It's well over a year since we were first acquainted with Shenmue 2 on the Dreamcast, the platform on which the mysterious, enigmatic story of young Ryo attempting to avenge the murder of his father was born. Stumbling into fruition as a Japanese and European release with English subtitles, AM2's enormous but fairly flawed RPG was a delicious swansong for our beloved Dreamcasts. With its arrival on Xbox, though, we were hoping for an impressive return to form for Yu Suzuki's intriguing adventure - has it been done justice?
You'd think that we were used to lazy ports by now, wouldn't you? You only need to take a glance at the shocking number of them showing their ugly faces in GameCube and Xbox release schedules past and present to realise they're a mere vehicle for lining pockets. Obviously the interest is not in value, improvement, bonus features or even quality conversions. Sadly, it seems the Shenmue saga has fallen to the trend of rehashing any half-decent title from the past two years.
The most immediately horrible sign of a shoddy direct port shows as soon as the introductory sequence starts, and into view lumbers the simplistic, low-poly, low-res textured liner carrying Ryo into China to start his adventure. Ryo exits the boat and steps into a small market in the harbour, peering at the block-headed locals busying themselves with their work and shopping. He steps forward and a woman sat on the floor catches his attention. She opens her mouth, and... Christ!
Why the original Japanese dialogue was stripped out and replaced with some of the most wooden, stilted, disjointed English voice acting I've ever heard will forever remain an unsolved mystery. To deny us the option of reverting back to the original English subtitles with Japanese original voices is insulting. The acting in Japanese could well have been terrible as well, for all we know, but at least it didn't make us cringe and detract from our ability to take in the lengthy and slowly unravelling story.
Which brings us neatly to the main issue with Shenmue 2 - its pace. The game starts off slowly in the first place, but coupled with the strange, disjointed manner in which most conversations are delivered, many exchanges become ridiculously over-long and so a simple request for some directions can turn into a pointless five minute cut-scene, what with having to wait thirty seconds for Ryo to say "I see..."
The snail's pace at which Shenmue 2 seems generally comfortable ambling along, coupled with a completely indifferent-sounding Ryo, means that it's extremely easy to lose interest in the proceedings very early on. This is a great shame because beneath the terrible, terrible acting and pointless drawn-out conversation sequences, is an intriguing and huge adventure. But alas, the setbacks really do seem to outweigh any reason to persevere.
Having all your money stolen at the very start of the game, for example, means you must revert to mind-numbingly irritating jobs day in, day out; it's bad enough having to do it for real, let alone in a videogame. Finding a place to sleep, trying to earn money to enable you to sleep there when you find one, paying for maps so you don't get lost in the labyrinthine streets - they're all slightly unnecessary sidelines that you need to keep tabs on, further weighing down the process of just getting on and playing the game.
Providing Ryo with a daily allowance and somewhere to sleep every day for free in Shenmue enabled you to concentrate on sideline details whenever you felt like it, not because you were forced into it (okay, apart from the forklift truck section, but don't tell me the racing wasn't fun). Naturally, the sheer size of the Shenmue 2 adventure doesn't allow the same approach, but something similar may have helped - a free-to-stay youth hostel is one idea that I just scraped out of the bottom of the barrel, and I'm no game designer. I'm sure Suzuki could have come up with something to help the player through, making their experience more of a pleasure and less of a chore.
What should have been an impressive spit and polish for the Shenmue series has actually turned out rather detrimental to the fine precedent set by the Dreamcast originals. Lack of improvement in the game engine itself, and lack of any additional content save for an extra "Shenmue the Movie" DVD made up of cut scenes from the first game, not to mention the total lack of emotion in the delivery of dialogue that is vital to the atmospheric story, really kills off most of our enthusiasm for the port.
Shenmue 2 is still a charming and enormous game underneath, with plenty to do if you take the time out to do it; I particularly relished the arcade fighting-for-cash sections, and of course there are emulated Sega classics like Outrun and Afterburner to occupy you in slow times, but none of this makes the game. Ultimately, your perseverance with the sluggish pacing can be rewarding, but Shenmue 2 consistently proves itself an ageing game with ageing looks. It should never have happened like this.