RPGamer Preview: Shenmue


Ryo's father is murdered... his death must be avenged

Journeying near a trainyard

Interrogating a secretary

Don't go near Ryo, or you'll get beaten up

Numerous side-tasks, like taking care of this kitten

Ryo running along a mountainside

I thought I warned you not to go near Ryo

View More Screenshots

What is Shenmue?
Platform: Sega Dreamcast
Developer: AM2 (Sega)
Publisher: Sega
Rated Teen for: Animated Violence, Strong Language, Use of Tobacco & Alcohol.

Shenmue is a new RPG from the mind behind the Genesis title, Sword of Vermillion. Shenmue is a new fighting game from the creator of the Virtua Fighter games. Shenmue is a new adventure game from the team that brought you Space Harrier. Shenmue is all of these things-- and yet, none of these things. To say that this epic new title for the Sega Dreamcast is unconventional would be an understatement, but to say that it lacks appeal would be simply be untrue. On the contrary, Shenmue stands poised not only to be one of the most popular games this year, but one of the most revolutionary games released in some time.

Shenmue is an epic title in many ways, most notably in its production. It's enough to turn heads when game developer Yu Suzuki announces that he's working on a new project; Suzuki's record establies him as one of the most talented and respected game designers in history. But when Suzuki announced he was working on the first chapter of a sixteen-part epic, the gaming community was stunned. Few, if any, gaming projects in history have ever been as ambitious as Shenmue, a game whose budget clocked in at around $70 million by the end of production... and there are fifteen more chapters still planned (though how many of them will ever be produced is uncertain).

Spanning four GD-ROMs (three for the game, the fourth containing extra bonus materials), Shenmue looks to more than match the epic scope of its production. The central idea of the game is that you, the player, are placed inside of a world inside which everything you see is interactive. In more ways than any game before it, Shenmue simulates the experience of living through the eyes of your character as you move throughout the adventure.

In Shenmue, it is 1986. You are Ryo Hazaki, son of a martial arts master and trainer. One day you come home to find that a mysterious man by the name of Lan Di is confronting your father, demanding to know the whereabouts of an ancient mirror. When Lan Di is gone, Ryo is left unconscious, his father dead. From this point forward, Ryo devotes himself to avenging his father's death-- and at the same time, uncovering Lan Di's plan, and putting a stop to it.

In your quest to accomplish this, you're given quite a bit of freedom to interact with your environment. Shenmue seeks to put you directly in the role of Ryo by allowing you more freedom in your surroundings than nearly any game to date has done. Inside of each of Shenmue's enormous cities, you can talk to every person, examine every object, walk into any room in any building, find a job, keep appointments, play games in the local arcade-- even find and take care of a pet. Time passes, days pass, weather changes. All characters-- including townspeople-- speak with full voice acting, rather than text dialogue.

What's more, it's all displayed with nigh-unparalelled realism. Shenmue's graphics are quite arguably the best that the Dreamcast has ever seen, and on par with today's best-looking PS2 titles, if not better. An enormous amount of detail has been put into Shenmue's environments, as developer AM2 worked hard to recreate entire cities as they would have appeared in 1986. Character models are similarly detailed in order to best capture facial expressions and convey emotions.

Much of the gameplay is steeped in the freedom of interaction that Shenmue allows. Although you can explore and enjoy yourself at your own pace, many of the possible sidequests help to advance the storyline that is the foundation of Shenmue. Most story sequences, though, will incorporate the other two modes of play in Shenmue: the Quick Time Event (QTE) system, and the Free Battle mode. During a QTE sequence, you will be required to move your controller in key directions and / or press a button at a specified time in order to proceed further in the event, such as pressing down to duck when a thug swings a punch at you. If it sounds similar to games like Dragon's Lair, it is. The Free Battle system allows more freedom of movement and action, sharing many gameplay elements with the Virtua Fighter games. You'll engage in real-time combat with enemies, and must defeat them using an arsenal of punches, kicks, and special martial arts combos. Throughout the game you'll be able to earn scrolls that will teach you new moves.

Shenmue's fourth disc, called Dream Passport, contains a number of extra features to enhance gameplay. In Dream Passport, you can listen to the game's soundtrack, play through tutorials, and view cinema sequences (more of which will be unlocked as you progress through the game). Using the Dreamcast's built-in Internet capabilities, you can use Dream Passport to trade items with others (including the many different toys available at stores and vending machines throughout the game), and post high scores to a nationwide scoreboard. The Dream Passport looks to serve as a valuable companion to the main adventure, and should provide a good bit of entertainment when you've finished the game, whether you've been through it once or more than once.

The first chapter of Shenmue was originally released in Japan about a year ago. Though Shenmue looks to be well worth the wait, one must wonder why it has taken Sega so long to bring the game to North American shores. Rest assured that the time has been well-spent; every character's voice has been redone in English, with early previews suggesting that the voice acting is, relatively speaking, quite competent. In order to reduce discontinuity between the original Japanese version and the English version, lip-synching for each character has been redone as well, to take the new English voices into account. Only time will tell if Sega has done as good a job as early looks have suggested, but as it stands, the English version of Shenmue looks to have every bit of the impact and immersion that the original Japanese version contained, and that's saying quite a bit.

Shenmue is available now for the Sega Dreamcast.

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