Fortunately, the pneumonia drugs are working nicely. Compared to my dim memories of what I normally feel like, I’m still probably not doing too hot, but compared to the recent past, I feel great.

So: back to our normal subject matter. Today: Shenmue II. The second part of a three-part series telling the story of Ryo Hazuki’s quest for revenge in his father’s death. At least I hope it will be a three-part series: sales of the first two parts were such that Sega will need some convincing to produce the third part.

I played the first part when it came out on the Dreamcast five or so years ago; as I believe I’ve indicated here, it had quite an impact on me, the best of the games from that console’s short but glorious life. (Others being Soul Calibur, Jet Grind Radio, Space Channel 5.) It’s mostly an adventure game: get to know your map, figure out what the next key item or event is, find/trigger it, repeat. It also has a full-fledged fighting engine built in, with a hundred or so different moves.

Which is a distinctive enough combination, but there’s more. For one thing, the world of the game is glorious to explore. You start off the first part in your house, very closely modeled with tons of items that you can pick up, examine, carry around if you want to. (And not if you don’t: this is one game where the text adventure reflex of picking up everything will lead you astray.) As you make your way into the world, there are apartments full of doors to knock on, streets full of stores to shop in, and a pleasing wealth of other characters to talk to. You even get a daily allowance that you can use in those stores (or in vending machines): buy soft drinks, collectible toys, casettes, or play old Sega games in the arcades. And then you can just sit in your room (in the game) listening to those casettes, as I frequently did, if you’d rather do that than make progress in the game.

The other impressive aspect of the game is the theatrical nature of the game: it tries to feel like a martial arts movie (at least when you want it to, when you’re not listening to music or drinking random soft drinks), and carries it off better than any other game I’ve seen. The plot progress is very well done; while that’s a point of emphasis of most RPG’s these days, Shenmue has nothing to be ashamed of on that front. Such scripting, of course, depends on a variety of events coming off in sequence; the game provides the basic structure through key (adventure-game style) events triggering cut scenes, which are elaborated either by using the fighting engine (when appropriate) or, more simply, by forcing you to press buttons at certain times to get your character to, say, dodge appropriately in a cut-scene chase. These latter “quick-time events” may sound hokey, and obviously you wouldn’t want them to be a game’s main focus, but they really do work to keep you involved in long cut-scenes that are necessary for dramatic purposes. (Resident Evil 4 has also adopted QTE’s to good effect.)

And, on top of that, it has a pleasant selection of quirks, of which my favorite was the fork-lift races. What more could one ask for?

Well, a game that didn’t end in the middle of a massive cliff-hanger, for one. Apparently the original game was planned as the first of 16 (!) parts; I don’t really think they ever thought they’d release 16 separate games in the series, but the second part (the boat ride to Hong Kong) was jettisoned, parts 3-6 (Hong Kong, more Hong Kong, Kowloon, the road to Bailu) are in Shenmue II, and the remaining 10 parts will all be crammed into the third game in the series. (Given how the plot has progressed, I don’t think they’ll have any trouble coming to a successful conclusion in one more game’s worth of play.)

When I started playing Shenmue II, I’d forgotten the details of the first game. (It came with a preview movie, which I skipped.) Partially because of that, it took me a while to get back into the game. (There were other external causes; in particular, either I got a bad disk or have a bad optical drive in my Xbox, and the game wasn’t programmed to handle that gracefully.)

But the truth is, Shenmue II doesn’t start out nearly as well as the original. In the original, you could just spend time goofing off, getting to know the game, even getting an allowance every day to buy stuff. In the sequel, you have to earn money to pay for your hotel room every day; unfortunately, the main way to do that (working in a warehouse) is really tedious. They try to make the job interesting by turning it into a game, but fail miserably at that: the game has control issues, and it’s impossible to play the game well enough or badly enough to change the amount of money you make. (I suppose it’s possible to play badly enough to lower your paycheck, but you’d have to work hard at it.) And the amount of money you make in a shift of work, while more than a day’s rent, isn’t enough more to give you significant spending money. (Especially since you’ll want to spend most of the remaining money on maps.)

They do, I suppose, ease the pain by not giving you as much frivolous stuff to buy, but I can’t exactly see that as an improvement. And, if you wanted to break realism, I suspect that the game would let you get aways without paying for your hotel room; it also starts you off with items to sell, if you wish. But I didn’t like either of those solutions to the problem.

It gets better half way through Hong Kong, fortunately. On a game mechanics level, you stop having to pay for your hotel, freeing up your days. And even though I’d been spending my days with my nose to the grindstone, I’d seen enough of the city that I was starting to enjoy just wandering around in it. At the same time, the plot was getting me hooked again, getting me to care about characters I’d been meeting and introducing me to some interesting new ones.

So the rest of Hong Kong was a lot of fun, as was Kowloon. The level design in Kowloon was pleasantly different: most of it takes place in skyscrapers. Kind of weird skyscrapers, though: they arbitrarily decreed that most elevators would stop on a random subset of the floors. Well, not entirely random: it let them set up puzzles getting from place to place when an elevator ride would otherwise suffice.

The details of the gameplay felt pretty different from the original; I still enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it was a rousing success. There’s still a fair amount of fighting, but a lot more of other sorts of puzzles (e.g. having to press buttons to make it across rickety bridges). Unlike the first game, there’s no way to actually practice your karate, so you have to hope to be able to fight well enough in battles just by button mashing. Which, it turns out, you can; in fact, some key fights can be gotten through by just hitting X over and over again. (I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have worked in the first game, but who knows.) I’m not sure this is a bad choice – it means that you can enjoy the game even if you only enjoy adventure games, not fighting games. Still, it feels like a bit of a loss.

So that’s Hong Kong and Kowloon; next comes Guilin, specifically the road to Bailu. And here the game takes a completely different and wonderful turn. No fighting, no shopping, no wandering around a town. Instead, you’re just walking down a road, through gorgeous scenery, talking to a new character you just met about her and your past. It’s basically an extended cut scene, with a few events thrown in to give you some buttons to press, existing only to advance the plot. (And to look pretty.) By the end of this, the plot threads are coming together, you know what the game is named after. (A tree, it turns out.) And somehow you’ve spent the last two hours of a video game doing basically nothing, watching an extended cut scene, and having a great time doing it.

So I’m looking forward to the third game. I just hope they make it…

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