As much as it pains me to say it, Shenmue is not for everyone.
That goes without saying for anything, really. Not every piece of cake, toaster, cough drop, painting, car, or person is for everyone. Shenmue II is easily one of the greatest video games of all time. I could talk about this game, all the little moments it gave me and so many others, and why it's such a masterpiece. But at the end of Shenmue II's journey, you may just flat out hate it. That's okay. It's like a friend who's qualities can be interpreted as either endearing or annoying. It depends on you. But what I ask for you to take away from is not if this game is for you, but if this game is still good despite that. I don't like most sports games, but they aren't designed for me, and many are still considerably great. To me, Shenmue II is the person who sits quietly in the back of the classroom, silent and off in its own place. It doesn't try to get your attention or impress you, but if you go up to Shenmue II and understand it, you might just find your best friend.
Shenmue II picks up shortly after Shenmue. At the end of Shenmue, Ryo Hazuki, hell bent on avenging his father, gets on a boat heading to Hong Kong in his quest to find Lan Di. Along the way, he runs into various friends and enemies that will eventually help or hinder his journey moving forward. Shenmue was written as an eleven chapter story, with Shenmue I being the first chapter, and Shenmue II containing chapters 2, 3, and 4. These chapters are accompanied by location changes: Chapter 1 was in Yokosuka, Chapter 2 in Hong Kong, Chapter 3 in Kowloon, and Chapter 4 in Guilin. In Chapter 2, the shift in location is apparent. Yokosuka was small, but easy to navigate. I remember where everything is better than my own home town. Hong Kong is immediately foreign: the buildings, the large amount of people, the set up of streets and districts. Even if you never played the first one, this town is unpredictable. Some people are kind, some are trying to con you, most don't even register your existence. It's easy to get lost, even for someone who has played through this game twice. But it's filled with interesting people that you get to know, and they get to know you. Some encourage you, some try to stop you on your revenge filled quest, others are in it for themselves, but warm up to you. Kowloon is smaller and more confined ,but with a strange set up and stranger people. It's like a cross between Hong Kongs big city chaos and Yokosuka's confined familiarity. It's easier to remember where things are in Kowloon, but it's still rather large and uninviting. Guilin is just gorgeous, being in the Chinese countryside. There's not many buildings, but there's plenty of places to see in Guilin. The majority of the chapter takes place on a long forest trail, and paces incredibly slow. I mean that in a good way. Chapter 3 ends on a high, climatic note, but then you get to this lush, beautiful countryside and really get to stop to think since your father died. It gives Ryo time to think about his big revenge plot, and the things he's been told by many people across these games: Is revenge worth it? What is he throwing away to get it? These are questions about the humanity of Ryo, and by association, the player who has experienced everything Ryo has.
The gameplay of Shenmue is it's greatest strength, but undoubtedly the barrier most cannot cross: it's mundane. People like labeling this a sandbox game or an open world, but it's not that simple. In Shenmue II, you listen to a radio for clues, air out books, fight in Virtua Fighter style combat, take your chances at a game of lucky hit, play arcade games, lift crates to get money, pawn stuff, and so much more. Doing any thing requires a combination of any of those elements. You could be looking for a gang leader, but he requires money for a visit, so you gamble your money, or work at gambling stand, or lift crates for money, or fight. But you have to keep up with staying at the hotel, so every night is a struggle. If you have to pay $500, there's no easy way to get that. You don't have a stable job, what with just running off into a foreign country all by yourself. There isn't a safety net, not like the first game. In the first, you had family who gave you money, and close friends that are willing to help. Here, you're alone and more vulnerable than ever. If you have a European or Japanese copy of the first game, you can import your save file, including everything you collected and all of your money, both tying the games together literally and letting you feel even more helpless as everything suddenly changes around you. It uses the gameplay and story together to create a sensation. Feelings that you are actually experiencing by playing a role in Ryo's life. There's one really powerful scene with a martial arts master that refuses to let Ryo continue until he can demonstrate that revenge hasn't consumed him blind. She tests him by making him catch leaves, three in a row without failing. It's very difficult to do in game, but requires absolute concentration. It is, like the Guilin segment, a moment to breathe and really take in what has been happening to you. A second to stop thinking about how I'm going to make rent, how I will find this person in that place, or even just what I'm going to do. It's just you and the leaf catching. You have to be gentle, with small movements. You can't rush, you just have to feel. It's one of the most striking moments a game has ever given me.
Everything is built around realism, but never built like a chore. Ryo's adventure is suspenseful, engrossing, and entertaining all the same without feeling like it needs to be a video game. It doesn't care if balancing on a wooden beam isn't fun, or if arm wrestling is. It's just telling you what you need to do to survive. Like life. You don't always have to do those things. If you want, you can just go to the arcade every day and spend all your money, never progressing until Lan Di finds you literal months later. Sometimes I just want to looks around the city, looking at places and corners of this world. Not because of how graphically impressive it is, but just because of how Shenmue it is. Shenmue II has a feel to it, almost as if you could smell the decaying buildings feel the texture of its walls. The music always fits the mood, arguably being the primary factor in creating it. There's a wide range of music and styles, but its always atmospheric. More felt than heard, like a great bass line to the game in front of you. It all blends into a Shenmue experience that has many different parts mixed together, unlike something like Uncharted where it feels segmented and set up. Shenmue II is natural, and its beautiful for it. This makes the end of the game all the more effective. I won't spoil it for you, but I will say that the illusion that Shenmue I and II has spent hours and hours building up is shattered all at once. People who have played Shenmue II can understand the build up for Shenmue III, because satisfactory or not, Shenmue II's ending needs explained. Jaw dropping is a word I would use.
Even if you think Shenmue II isn't fun to play (which I respectfully disagree with if it wasn't obvious), I ask you to at least understand it. There isn't another game or series out there like it, or even relatively close to it. Shenmue II is a masterpiece of that should be played and cherished for all of time. It's the most realistic video game I have ever played, and I will eat my Dreamcast if I ever say that about another game series ever again. It is Sega's finest, and without a shadow of doubt, the model of quality the game industry should use as the standard. Play this game right now, on Dreamcast or Xbox. Just as long as you give it a shot.
FINAL VERDICT: The Best Gaming Has To Offer
ONE SENTENCE REASONING: Shenmue II is an emotional experience that uses everything games can do to its fullest.