I admit it. After the FFX review, I was ready to stop reviewing and go back to working on my translations. But then Sensei Phoenix contacted me and asked if I wanted to stay on as a contributing editor, where I'd be responsible for far less work then before. I accepted and once I got my hands on Shen Mue II a couple months back, I thought I'd found the perfect game to review and decided that I'd review it once I beat it.
That was about 2 months ago (I'd beaten the game about a week after I'd gotten it). Why did I wait so long? Because Shen Mue II was one of the most FRUSTRATING experiences I've ever had in a recent RPG. That's not to say that the game's not enjoyable, because it is. But for the reasons that I'll make clear soon enough, Shen Mue II isn't for everybody (especially for those who hated Shen Mue I).
One thing to clear right off the bat is what changes are there between Shen Mue I and II?
Very Little. Any review of the first Shen Mue will more than prepare you for how Shen Mue looks, sounds, and even plays.
The only real change that took place was the addition of a new, spiffy looking map system (which I found next to useless) and the addition of a new Quick Time type which is sure to please all you Dragon's Lair fans out there. The main difference between Shen Mue I and II comes rather in the pacing of the game and cast of characters that you'll come across throughout the game.
Shen Mue II starts off about 2-3 weeks after the end of the first game, with Ryo getting off the ship that he got on so that he can arrive in Hong Kong. It is from here that Ryo will start his journey in his search for clues to the secret behind the Phoenix Mirror as well as the whereabouts of the person who wrote Ryo's father a letter in the first game.
For those like me who played the first game, you are allowed to import your save game into Shen Mue II and for those who spent hours earning money in the first game in anticipation of Shen Mue II, here's my advice: Spend it all on toys and other collectables.
Why? BECAUSE 10 MINUTES INTO THE GAME YOU'RE GOING TO GET ROBBED OF ALL YOUR MONEY! There, I said it. This was when I realized Suzuki's aim in designing this game...pissing players off to make the game longer. While those who complained that the pace of Shen Mue I was too slow will probably be gladdened by the relatively fast past of Shen Mue II, I'm sure that they won't be happy to hear that this pace is the result of a series of ridiculous fetch quests such as "find person A who'll tell you to go to person B who's supposed to be at point C but was actually at point D, and who will tell you to go to point E because he doesn't know anything but knows a person F who might know, and whom you have to find items G, H, and I for and get $500 HK in order to meet him."
The saddest thing about this is that I'm not joking at all when I say this. In fact, the flow of the story is pretty easy to figure out if you just keep one thing in mind: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Have to go up a skyscraper? Well get ready to work for it because not only are all the elevators broken, only one of the many, many stairs are working on each floor so you have to hunt it down to go from the 2nd floor to the 3rd to the 4th to the 5th… The frustration meter in my mind rose to the point that I actually threw the controller down, which is why the L and R triggers don't work anymore in one of my controllers, and stopped playing for a day.
To the game's credit, there is more of everything this time around. More characters, more story, more battles, you name it. In fact, when the game works and the storyline portions actually roll around, you'll be so absorbed in the game that you'll actually forgive all the BS that the game made you go through to reach it... until the cycle starts all over again. Once I beat the game after 35 hours, I sat on my chair for the longest time trying to figure out how many of those hours were actually used for storytelling purposes.
The characterization for all the characters are very well done with excellent voice acting for most parts. Each character and location is detailed to the point that you'll be satisfied if you play the game on a VGA monitor (which I did on and off). However, there is a pretty big obstacle to character development for all the support characters.
The problem is that Ryo is an asshole. Let's take a look at an example:
Joy: Hey Ryo. Do you want to take a break and go grab something to eat?
Ryo: No, go away.
How the heck are the other characters supposed to be developed if the main character refuses to interact with them!? While I'm sure that this was due mostly to technical problems with the development time allotted for Shen Mue II, it was disappointing to see these great characters all go to waste. Having some dialogue trees like those that are standard in adventure games would've been great to see in Shen Mue II. Instead we are stuck with choices like "Yes/No" or "Do/Don't Do" or "Pay/Don't Pay".
What's more, the 2 major problems of Shen Mue I are still present. The first problem is with character pop up. In Shen Mue, there is a perceived visual range that Ryo is allowed to see. So in other words, you'll see characters popping up 10 feet ahead of you and buildings about 15 feet ahead. This is a slight improvement from Shen Mue I, in which the pop ups were even more abrupt, but it is still very annoying.
The other problem is with the game's controls. The controls are set up so that it's very hard to turn slightly left or right. Instead, you're forced to fiddle with the controls for 5-10 seconds trying to face in the direction that you want. This problem combined with the fact that certain objects don't "lock on" unless you're looking at the object from certain angles can make for a very frustrating experience.
In the end, I can't help but feel that Shen Mue II goes 3 steps forward and then 2 steps backwards from Shen Mue I. There is no doubt in my mind that it offers more in terms of gameplay and storyline, but the amount of frustration that accompanies it can make it a chore to get to the fun points in the game. But given how I'm now eagerly waiting for Shen Mue III, maybe it doesn't really matter in the end. After all, Shen Mue fans are sure to like the game, and if your only problem with Shen Mue was that there wasn't enough action, Shen Mue II is sure to satisfy you. For those who didn't like the style of the game at all, you're better off sticking with Final Fantasy X and Super Robot Wars Advanced (well, urm...I am, anyway).