Shenmue 2 uses the same game engine that the first game does, and is a very similar experience, but it manages to successfully blend in a greater variety of environments, more mini-games, more action and a crisper pace without sacrificing the attention to detail and artistry that made the first game so special.
As Sega's last major release for the Dreamcast, all the programming stops have been pulled out and the game seems to be pushing the system to its ragged edges graphically. There are some long loading times in-between game areas sometimes, and you'll get marked slowdown when there are eight or so characters visible on-screen at one time, but for the most part the already impressive graphical engine has been upgraded without cutting framerate. Character faces are noticeably more expressive than they were in the previous game, with a greater range of motion. The game also renders larger areas at a time than the previous game did, and the amount of NPCs wandering about seems to have doubled.
The game's environments are also just as beautiful and impressive as those of the previous, if not more so. Ryo's journey begins as he steps off the boat in Hong Kong, spanning two discs as he searches through several districts for his father's killer Lan Di. The third disc sees you off to the walled city of Kowloon for a breakneck crescendo to the game's narrative, while the fourth disc is something more like an epilogue as Ryo travels to the rural mountain province of Guilin and finally meets up with mystery girl Shenhua. As with the previous game, these are all based around actual real-life locations that the design team visited for inspiration, and the atmosphere is superb. Since the game was developed immediately following the first Shenmue, the same sound team also returns with yet another beautiful effort, this time largely based around traditional Chinese instruments blended with symphonic influences.
There are plenty of points where you're still free to stop and roam about the environs to your hearts content, but to answer the complaints about the monotony in the first game, Sega has cranked up the number of fights and QTE sequences here, and also added a "Wait" option which allows time to pass automatically when Ryo has to wait until a certain time for a story event to occur. You're free to barrel through the story as quickly as you like, or stop to smell the roses. If you choose the latter, there's a lot to find around Hong Kong and Kowloon.
All of the mini-games from the first Shenmue return, with some additions. Two more arcade games have been added - Outrun and After Burner II. You can also play darts competitively for money against a few different people now. If you need some quick pocket cash, you can carry crates for a couple of game hours, but it's only mandatory for one day early in the story, then after that it's completely voluntary. The rather pointless slot houses also return, but there's also now a wide range of street gambling for cash - simple card games, dice rolls, and the infamous Lucky Hit which is a bit like ghetto Pachinko. You can also arm wrestle for money, and when you get to Kowloon, there's a range of different street fights you can enter. And of course there's the capsule toys, you can work on all your sets from the previous games, plus a few new sets have been added. There's also even a hidden (and really cute) duck race, where you can bet on ducks or find one of your own to enter and control in something like a faster version of the forklift races in the first game.
There have also been a few minor tweaks to the gameplay, mostly for the better. You can now save at any time, rather than just at Ryo's bed. In the indoor areas, you can move about in a first-person view, and several of the game's fights that are in tight areas take place in first-person view, which is actually a pretty neat effect. Random passers-by will often walk you to locations when you ask for directions, and to facilitate this, you can enter a "lock-on" mode by centering the first-person view on them which will cause you to follow them automatically. Added to the action mix is a new challenge called the "Freeze QTE", where the action pauses and a sequence of commands is displayed, and you then have a few seconds to enter the sequence correctly. Ryo's move set has also been simplified, with the ability to swap out moves that use the same button commands, and the "move scroll" has been redesigned to show the power and speed of each move as well as a basic description (and some funky tunes for your enjoyment.)
It's not all total sunshine and roses, of course. For those that can't stand QTEs you'll probably loathe good portions of this game, as not only are they more numerous but they are significantly harder to the point that there are a few that really can't be done without first failing a few times and memorizing the steps. Fortunately, with the exception of only one terribly designed sequence of tightrope-walking on Disc 3, the punishment for failure is never more than maybe having to watch a small cut-scene again and then getting another chance right away, and you won't stay hung up on them for very long.
The semi-tank-controls remain without significant improvement (though I personally found them easy to get used to, I do see a lot of complaints about them around.) Despite the added action, the game is also still largely content to just be what it is - a detail-focused work of art aimed at people who are already deeply invested in the medium of gaming. Sega also made the boneheaded decision of not releasing this for the Dreamcast in North America (in spite of a major selling point of the series being the ability to carry saves between games), instead getting themselves into an idiotic exclusivity deal with Microsoft and hiring out the same cast of incompetent gaijin living in Japan to do a shit job of the voice work and ruin the dramatic impact of a lot of scenes. Fortunately, they did release this on the Dreamcast in Europe, with English subtitles over the Japanese voice work - which is miles better than their roundeyes counterparts.
Those are the legitimate criticisms of the game. While both Shenmue games actually tend to do pretty well with the "professional" critics, the games have still taken a lot of undue shit over the years, and I'd like to take a quick paragraph here to address that while I have an appropriate forum to. I stumbled across this article and it's the absolute definition of the sort of bogus, shallow, unthinking criticism that has damaged the rep of both games and has probably also hurt our chances of ever getting our goddamned Shenmue 3.
Literally everything the author complains about is optional - you don't ever once have to play Lucky Hit or run a stand, buy a capsule toy, and the game only forces you to carry crates once - after that, it's entirely optional. You find saving up money in Shenmue 2 to be boring? Use the new "save anywhere" feature in conjunction with the high-stakes gambling tables to save and soft-reset. You only need to win on a big bet 3 or 4 times to have enough money to do pretty much anything you want for the rest of the game. This is something most people discover for themselves when they play the game for more than 20 minutes. Christ, even the scene with Shenhua that bugs him so much is optional - it's the little cinematic "attract mode" intro that plays if you don't press Start on the title screen (and Shenhua is a lot more praying than she is "weepily pining" in that scene, for what it's worth - something else you'll discover if you actually bother to complete the game before jumping into your broke-ass attempt at being Seanbaby.) Oh, and the horrendous voice acting? PLAY THE ORIGINAL VERSION INSTEAD. Making a distinction between a flaw of a bad port and an inherent flaw in a game is something that people who get a paycheck to do this sort of thing should really know better about.
It just surprises me because the 1Up writers generally seem to go into a drooling frenzy for games that have the lavish sort of care and detail that Shenmue does, but apparently that just applies to 2D games where its a femmy vampire twirling around in a cape with "shadow trails", or a toaster robot hunting down lolitas. I guess it doesn't apply to big-budget 3D games, or maybe just games that are named Shenmue.
What you can expect here - another interactive Hong Kong action movie with a heart and soul, this time with a more epic feel and a more peppy pace. Sometimes you wish Ryo could have a non-stilted conversation or there was just a little more to interact with, but that shouldn't be enough to detract from all the amazing things this game has to offer. Eff the haters. And bring on Shenmue 3.
* Shenmue 2 Secrets - a lot of stuff that's not on GameFAQs or anywhere else
* Shenmue 2 for Dreamcast with ripped Xbox English audio - I can't fathom why you'd want this, but here it is if you're sick like that :P
* Great analysis of Shen 2's "poor" sales
* Gameplay video
* don't play in the road Ryo