In one camp are those who profess it to be the greatest videogame ever made and in the other are those that think that it isn’t really worthy of the praise lavished upon it. But even it’s harshest critics can’t fail to be impressed by the Sega maestro’s vision for creating a gameworld on a scale never seen before. Anyone who’s ever played it can give testament to its sheer beauty and a level of interactivity and attention to detail unheard of in most videogames. Suzuki’s original vision for the game was of a sprawling 16 chapter epic and while we’re never going to see the complete saga on Dreamcast, Shenmue fans have at least got Chapter Two to look forward to before the system finally goes into retirement.
Plot details are still patchy as AM2 strategically releases teasing snippets to the info-hungry world but we do know that the game picks up the story directly after the end of Chapter 1 and follows Ryu as he travels to Hong Kong, in search of his father’s killer, Lan Di. And we know the action will take place in four different main areas of China. Kowloon is a major refugee area that has become a slum and generally fallen into disrepute, being renowned for it’s shady gambling dens and dangerous inhabitants. Guilin, meanwhile, is an idyllic island town where Ryo will finally meet Shenhua, the enigmatic girl of his dreams from Chapter One. Aberdeen is the harbour area, where many of the inhabitants live on floating Junks and finally, Wan Chai is an old district that once was home to a Japan-town and, as such, may well hold some significant clues to the ongoing mystery.
Of course, there’s a large cast of characters for Ryu to meet, including, among many others, Joy, an outspoken but kind-hearted young woman, whose father runs the harbour in Aberdeen. Ko Shu-Ei is a scholar who identifies with Ryo as her own father was murdered in a similar fashion to Iwao-san. She has an interest in Chinese culture and may well be able to offer Ryo important assistance on his quest. Kaoru, meanwhile, is a bubbly 15-year-old who works at a taoist temple and a knife wielding, bike riding, bad boy named Ren also puts in an appearance.
AM2 has addressed its critics with some new gameplay features to improve the overall experience. A time-jumping system has been introduced whereby players can choose to skip through time if they don’t want to hang around for certain events to take place. Loading times have been cut considerably and we may well see data seamlessly streamed straight from the disc in a similar way to Soul Reaver. Items collected by players during the first game will be transferable to the new chapter and can be sold or used to trade for items needed during the course of the game. Cash will play a more important role and rather than just being handed money each day, players will have to discover new ways of earning their wonga.
Navigating your way around the game will also be made easier as maps will be available at the entrance of each area (at locations such as cashpoint machines), removing much of the potential for aimless wandering around. Also introduced to make gameplay smoother are the ‘ Icon Selector’, which display the functions of each of the pad’s four buttons in any given situation (in a similar vein to Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online). Depending on what is required, the icons will change accordingly. In addition to this, AM2 has also added an ‘Action Selector’ system, which will display various action functions for the buttons when Ryo is talking to people. Just hit the corresponding button to ask the question that you want from the topics available.
And despite the sublime visuals of the first chapter, it seems that Suzuki’s team has managed to squeeze even more out of Dreamcast’s graphics processor. Textures look even more detailed, pop up somehow remains non-existant and character’s faces look even more life-like.
Add to all this introduction of some new mini-games (such as arm wrestling and a dice-based game) and the fact that the game is so big it will come on four GD-ROMS and you can see why we’re so excited about Ryo’s next outing. For gamers that haven’t experienced the first part of this epic journey, Chapter 2 will even come complete with an intro movie showing the story so far. So if you’ve never had the pleasure of introducing yourself to Ryo Hazuki, you’ve really got no excuse for not picking up a copy of this sure-fire blockbuster when it arrives sometime towards the end of the year.