Shenmue - Review

The start of something great.

By: Jake Alley

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 9
   Interface 4
   Music/Sound 9
   Originality 9
   Plot 8
   Localization 3
   Replay Value 6
   Visuals 10
   Difficulty Easy
   Time to Complete

20-40 hours



   Every so often a well respected game designer will lock himself in a closet with an extravagant budget with the intent of creating a masterwork. More often than not, these developers fall short of their lofty goals, but in the case of Shenmue, Yu Suzuki has delivered what he promised.

   No one can argue that Shenmue is anything short of the most immersive and realistic game ever to grace a console. Characters are disturbingly lifelike, down to the realistic facial movements and creased palms. If it snows one day, piles of slush can be found on curbs the next. Every inhabitant of the game's world has their own complex day to day schedule, working, shopping, taking walks, sometimes going to bars at night. Even the various stray cats wander about in a lifelike fashion.

   In addition to a richly developed world, the level of interaction with this world is amazing. All drawers may be rummaged through, pictures can be taken off the walls, toys and drinks can be purchased from vending machines, and phones may be dialed at random. Even generic people wandering the streets who serve purely decorative purposes have a remarkably wide variety of ways to tell you they want to be left alone.

Woman on the street
High realism  

   The world sounds as good as it looks as well. Footsteps reflect the surfaces being walked over, music from shops leak into the streets, and at one point a kitten must be found solely by the sound of its' cries. Such effects are most noticeable around Christmas, when the otherwise subdued soundtrack becomes permeated with such songs as Jingle Bells and Silent Night. Furthermore, each and every line of dialog in the game is voice acted.

   This brings us to the first of Shenmue's flaws. Not enough effort was put into the localization. While overall the english dub is surprisingly good, it still has it's fair share of innapropriate voices, overpronounciations, and annoyance. More importantly, translation of text seems like an afterthought. Each shop in the town has a large plaque above it clearly identifying it from a large distance, if you happen to be able to read Japanese. Otherwise, the only way to read these is to go up and examine them at close range, yielding a subtitle. While this doesn't make the game unplayable, it does convey the feeling that the player is being deprived of a convienence the developer intended to be present.

Cutesy or Realistic Name
Detailed hand  

   Eventually, the novelty of such a vibrant world fades, leaving the player with an actual game to play. Hopefully, this won't happen until the second disc is reached, because the first is oddly devoid of action. The bulk of Shenmue is spent gathering information. In other words, wandering about the richly detailed town being referred from person to person looking for standard issue villain. Early in the game, when nearly no deviation from this can be found, one can't help but complain about the game's control scheme. Hitting right or left moves the main character through a ninety degree arc. Running, which one is inclined to do at all times, is accomplished by holding down one of the two analog trigger buttons. This bizzare setup seems absurd considering that the controller features an analog stick, which is instead used to look around. Additionally, in order to examine objects, the other trigger button must be pressed, causing the camera to zoom in and lock on to any interesting objects present. Unlike similar systems however, the camera acquires quite the tenacious grip. It cannot be moved from this perspective unless another point of interest is located right next to its' focus. Additionally, choices are made instantly by hitting left or right, rather than making selections off a menu. This can lead to many accidental choices, many of which have a big impact on the game. With time, players will become accustomed to these controls, but this still leaves an awkward period that frustrates many players.

   As the game progresses, the slow searching gradually gives way to some real action. Much of this comes from the controversial QTE system. The best way to describe this is by example. One QTE scene involves chasing a person down a crowded street. This unfolds as an unplayable movie, with prompts for the player to press buttons. At one point, a truck approaches from the right, giving the player roughly two seconds to press left and dodge around. What makes these events interesting however is the outcome of failed choices. If you chose to punch when you should kick, you will actually attempt to punch, leading to a change in how events unfold which will not be to your advantage but may allow for recovery. While some refer to this type of gameplay as non-interactive, it does require quick reflexes and thinking on one's feet.

At other times, the game relies on a more traditional form of action. Combat. Shenmue's system of combat is taken straight from a fighting game, with a wide variety of punches kicks and throws. Unlike a fighting game however, battles are seldom one on one. Most fights are against large mobs composed sometimes of literally dozens of opponents. While the AI is smart enough for these mobs to act together, for example, one character may sneak in a kick to your back while you are busy dispatching another, most of your own attacks follow broad arcs, allowing multiple foes to be fought at once. Even more impressive, even during the most cluttered encounters, the camera manages to keep itself unobstructed at all times, with minimal spinning.

Yet another wrinkle to combat is Shenmue's experience system. Each time a given move is used, it becomes marginally more effective, over time becoming far more damaging with practice. On that note, at any point in the game, it is possible to enter a vacant warehouse, park, or parking lot in order to practice these moves. As most fights are clustered towards the end of the game, such practicing can be quite important.

Pretty girl
Talking to people comprises most of the gameplay  

Even more action can be found in the game's plethora of mini-games. Later in the game a job can be obtained which involves moving cargo around with a forklift. This can be quite amusing surprisingly enough. Before this, hours upon hours can be spent in the arcade. True to the 1980s setting, an arcade can be found within the game containing Suzuki's early classics HangOn and Space Harrier, along with less thrilling attractions such as dart boards and a jukebox. Speaking of classic Sega games, Capsule Toy Dispensers on the street may yield small plastic versions of such long forgotten characters as Opa-Opa, Sega's old mascot, and Myau from the original Phantasy Star. These diversions can become quite engrossing once one realizes money is not a precious resource. The only meaningful things money can be spent on are pay phones, bus fare, and cat food, should you choose to take care of a stray kitten found in the game.

For those with the conviction to actually advance the story rather than play these mini-games, Shenmue may not offer as much enjoyment. The main storyline is about as clichéed as they come although well told. Side plots such as the relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend are more interesting, but really fail to go anywhere by the game's end. At that, the conclusion of Shenmue can barely be called such. Much like Star Wars Episode 1, Shenmue exists solely to set up events for it's planned sequel. When it comes right down to it, nothing is really accomplished over the course of the game aside from knocking a large number of gang members unconscious and doing some character building. The end of the game is practically a prompt to insert disc one of Shenmue II.

Despite being little more than a prologue, with full voice acting at that, Shenmue is about the same length as any other game. Additionally, despite having an annoying control layout, Shenmue is very kind in terms of difficulty. No course of action will lead to a Game Over screen. Instead, any failure results in replaying the scene or battle from the beginning. All in all, Shenmue can be described as fairly well balanced and fun, albeit oddly paced. In terms of story, depending on how its' sequel unfolds, it may be the best and most thorough prologue the gaming world has ever seen. If however poor sales prevent such a sequel, it will merely go down in history as a story tragically devoid of any closure. In any event however, it is the most engrossing and realistic game ever created to date, making it worth a look if nothing else.

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