Review by Kane

"Much ado..."

Shenmue isn’t a game… No, seriously. It’s VR training for real life.

Recreating human existence through a videogame isn’t an easy task. Not only because of system limitations, but also because you have to give the players an incentive to play. Otherwise why would they play a game that depicts a view of life even less thrilling than their own? Sadly, it seems this slipped out of Yu Suzuki’s mind during the development of this game.

’Let’s get sweaty!’

You play the part of Ryo Hazuki, a Japanese teenager in search for Lan Di, a Chinese martial artist who killed his father in front of his eyes. Along the way, our oriental friend will not only find his own identity, but also learn a greater mystery that will certainly lead him toward other tribulations. Booya!

And yes indeed, Shenmue is as exciting as the life of a Japanese schoolboy during the eighties. But that’s not a good thing, that’s a bad thing. The game’s greatest strength is at the same time its critical flaw: such an original concept as giving you the opportunity of living someone else’s life is technically exciting (and the primary basis of role-playing games), yet it also naturally brings about a risk of being particularly boring.

The game displays an incredible amount of details and shows a very accurate view of what a small Japanese town looks like, but it completely fails to keep the player’s attention, drowning him in an ocean of useless options and side quests and dragging him into a horrendous story. You see, for each positive side, there’s also a negative aspect, and that’s the main issue here.

Cutscenes…

Too many of them. Despite Sega’s successful attempt to give a cinematic feel to the game, only few of them seem to be of any relevance to the story. In the end, Shenmue doesn’t feel like a game: it feels like a glorified demo. The story is terribly simplistic and depicts a love story so dull it makes Grandia 2 look like Casablanca. Thus, the protagonist, whom the player is supposed to identify with, is an insensible jerk with little common sense (believe it or not, that was trendy in 1999). Not only that, but all the characters in the game shine by their insignificant personalities.

To the question: ‘do its strong points make up for its drawbacks?’ I’d answer no without a doubt. Although the game is only supposed to be the first chapter, an introduction to the great adventure that is supposed to start with the unfolding of its sequel, it’s not hard to see that even as a prologue, Shenmue has very little meat to offer.

Meet the Q.T.E. (Quick Timer Event) feature that caused so much gossip: in fact, nothing more than a way to break the monotony of the cut-scenes by forcing the player to press a button or a direction in a very limited period of time, ala Dragon’s Lair. The problem is that there are virtually no variations and that the game gives you as many chances as needed to replay the scene: therefore, it’s neither challenging nor exciting. Bah!

Foolish, Ridiculous and Embarrassing Effort?

Even the renowned and pompously called Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment system, an intelligent idea that could’ve shaped the future of adventure games, falls short of content eventually because there just aren’t enough things to discover, due to the confined space Ryo’s odyssey is limited into. To be honest, the original versions of Space Harrier and Hang-On, which were included in the game as bonuses, are almost as fun as the rest of the game. But fear not, because you’re likely to spend most of your time playing them anyway!

’Ahtifecial reepley vaylyoue suuxkz’

The game’s most critical flaw is to be found in the idea of realistic passage of time. Having nice special effects for the dusk and dawn does NOT make up for the terribly long waits forced on the player, because there are just so many times you can spend money purchasing useless stuff and talk to virtual people who constantly repeat the same things (not that Ryo is an interesting character, but…). Saying that this game destined to an audience with a long attention span is an understatement: the part where you have to work and move crates is soporific! Besides, there’s nothing more frustrating than knowing you’re close to one of the –rare- revelations, only to see a lifeless character ask you to come back the next day, and then later find out that the anticipated event was as dramatic as a ‘Saved By the Bell episode’! Thus, the paralytic pace of the story can almost be perceived as an insult to the player, and the lack of a ‘time shift’ option confirms Shenmue’s status as a failed experiment. And which one of you just said something about artificial replay value?

It’s too bad, because the gameplay is just fine otherwise. The controls, disconcerting at first, soon become very responsive and the free battle mode is groovy. Without equaling the potential of the better fighters on the same system, it does the job nicely with simple and intuitive commands highly reminiscent of Virtua Fighter and Spike Out. Bullying the local idiots with ancient Chinese techniques the best part of Shenmue! The forklift races are also a lot more fun that it sounds, and the story picks up a bit on the third GD.

As everyone, you’ll be extremely impressed by the fabulous introduction the first time you'll see it: polished graphics using the game’s actual engine, ultra-realistic animation and fantastic music. That’s until you actually realize how long and poor it is in terms of narration. Similarly, the visuals of the game are terrific, showcasing great mastery of the console’s capacities, but alas there are far too few environments to keep your pupils dilated for a substantial length of time after the initial shock, and the huge slowdown frequently occurring when it’s snowing on the docks -third and final area of the game- is a hint that, from the beginning, the project was probably too ambitious.

’Hey, mister, wanna play with me?’

On the other hand, the music is brilliant. It has a little oriental ring to it that provides Shenmue with welcome ambience boost, and there are enough tracks and styles to keep anyone satisfied. The sound effects are of the same vein, from the dull noise of the shopping street to the surprisingly convincing sounds from the Hazuki garden. But, as I said before, the voices suck. It’s always a pleasure to see dedicated companies take the time to translate their games into English to penetrate the occidental market, but sometimes, you really want to tell them to ‘PLEASE KEEP THE DAMN GAME LIKE IT IS!’ The Japanese texts were fine whereas the English translation is so corny it’s not even funny. Furthermore, some of the actors have the most annoying voices ever, really. Sega eventually decided to keep the original voices for the sequel: loyal fans will say it’s because they listen to their fans; realistic ones will say it’s because they’re broke!

In addition, the (disappointing) ending shows up after approximately fifteen hours. For a game that is supposed to completely suck you in, that’s hardly long enough to be satisfying. And once Shenmue is over, it’s over. The passport disk is a nice sum of extras, but the events you’ll miss the first time are often without importance and totally unworthy of wading through the tedious gameplay once again.

’I see…’

Shenmue certainly isn’t without qualities, but its recurrent flaws –namely boredom and repetition- spoil what still appears to be a promising figure (reference to the upcoming chapters). The biggest issue with this title is that it just isn’t fun. Other companies, such as Rockstar with GTA 3, have recently picked up the concept and made a more successful use of it, immersing the player into more fascinating worlds. Shenmue introduced a new idea to the somewhat static gaming industry, but that alone isn’t nearly enough to make it a good game. Although it’s nice to witness the first faltering steps of the saga, Shenmue is not a must-have.

Some think that virtual reality is always an instructive experience. I’m not one of them. At least, my life is meaningful. Shenmue is almost a waste of time.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 12/06/01, Updated 02/02/03


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