Review by HitBattousai
"The definition of a gaming experience"
This review will compare Shenmue to today's graphical/gaming standards, as well as to it's sequel as it is now mid-2003. When I first played through Shenmue back in 2000, I thought it was the greatest game ever, and after beating it multiple times, I thought differently. Shenmue has obvious flaws, and is really a niche market game. Some utterly hate the game, and it's slow, methodical pacing and I can't fault that. However, even though I no longer consider Shenmue the greatest game ever, it is the second best gaming ''experience'' ever. Here's the breakdown for the U.S. Version of the game:
Story (8 out of 10): The game begins in 1986 with a mysterious prologue by Shenhua, a character that comes into play only in the latest stages of Shenmue II, foretelling of a young man with a potential that can either destroy him, or ensure that his will shall be realized. Then, we meet the main character in Japan, Ryo Hazuki, walking home from somewhere. He comes home to find his father's dojo invaded by a group of men, one of which is called Lan Di, a man wearing a dragon robe, searching for the ''mirror''. Ryo's father, a martial arts expert, refuses to tell them where the mirror is, and Lan Di fights him. Ryo's father tries his best, but Lan Di is able to easily dodge all his kicks and punches without using his hands to block, and then dramatically lands three kicks to his face, incapacitating Ryo's father. Ryo charges to defend his dad, but is taken out in a single blow. Lan Di threatens Ryo's life, and his father tells Lan Di where the mirror is. Lan Di then asks Ryo's father if he knows of a man that Ryo's father had supposedly killed, and then murders Ryo's father right in front of him and leaves Ryo to hold his father as he dies. The story in a nutshell: You're out for revenge. Classic revenge tale that has been done a thousand times, but the character development of Shenmue sets it apart from most stories, and the storyline continuing into the sequel hints at something much deeper than just a simple revenge tale. The story is incomplete right now, but it looks promising despite the initial cliched premise.
Graphics (8 out of 10): Even by today's standards, it's hard not to be impressed by Shenmue's sheer amount of detail, its art style, and the character models. This amount of detail makes games like Grand Theft Auto 3: Vice City look like a joke graphically, since it similarly has a massive world to explore. The martial arts in the game are primarily motion-captured, and look really smooth/fluid, and Ryo kicks up dust and his fists and feet blur on more powerful techniques. Lastly, the magic weather system in the game is based on the actual weather patterns of Japan in 1986. If it rains, people pull out umbrellas. If it snows, it builds on the ground. Day changes to night with a beautiful cutscene showing the lights coming in wherever you're located. On the negative side though, there is slowdown in the game occasionally, and while the environments are big, there are only really three of them to explore throughout the entire game. Some of the games of today push more polygons in a smaller environment like Splinter Cell or Devil May Cry so now compared to games like that this looks dated. But considering the size of the world in Shenmue, the only real competitors are Grand Theft Auto 3 and Shenmue II, and Grand Theft Auto 3 is no match for Shenmue in terms of detail and graphics on the whole. This game came out in late 1999 in Japan and I can definitely say the only game that surpasses Shenmue in graphical detail is its sequel Shenmue II.
Sound (7 out of 10): You should own the soundtrack because it is beautiful, and up there with the best movie soundtracks. Sound effects are varied based on terrain, and punches and kicks make different impact noise. As you pass people, you hear the buzz of conversation. Every character in the game is voice acted. So with all this sterling praise, why out 7 out of 10? Because the English voice acting team is mediocre. Shenmue's English voice acting varies from good (Lan Di, Iwao, Gui Zhang, Chai), mediocre (Ryo, Nozomi, Ine-san, Fuku-san), to flat out awful (everyone else). Ryo's English voice actor can be taken as a microcosm of this, sometimes he can perfectly nail a line, most of the time he's average at best, where it sounds mediocre, and sometimes he's robotic-sounding, and is obviously reading off a script that he doesn't care about. The Non-Player characters sound like Sega hired anybody off the street and are generally horrible. It's sad that I actually consider this relatively decent acting for a video game in the U.S., because the Japanese version is professional and top-quality on the voice acting scale.
It's about the same level of mediocrity in the English X-Box version of Shenmue 2.
Gameplay (8 out of 10): The love/hate gameplay of Shenmue is mostly talking to people in real-time, and being told to meet people at X time in X place while trying to hunt down Lan Di. This is improved in Shenmue II b/c that game allows you to skip to the time of the meeting. Not the case here though, you have to kill time yourself. This is the majority of gameplay in Shenmue. The game is pretty slow-paced, and until the final disk, there is only small spurts of action to be found. This is what drives most people insane about Shenmue, and why most people love it or hate it. If you can handle the slow-pace, the build-up to the explosive climax of the game is one of the greatest gaming experiences ever. The gameplay is actually very diverse for the limited spurts, offering some Metal Gear Solid type of stealth in one part, Resident Evil style puzzle solving, Dragon's Lair Quick Time events where hit a button when it pops up on screen to determine what Ryo does in certain situation, and lastly Free Battle, an RPG/fighting game engine that allows you level up your martial arts moves as you use them in a melee fighting system based on the Virtua Fighter system. The free battle is really the most fun part of the game, particularly when you face 70 men late in the game. It is sped up slightly and improved in Shenmue II however.
Extras: (10 out of 10): A few sidequests within the game, one involving a famous kitty, getting all the martial arts moves in the game, classic arcade games like Space Harrier and you can play the 70 man battle as a separate part later but there's more. On the Shenmue passport disk, you can unlock all the cutscenes in the game, all the music, and check out the most impressive rendering on the Dreamcast with the main characters of Shenmue explaining various game systems through crazy rendering. Great stuff.
Replayability (7 out of 10): It's a short game, the mini-games have limited appeal, and even trying to unlock everything in the passport won't take that long. However, the experience of playing through Shenmue cannot be beat (except by playing its sequel).
Overall (9 out of 10): Shenmue stands the test of time and is an experience you cannot miss out on. Dreamcasts sell at some stores for a mere $30 now, and Shenmue sells for $9 at most game stores that sell Dreamcast stuff. That combined is a great system, and one of the best gaming experiences ever, for $10 less than the average game on any of today's consoles. Take advantage of this deal while you still can and experience Shenmue.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 06/29/03, Updated 06/29/03
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