Bargain Binned: $5.99 at GameStop, cheap everywhere. If you buy it, make sure the Shenmue Movie disc is included.
Ah, Shenmue. A series steeped in tragedy, if only for its swift and meaningless shuffling loose of the collective consciousness of gamers everywhere. Were I to get this party started right, I'd say two things: one, you'll dig Shenmue II a lot more if you've had the proper introduction to the series with the original Dreamcast classic -- if not, the included Shenmue Movie bonus disc, a compilation of cutscenes and story information from the original game, should bring you up to speed well enough to enjoy the sequel. Second, regardless of whether or not you played the first, playing the second will undoubtedly leave you with an empty feeling, a melancholy of epic proportions, because it ends with a massive cliffhanger.
Yep, Shenmue was meant to be a trilogy. But as Sega has no plans to embark upon a third installment in the series and Yu Suzuki himself has said he has no intention of returning to the saga anytime soon, it's unlikely that the story will be wrapped up, y'know, ever.
That being said, you can't ignore a great set of games, no matter how incomplete. Shenmue II, despite lacking the conclusion it so sorely deserves, is a fantastic game and a gripping examination of revenge. Hell, you might even say that Shenmue is a great film that, wouldn't you know it, is playable. And oh, the ways that you can play Shenmue! There's Virtua Fighter-style fighting, item collecting, adventure, a time-based day/night system with nigh-real people doing nigh-real people things, the list goes on. Shenmue is a series that offers a rich, total gaming experience, and the second in the series is no different.
Where the original Shenmue served as a strong introduction to Ryo Hazuki, his father's murder, and the following pursuit to exact his revenge, Shenmue II drops you headlong into the story, kicking off the game with Ryo's first step off the boat in Hong Kong to continue his quest. From there, the possibilities are almost literally endless: Ryo can scare up some bucks doing odd jobs, buy random assortments of Sega-brand trinkets, fight some bitches, or advance the story.
AM2's rich, vibrant Hong Kong is what makes Shenmue II go -- it's full of interesting people with unique dialogue, bright colors, and presents itself as a whole living world to explore. Being a Dreamcast port, Shenmue II doesn't look nearly as good as most of Sega's efforts on the Xbox, but what updates they applied in the port -- fixing some slowdown, additional materials, English dubbing -- make it a little easier to bear. Wait, did I say English dubbing making the port business easier to bear? I totally lied. The dubbing is horrible. The rest of the game, though -- absolutely breathtaking just how much can be going on around you all at once, especially when you consider that Shenmue II was, originally, a Dreamcast game. If you're the kind of guy who likes to go from Point A to Point B while beating up people along the way -- well, there's something for you here, but not nearly as much as there is for the gamer who likes to breathe deep the world set before him or her.
While there's plenty of distractions to eat up your time in the world of Shenmue II, this isn't to say that you'll necessarily feel the need to be distracted. The story is engaging, interesting, and rife with twists and turns. Along the way you'll meet a cast of characters who are incredibly well written and designed, with the exception of just a few. You know how most RPGs include characters that seem more like filler than anything? Not much of that here, folks.
Speaking of RPGs, it's difficult to classify a game like Shenmue -- but it's a task made simple by the fact that its development began with AM2's quest to create a Virtua Fighter RPG spinoff. Shenmue, then, is probably best described as a Fighter-RPG hybrid, and it comes out in the gameplay. While a fair bulk of your time will be spent exploring, speaking, collecting, and more exploring, occasionally Ryo will be called to throw down and kick some ass.
Fighting in Shenmue II is handled two different ways: free battles and QTEs. Free battles are beat-'em-up style romps that incorporate Virtua Fighter game mechanics to create a pretty fluid and deep fighting experience. Ryo can learn an ass-ton of moves along the course of his journey, which you'll definitely need -- Shenmue fighting is no minigame, kids. You'll need to block, dodge, and whoop some serious ass to overcome the thugs looking to bring you down, and the system is deep enough to allow for some serious investment in Shenmue's fighting. The QTEs, on the other hand, are similar to the context-sensitive actions in God of War or the cutscene press-or-die segments in Resident Evil 4. You'll be called upon to enter a sequence of button-presses while a cinematic rolls on, and if you fail, you might get punched in the face or tossed off a dock -- the fight might continue, or you might lose outright. It's a form of combat that allows the cinematic nature of the game to flow uninterrupted, even if it is a little less.. I dunno, hands-on than the free battling. A nice addition, though you'll be yearning for those VF-style brawls after a few dozen runs through the QTE system.
I could write for pages and pages and still not detail every little awesome thing that there is about Shenmue II. At six bucks used, the game is definitely up for the title for highest gameplay-to-dollar ratio, made especially impressive by the fact that Shenmue II contains so many different styles of play, all of which are fun. Tie them sneakers and get ready for a wild, complicated ride through late 80s Japan and Hong Kong and buy this game.
[Note: big ups to Subnet6, whose entry was lost in the thick of things. Sorry about that, yo. Check out his entry in the gallery.]