Review by Osafune2

"A masterpiece, no strings attached"

There are bad games, there are average games and then there are good games, these all struggle for survival and recognition in the badlands of gaming while the great games stride the mountains above them and look down with disdain. But flying majestically high above all of these other games are a particularly elite squadron that call themselves, "The best games of all time." They are untouchable classics that deserve to be remembered by all. But what stops a game being just a great game, and allows it to become one of the best games ever? It isn't excellent graphics, flawless gameplay or a compelling story. These all help, but they are present in many games that are merely "great." It is something else that is rather hard to put your finger on, a certain "X factor" that all the greats have. Similarly in the world of sport, say football, there are good players and then there are the exceptional geniuses like Diego Maradonna who can beguile and dazzle the opposition with ease and change the way the game can be played. It is this factor that is present in Shenmue and ensures its place in the annals of gaming history as one of the crowning achievements of the medium.

What's the story?
You play as a young Japanese student and martial arts expert named Ryo Hazuki and one day in November 1986, he returns home to his father's hilltop dojo in the village of Sakuragaoka to find a black car parked outside and the signs of a struggle that took place. Ryo heads inside the dojo and encounters his best friend blasted out from the dojo doors, Ryo enters and discovers his father fighting a chinese man by the name of Lan Di. Lan Di is searching for a special mirror that Ryo's father appears to have in his possession, Ryo is restrained and has to watch Lan Di deal out punishing blows on his beloved father before he finally submits and tells Lan Di where the mirror is. As if this wasn't enough, Lan Di uses a deadly technique and mortally wounds Ryo's father. After the men have left, Ryo comforts his father as he dies in his arms and naturally angry and upset, Ryo decides to track down the mysterious Lan Di and find out just why he killed his father and exactly who he is.

You will spend much of the game speaking with NPCs and trying to piece together a puzzle, you will eventually learn a clue or get a lead and you will then have to follow it up to the next one. While this sounds like a formulaic investigation game, the story is compelling with many mysterious and bizarre characters constantly adding to the plot. You will find yourself enthralled as Ryo makes discoveries about his Father and his dealings with Lan Di. It is very exciting when Ryo leaves behind his safe and secure surroundings and scours the criminal underworld of Yokosuka and meets all kinds of unsavoury characters such as a biker gang that terrorises the local harbour.

The story is extremely engrossing and one you will harbour a fervent desire to uncover. In addition to this, the character development of Ryo via his interaction with various friends and family fleshes him out and explains many of his motives. His poignant relationship with one Nozomi, a sweet young woman, is particularly well done and you can see the pain caused to her as Ryo relentlessly pursues clues to the whereabouts of Lan Di, thus seeming oblivious to the possibility of them from having a relationship beyond that of friends. It is these personal tales that desperately make you wish Sega would continue the Shenmue franchise.

Shenmue is the first in a series of games that will tell the tale of Ryo's pursuit of Lan Di, and as such, there is no conclusive ending to this game, however it is satisfying and leaves the player desperately wanting to play the next game and further the story. The storytelling aspect of this game is definitey one of the strongest points.

The Game
Yu Suzuki coined, or rather, attempted to coin a franchise for Shenmue, known as "FREE." That stands for Fully Reactive Eyes Environment. However, it is predominantly an open-ended adventure rather than a completely new genre, but we can appreciate what Suzuki was trying to say. While your main objective is the pursuit of Lan Di, I can't help but feel the main purpose of Shenmue is to simply experience the lavishly created game world. Taking place in a small village, a town called Dobuita and partially in the Yokosuka harbour, the setting has little scope or grandeur. However, it is the inner communities and the sense of "every day life" that is so perfectly honed.

It feels more alive than almost any other video game world, in many games there are NPCs that are simple nameless townsfolk that barely have anything to say. In Shenmue, you know the name of everyone, you know where they live and you know where they work, where they have a drink in the evening and even if they enjoy eating at the noodle restaurant opposite the playground in Dobuita and you can usually hold lengthy discussions with them about the latest events or just general day to day stuff. You really feel part of a community that knows Ryo as that nice young man from the dojo in Sakuragaoka. It is a fantastic sense of community that binds you to the game world and makes you feel affection for it and its numerous characters.

As Yu Suzuki has strived so hard to create a living, breathing environment, it stands to reason that there are a lot of typical every day things to do. You can visit the small village shop to purchase anything from dried fish to light bulbs and various cassettes of original music that can be listened to on a Walkman, you can also collect Gashapon figurines from small vending machines and there is something oddly compelling about spending your hard earned Yen on these. You can visit the more upmarket Dobuita and spend some time in the arcades playing classics such as Super-Hang On and Space Harrier as well as a Darts mini-game and a boxing simulator. You can even eventually acquire a Sega Saturn to play video games in your house!

You can be totally engrossed in your daily routine and begin to forget about the story, spending hours acquiring new Gashapon models or beating your Space Harrier High scores. I sometimes even used to just take a stroll around town and see the goings on of Dobuita, everyone has a routine and you can follow them home and knock on their door and they will answer, there is absolute continuity in creating an incredibly realistic world. It is very hard to criticise anything about the world and to be honest, I am struggling to think of anything the game does particularly badly. I mean, I even found the actual forklift truck driver job at the harbour fun and didn't want it to end and progress the story. The only real downside is that you do have to finish the game at some point and you cannot spend forever living a tranquil life in Sakuragaoka.

There are many bonus scenes implemented and you will see some but not others on each playthrough and it will take quite a lot of work and play throughs to see every scene the game has to offer. This adds a level of depth to the game, and while it does not quite suffice to fulfill Suzukis promise of "No game is the same" it does add some welcome variety to keep some freshness in multiple run throughs of the game.

I mentioned earlier that Ryo is a martial arts expert, and yes, you can expect to dish out some Bruce Lee style butt whupping. There are two forms of combat. The first is called a Quick Timer Event, or QTE ad these are where button combinations flash up on the screen during a fight and you must press them correctly to have Ryo dodge and then dish out some punishment, get them wrong and Ryo gets beaten up, simple as that. You will get a chance to retry though and they are mostly for cinematic purposes and for the chance to watch Ryo do cool things like throw a sailor over the bar and smashing into a rack of bottles and stuff. QTEs are not simply for fights though, they are also implemented in other forms, such as a high speed pursuit on foot through Dobuita market place where you must dodge obstacles such as bicycles and dropped boxes of vegetables.

The second form of combat is free combat, and this is pretty much a fighting game against multiple opponents. In these battles, Ryo must kick and punch his opponents into submission and use special moves. There an abundance of special moves to learn from various citizens of Sakuragaoka, Dobuita and Yokusuka harbour and finding them all is a challenge, but once you have learned all the moves the fighting has the depth and strategy of any sole fighting game. The only complaint is that these fights are few and far between but there is a replayable seventy man fight near the end which is simply spectacular and about the most fun to be had on Dreamcast. You can practice moves in deserted parks and parking lots to perfect Ryo's fighting style and upon doing so hear lines as fantastic as "Lets get sweaty!" As he initiates practice.

While the combat is implemented extremely well, it is not the sole focus of the game and as such it is not overcrowded with endless combat sequences that would soon become tiresome. It is well spaced out so that each bout of arse kicking feels like a real treat and is something exciting rather than something you have been doing for hours and hours all game. There are also various fights and QTE events that you can miss out on and some others you might only discover on subsequent playthroughs, such is the depth and beauty of this game.

The immersive, incredibly well realised world and innovative and very fun gameplay are what make this game one of the very best of all time. You simply have to play Shenmue to truly understand why, it has that "X Factor" all the best games have and it can be hard to put your finger on what that factor is.

The Presentation
The graphics in Shenmue are just outstanding for the Dreamcast and it definitely looks as good as many PS2 games. The character models are realistically rendered and animated and the facial movements and voice acting are excellent. While compared to games of the current generation it does appear markedly dated but at the time it was perhaps the very best looking game on the market. However, it seems that the developers spent a far greater amount of time on Ryo Hazuki has his mouth movements and animation are superior to most other characters in the game and indeed, many of the minor characters merely open and close their mouths repeatedly when engaged in conversation and it does not always sync. The animation in combat is simply excellent and in my opinion, it is worthy of a standalone fighting game, easily being as entertaining and as good to look at as any beat 'em up I have ever played.

Yokosuka and its surrounding areas are all beautifully realised, from the start of the game in December when all is coated in snow through to spring where blossom blooms on all the trees. The game has different weather for each day and season and it further creates the feeling of a "real world" in a game. The atmosphere is simply wonderful, especially around Christmas where the evening draws in early and the streets are thick with snow. Also, some of the actual weather records from the Yokosuka area are implemented into the game.

The soundtrack to this game is absolutely outstanding. I cannot stress that enough, it is without question one of the very best video game scores ever. There can be very little argument in placing this alongside Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger and others for the sheer brilliance of their scores. Japanese instruments are used with style and it has an appropriately oriental flavour to it in many of the town themes and the music always fits the locale, such as the more industrial sounding music of the harbour area to the tranquil sounds of the Yamanose part of Sakuragaoka where Ryo lives. In addition to this Shenmue possesses a main theme that is appropriately epic, though perhaps it will never be as memorable as the Zelda theme for instance. The real standout tracks are the ones used whenever Ryo and Nozomi are together, they are soft piano compositions that really fit the mood with a feeling of sadness and romance and are comparable to Aeris' theme fron Final Fantasy VII for poignancy.

The presentation is of a very high standard in this game and it has a huge amount of polish. You can really see the hard work and dedication of the developers, as well as the astronomical budget poured into the game. It adds to the undoubtedly memorable experience that is Shenmue.

Conclusion
Shenmue is a timeless classic and I am sure it will always be heralded as one of the best games of all time and it will frequent the upper eschelons of "Greatest Games of All Time" lists for many console generations, despite the fact that it will sadly never receive the same recognition as a bewilderingly adored game such as Halo. It is without a doubt, one of the greatest tragedies in video gaming that Sega cannot continue with the Shenmue franchise due to insufficient sales and the downfall of the Dreamcast as I want to avenge the death of Ryo's father and discover the secret of Lan Di far more than I want the next awful Sonic game or whatever. Shenmue is truely a unique game featuring the best realised and most lovingly crafted environment that I have ever experienced.

You simply have to play this game at some point if you are a true connoisseur of gaming, it cannot be missed out on. I hate it when reviewers get all pretentious and say "This is more than a game, its an experience." But Shenmue really is an experience and one that you should be having right now. It shows an originality on behalf of Sega for creating a new character and franchise and not just relying on their old stalwarts, maybe Nintendo should try it some time and the gaming industry might be given a vital injection that it needs.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 11/25/08

Game Release: Shenmue (EU, 11/06/00)


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