decades. Some games still mess these up — a recent example being the QTE rat in Battlefield 3’s story mode — and they are ridiculed for it. I genuinely hope Suzuki has learned from Shenmue 2’s mistakes, like the hideous QTE layout that brings up all eight of your possible buttons and rapidly highlights whichever ones you’re supposed to hit. This is probably the most frustrating thing about the game which can be improved with the minimum amount of effort. Bad QTEs ruin good games.
Another improvement that players will be thankful for is that the monotony found in the first game has been drastically improved, thanks to better pacing and the addition of a ‘wait’ function if you get to your target location early. This is a huge step forward for the franchise. Unfortunately, Shenmue 2 finds ways to undo this, frequently hampering Ryo’s progress in a bid to teach him patience and calm. One of your mentors, concerned over Ryo’s burning desire for revenge, has him trying to catch falling leaves at one point of the game. Her colleague, soon after, has Ryo try to learn some basic kung fu. Both of these fit into the narrative of the game, and they are certainly interesting plot points. However, in both instances, you’re left to figure out what to do — there’s no tutorial, just the vague instruction as to what your goal is. With the falling leaves you can pause the game to grab a walkthrough, inadvertently getting an instruction screen instead of a pause menu. In the latter instance, pausing the game is utterly useless — it’s just a pause screen — you just have to try to figure out which buttons you need to press to execute that move. Anyone who has ever played a fighting game will know the folly here — if I handed you Tekken 2 and asked you to make Yoshimitsu do a ‘fake turning suicide’, it would be perfectly reasonable to ask me to elaborate. Without instructions it’s simply infuriating, guess work like this is frustrating at best. Having everyone on screen berate you for your failure is just infuriating.
Another area in which Shenmue 2 is markedly improved is the addition of the minimap. Running around Hong Kong, Ryo has the chance to buy HK$10 maps of each of the game’s areas. Once owned, you get a handy minimap of the area, allowing you to mark locations of note with a coloured cross. Buy enough maps and you join them together on your main map (tucked away in your inventory). Unfortunately, Ryo isn’t quite smart enough to remember which area connects to which, though, so if you don’t want to shell out for each individual map, you’re never going to have a complete, or useful map. You will instead have to rely on street signs and strangers’ directions. The map feature is certainly a nice addition, but the execution leaves a little to be desired.
My biggest grievance with the HD port of Shenmue 2 is, however, the fact that the game crashes unacceptably often. In some instances, it’s the same thing that is bugged, like opening a specific inventory; in other instances, it’s moving past a specific story checkpoint. If you want to play Shenmue 2 with the least possible frustration, save before using every door. You will thank me for this because crashing isn’t the only issue here. Sometimes you’ll be in a building trying to get out, only to find that the contextual button to leave the room is not picking up that you’re standing in front of a door. Ryo stands there, helplessly opening and closing his journal as claustrophobia sets in, resigned to the fact that you’re about to quit or, if he’s lucky, reset the game.
So, is Shenmue 2 worth picking up in 2018? If you enjoyed the first game, yes — it is a much better game and some of the things that were notoriously missing from the first game are here to enjoy. However, this is like not a game of the impatient or the faint hearted. Shenmue 2 still feels dated — the controls are just as tanky, the QTEs are awful and the audio delivery is just as robotic as the first one. I’d recommend playing it in Japanese, because the nuance and delivery is much, much better, but then the dissonance between which languages Ryo speaks gets even worse.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*
- Shenmue 2 is a big improvement on Shenmue, with faster pacing and more engaging gameplay
- There’s more focus on story than being an open-world sandbox
- The story in this epic tale of Ryo’s revenge is genuinely interesting
- Shenmue 2 still feels dated, with clunky controls, blocky graphics and robotic audio lines
- The quick-time events are not well designed and will almost certainly frustrate newcomers to the franchise
- The game’s overreliance on repetition as a narrative function makes for repetitive and, at times, boring gameplay