Review by nintendosega
Reviewed: 08/16/05 | Updated: 07/19/10
Shenmue forever changed the way I look at video games
All throughout the life of the Dreamcast, we were teased with images and trailers for what promised to be the most amazing and cinematic game to ever grace a home console. There were certainly high expectations for Shenmue to deliver, and, well, it may not have been the game everyone was expecting. However, for those of us who "got" the game, it ended up being THE most incredible gaming experience of our lives, and to date, surpassed only by its sequel. This is a series that every gamer must play and playing it when it was released on the Dreamcast in 2000 was easily the most amazing gameplay experience of my life and, now that I look back, it was an experience that totally changed my outlook on gaming.
Graphics; The graphics help. "Amazing" is simply the only word to describe these visuals. There are real weather conditions based on actual meteorological reports from the dates this game takes place in. It rains, it snows, it gets cloudy, the clouds clear up, and day turns to night according to an in-game clock. This all creates one of the most lifelike worlds I've ever explored in a video game. Buildings look like real buildings, the yard of the Hazuki house is so incredibly detailed (especially when there's snow on the ground,) that it's just jaw-dropping, and pedestrians constantly walk the streets. I should mention that this review is being written a few months before the release of the Xbox 360, and Shenmue's visuals still manage to impress. Pedestrians walking through town are all going somewhere...whether going home, or going to a store. I once saw a shopkeeper leave his store, and actually followed him to his house. There are some frame rate drops as you drive a forklift through the harbor, and there are quite a few somewhat long loading times. Also, very frequently, people will just appear and disappear as they walk through town. But that really doesn't take much away from the visual wonder that is Shenmue.
Gameplay; Where do I even begin here...? There's so much to talk about. I'll start with the most basic gameplay. Shenmue essentially gets you started on a storyline, and you have to go through this storyline. They put you into a living, breathing world. In the small region of Yokosuka, Japan. The time of day is always displayed, (in Shenmue, 1 minute is about 5 seconds). There are many buildings in the main town to enter. As you walk through the streets, you see NPCs (non-playable characters) walking around, going about their own business. You can talk to any of them. While not all of them will actually have a conversation with Ryo, the main character, they will at least tell you that they don't want to talk to you. You can enter an arcade and play classic Sega games as well. Hang-On and Space Harrier, not to mention darts and some QTE-based games, are playable. (More on QTEs later.) Ryo is given an allowance from Ine-San, the caretaker of your house, each morning, so money is rarely ever an issue. Sometimes, there will be hidden events that will only trigger if you are at a certain place at a certain time during a certain day. This is fun, and really adds to the game's replay value. Day turns to night, with a cool, area-specific scene triggering at around 7:00 PM. This is officially the start of the night hours in Shenmue. Bars will open at this time. Other stores, (opening and closing hours are clearly posted by the door,) will close. Stores open late will turn lights on at this time, and the streets (unless it's my imagination,) will become slightly less busy, except when near the bars. Shenmue's world is EXTREMELY well-developed.
So what are you placed into this amazingly-realized world to do? Well, at the start of the game, Ryo's father is murdered by a mysterious stranger named Lan Di. Ryo vows to find this man and kill him. To do this he needs to delve deep into this mystery, including the origins of the strange Chinese mirror that Lan Di stole from his father before ultimately killing him. You talk to NPCs, you find out clues, you follow these leads, you get into some fights, there are many memorable characters, action scenes, and events. This game has a great fighting system, as well, based apparently on the Virtua Fighter engine. Sometimes, you will also get in QTEs. QTE's are when during situations, a button (such as A,B,X,Y, or left, down, right, or up, on the d-pad) will appear on the screen quickly, and you must react by pushing the button before time runs out. Some fights are cinematic like this and use the QTE system. But often, QTEs are for chases and other events. It's all fun stuff and all works perfectly with each other. As you gather clues, get in fights, and progress through this game, you begin to see the way to Lan Di, your father's killer, and it becomes apparent that this story's much deeper than a random murder. Playing Shenmue is a lot like controlling a mystery/martial arts movie.
Not everyone will like Shenmue. Those expecting an action-packed game or a fighter will be let down. The game definitely has its share of fights and very cool events, but quite a bit of Shenmue is spent wandering through town, asking people questions, and getting clues to continue the storyline and adventure... basically, as if you were living in this world. All the important clues that Ryo gets will be written in a notebook, which you can check at any time. This keeps you on track and it's very hard to get stuck. Shenmue moves quickly most of the time and there's usually a feeling of progression throughout, so you won't often feel like you're spinning your wheels.
The game has some minor issues, none of which take away from what ends up being an amazing adventure, but worth pointing out all the same. The story occasionally jumps from ideas fairly rapidly, and Ryo's objectives switch several times on disc 1 before the plot truly locks into place. It can be a bit jarring at times, but luckily this gets smoothed out at around disc 2. Disc 3 features Ryo having to work a part time job in order to get involved with a local gang, and while driving forklifts is fun, the level of interactivity in the harbor where you work just isn't as great as in Dobuita, and unfortunately you're locked into this place for most of the disc. Asking around for the next clue can also at times be a drag, as plenty of NPCs seem deliberately unhelpful. The dialogue, at times, comes across a bit awkwardly, especially Ryo's exchanges with his friend/sort of love interest, Nozomi. But these flaws are barely even worth mentioning in the grand scheme of things, because Shenmue's all about the bigger picture, and if you let yourself get absorbed into this world and its story, the game will leave an impression on you like no other.
Sound; The sound effects are excellent. I know that sound effects don't usually get much attention in video game reviews, but Shenmue needs its own section for this. You hear birds chirping, dogs mournfully howling in the distance, you can hear the hustle and bustle of the main town as you enter it...this game's got great sound effects that help further bring this world to life.
What also helps is the outstanding music. Almost every song is incredible. You may be skeptical, but this is yet another category that Shenmue's....perfect in. There's no other way to put it. The music in the streets of town changes as the story progresses, and every building you enter has its own music. And it's all....incredible. This is a game where you can literally stand around for minutes at a time just listening to the music and sound effects.
Voices...not as much. Shenmue features full spoken English dialogue. There's NO dialogue in this game that isn't voiced. In general, though, the acting's sub-par, and many voices sound like the actors are deliberately disguising their voices to hide the fact that they voiced about 5 characters in the game. This is only with NPCs, though, luckily: the main characters are usually well-voiced. Ryo's actor does a good job portraying the character's impatient and yet tough and stubborn personality, and when he gets angry, his voice actor portrays it perfectly. While it couldn't be more clear that this actor's reading from a script, and while he does sound a bit stiff at times, he does a good job, in general, of voicing Ryo. Other main characters, such as Fuku-san, Ine-san, Gui Zhang, and the homeless guy in the harbor, are acted out excellently. It's really only the minor characters and NPCs that sound bad, for example, the Mad Angels. They're a violent street gang and they play a huge role in the plot on disc 3, yet all feature downright terrible voice acting that sounds like a COMPLETE joke, which unfortunately really takes the edge away from what should be a formidable and scary group of people.
The music is perfect, the sound effects are perfect. The often sub-par voice acting unfortunately stands out like a sore thumb. While the main characters thankfully sound decent, it still just is one area that doesn't fit; the one place in the entire game where it seems like it didn't try to be the best it could have been.
Story; Ryo's father is murdered by a man named Lan Di. Lan Di demands the Phoenix mirror, which he takes after killing Ryo's father. Ryo swears revenge, and goes after Lan Di. What sounds like a simple plot actually reveals many complex ideas, both involving the phoenix mirror, as well as Ryo's father's connection to Lan Di....and many other things. It's all very well thought out, and it leads up to its sequel, (Shenmue II) perfectly. As this game progresses, you see Ryo noticably distancing himself from his friends, such as Nozomi, a girl he's known all of his life. Revenge is "taking over his life," as some characters warn Ryo that it would. It's an interesting idea, and it will be great to see where they will take this in future installments of this series.
I know I'm repeating myself here but, once again, Shenmue's an amazing experience. The graphics, the gameplay, the story, the sound and music....everything (English voice acting aside,) is top-notch. Many unhelpful NPCs can make asking around for clues occasionally feel like a chore, and people expecting this to be a fighter may be disappointed. But anyone who claims to be into video games at all should at least give Shenmue a try. You may not like it, but then again, you may be amazed by it. If you own a Dreamcast, there's really no reason not to pick this game up immediately. Hopefully Sega will one day bring the entire Shenmue series to another console and try again. For now, though, Shenmue and its sequel will live on as the best games (as of this writing) that I've ever played.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Shenmue (US, 11/07/00)
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