Review by DLopez

"Good overall experience, but FAR from perfect."

Shenmue has been dubbed something of a ''juggernaut'' for the Dreamcast
system. Taking many years (and billions of dollars) to develop, the
intricately detailed adventure promised a fully-interactive world in which
the player could really feel at home and ''living in.'' Hell, by now you
probably know the pre-release hype by heart and if you haven't played it
yet, you may still be blissfully free of any spoilers about the game's
inner details. Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, Shenmue
just isn't balanced enough ot come across as a complete experience. While
the attempt at this fully immersive world is impressive, it's very hit and
miss on a large scale.
In the game, you take on the role of Ryo Hazuki, the son of a prominent,
Japanese karate expert. As the game begins, a mysterious Chinese man
known as Lan Di kills your father for reasons unknown. So, as Ryo, you
set off to investigate your father's murder by starting the only way you talking to the townsfolk. Eventually, the game gets much
bigger in scope, with Ryo opening up more questions about Lan Di and his
father's death than he'd like to deal with.
The entire game is set in the year 1986, in a small, somewhat rural
section of Japan near Yokosuka Harbor. Ambitiously, the game attempts to
bring the gamer into this Japanese community with one of the msot
intricate and immersive game engines ever brought to life. Everything is
rendered is startling detail, with a keen eye for being realistic and
believable. The game begins in Ryo's house, which in itself isn't
particularly impressive. Only once you step out into the yard and beyond
will you experience the graphical splendor that really brings the game
together. The level of environmental realism is truly impressive, if not
slightly overreaching. There's TOOmuch that canbe said about this aspect
of the game, suffice to say, it's major. Discover the subtleties for
Now, allow me to correct a GLARING myth about Shenmue: You CANNOT go
anywhere and you CANNOT do anything, despite the hype being bandied around
by the gaming press and starry eyed gamers. You are limited to a specific
section of Dobuita, and many times during the game your progress will be
limited by ''invisible barriers'' where you simply cannot go any further,
despite the fact that there is city beyond. The story also dictates where
you go. For example, when you first start the game, you cannot leave your
initial neighborhood until you've done a few key things there. Now, the
environment that you can travel through during the course of the game IS
huge, but you certainly can't ''go anywhere.''
You also cannot ''do anything.'' In fact, very few items in the game can be
used and interacted with. If you can't buy it in a store, chances are it
can't be interacted with. A good example is the conveience store in
Dobuita. If you could ''do anything'', you should be able to open
refridgerators and buy food, or read magazines on the rack. You can't.
There's also limitations to certain objects. FOr example, the flashlight
you can buy (or find) in the game can only be used in a few, brief
periods. You can't just turn it on whenever you want, despite the fact
this is supposed to be hyper-realistic.
Despite the myriads of townspeople, very few have anything to say. Most
people, notably the shopkeepers, will help you out a bit. 90% of the
townspeople won't even give you the time of day.
Already you are probably realizing that a good deal of the hype over
SHenmue is pretty much fiction. The limitations that the game has
sometime even defy logic. One would think that in a game with such a
detailed engine and immersive system, something as simple as turning your
TV on would work. It doesn't.
Beyond the setting and the engine, the game has a few glaring problems
that detract from the experience. For starters, the control is very poor.
It's very akin to Resident Evil style control, but many logical features
are missing. Like being able to look around. Oh sure, you can look
around, but only in this weird way where Ryo's head is in the way. You
can ''zoom'' which provides a better look feature, but if you should glance
at anything semi-important, your view will zoom to it and never come up
until you cancel looking. Urgh.
Another problem is the voice acting which, in a word, sucks. While most
of it is tolerable, for a project with the scale of Shenmue, it's
unacceptably stupid and banal. Why does everyone have weird, exaggerated
voices or Brooklyn accents? This is Japan right? Taking the awards,
though, for stupidest voice in the entire game is Tom. Tom is the hot bog
vendor in Dobuita (though you'll see him in other places too). He's also
supposed to be Jamaican. His resulting voice is a cross between a deeper
version of Jar-Jar Binks and...god knows what. It doesn't even sound
Jamaican...more like someone with palsy.
Now, these ar epretty minor things....but Shemue DOES have major problems,
despite the over-impressed press.
FOr starters, let's discuss the real-time aspect. Ok...time passes for
real, with about 5-8 minutes being an hour in the game. Which means,
simply walking through your neighborhood to get to Dobuita takes
about...oh, 1-2 hours according to the game. A quick game of Space
in the arcade takes..45 minutes? Needless to say, the time
progression is WAYY too fast, making things VERY annoying. Consdiering
you have to be home by 11:00 in order to keep your housekeeper happy,
exploring at night is frustrating. On the flip side, though, there is NO
way to pass time. I've encountered a few games with this real-time bit
before (one being Zelda, Ocarina of Time), but they all had features where
you could rest or something to pass the time for a set number of hours.
In Shenmue, you must LET time pass in order to see the day through.
Why is this a problem? Well, for starters you can't go to bed and
progress to the next day until it's 9:00. Say for example, you uncover an
important plot point at 10:00 in the morning. X person says they'll meet
you tomorow at X location. now have to WAIT out the entire day
before being able to see tomorrow. This is HORRIBLY annoying. Despite
all the news that there's SO much to do, there really isn't. The arcade
in Dobuita provides a few distractions, but when I fire up Shenmue on the
Dreamcast, I want to play SHENMUE...NOT Space Harrier or Hang On 5 times
to pass the hours. Looking for Winning Cans, collecting toy figures, and
slot machines provide SOME distraction, but nothing enough to really make
the time pass faster. In a word: boring.
Now, before you start getting ready to flame me since I'm not declaring
Shenmue as masterpiece, I'm NOT saying it's a bad game. It jsut has some
major flaws in development and localization that keep it FAR from being an
A+, 10, Perfect game. Even if you ignore EVERYTHING I've said so far,
there still remains crucial problems with the game, especially it's story.
While looking for your father's killer sound exciting, the story moves
VERY slowly, with only a scant few VERY important sequences working their
way in. 90% of the game is obtaining information from various thugs and
baddies that you've beat up. There are a few moments of brilliance, like
the bizarre henchman that Lan Di uses to follow you, but the story seems
slightly bland in this day and age. It needs more fantasy and outlandish
Another problem is the awkward and badly represented relationship between
Ryo and Nozomi. To put it simply, Ryo treats her like crap, and it ruins
any emotional impact. For example, in most of the scenes where Nozomi
opens her heart to Ryo, his responses range from ''Uh huh.'' to ''Oh.'', to
''Ok!''. She'll talk in long speeches about her feelings and Ryo will
simply come back with ''Uhh..ok.'' I mean, in one scene she asks Ryo to
stay with her for the evening on a park bench and she lays herself on him,
very romantically. He doesn't even put his arm around her! Geez! They
made Ryo act like an automoton around her...I've seen more emotion from my
So, despite all the hype about how you control your own life, yadda, just isn't true. If I had that level of control, I'd treat
Nozomi better, relate with Ine-San better, move through the game faster,
and not get in so many damn fights.
Shenmue, overall, makes a good adventure game in the classic sense of
cerebral adventure titles. Although Shenmue is being classified as
something vastly revolutionary, frankly it felt A LOT like Omikron: The
Nomad Soul (a totally underrated adventure title for the Dreamcast and
PC). In fact, both games are VERY, VERY similar. To be brutally honest,
I found Omikron's world far more immersive, not to mention several times
larger than the world of Shenmue. Granted, in Omikron the environment
isn't rendered with such realism and perfection, but it hardly effects the
experience. Not to mention, Omikron actually HAD many events where you
could get through portions of it in MULTIPLE ways, not always by fighting
your way through everything.
TO wrap this whole thing up, Shenmue is an interesting title with a lot
going for it. It just has serious progression problems that any gamer
should easily be able to spot. Hell, games like D2 have taken TONS of
flak for essentially the SAME mistakes Shenmue makes....progressing
slowly. Shenmue is NOT perfect, and is not the next stage of gaming
evolution. It's simply an artistic experiment in video game making that
partialy succeeds but partially fails. However, it's still an experience
that, for the msot part, is worth taking. If anything, Shenmue introduces
a new way of thinking, as far as depth goes in creating a game world.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 11/18/00, Updated 11/18/00

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