The saga begins… again.
- Developer: Sega AM2
- Publisher: Sega
- Genre: Action Adventure, Life Simulator
- Release Date: 21/08/2019
- Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X
- Game Supplied by: Reviewer
Shenmue is a game I had heard a lot about but until recently had never experienced. I used to own a Dreamcast, but never got around to playing the cult classic Shenmue. It received mixed reviews when it was released, but based on my experience, it turns out I have been missing out on a game that was hugely ahead of its time.
The controls in Shenmue are from a time where character movement was limited by the controller. There was no right analogue stick, so movement was limited to moving forwards and backwards, and turning left and right, with no strafe available, and interacting with some objects is very slow and awkward. I still managed to get around ok, but there’s a clunkiness to it that can be very frustrating while you are getting used to it, and making small adjustments to line up your character is more cumbersome than we are used to nowadays.
If you take the janky controls out of the equation, however, the gameplay itself holds up surprisingly well against even more advanced modern RPG games. The characters are well fleshed out – even if they aren’t particularly well acted – and the story, although slightly cliched to anyone familiar with Asian cinema, is still entertaining. You don’t get any objective markers and there is no map to bring up, although there are physical maps in areas that you will need to look at to guide you to your destination. Progression in the story is predicated on you carrying out your own investigation. You must speak to people to find information, and when you find something significant, your journal will be updated. You will always know what you need to do next, but it’s not spoon fed to you, and there’s a sense of discovery when you make a connection to drive the plot forward.
If you haven’t heard anything about the game, the general premise is that our character’s father, a martial arts practitioner, is brutally murdered, and our protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, is out for revenge (I know, original right). In what was a highly unusual style for the time, the game was highly interactive and filled with a wealth of side-content, which while not essential to the story, is nonetheless available to serve as a distraction and immerse you into the game as a living, breathing world. You can visit the local arcade and play Sega arcade classics Super Hang-On and Space Harrier, amongst other things, and you can visit shops, feed stray kittens, and engage with almost every passing pedestrian. Indeed, even the simple act of consuming a drink has you selecting your beverage of choice, opening and downing said drink, then disposing of the empty can in the rubbish. This attention to detail, whilst more commonplace these days, was almost unheard of at the turn of the century. For a game limited by such tiny amounts of memory by today’s standards, Shenmue offers a wealth of content to engross you during your 20-30 hours of gaming.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story, but it does suffer from pacing issues. One moment I was making rapid progress, following clues and gathering information, the next moment I was sat twiddling my thumbs waiting for the next time sensitive activity to begin. The quest to discover what happened to your father, and why, will have you travelling around the local town, village, and docks, and it will offer you engaging characters and plot revelations right up until the end. It’s an engrossing world and one you can happily lose hours exploring. There are, however, a few design decisions that could put people off. Events that happen are often triggered by being in the right place at the right time. The in-game clock is always present on-screen, and time progresses relatively slowly (an hour in game time equates to around four minutes). This may not seem significant, but I came across a few situations where I had just missed the cut off time to meet someone, or for a shop to open, which meant I had to wait until the next day before I could try again. Once you have had your fill of the side activities, waiting around for an hour (in real time) is a little boring, and I found myself watching Netflix on my laptop to pass the time.
Another thing that I found tedious is, in the latter stages of the game, you have to take a job as a forklift driver. Each day starts with a forklift truck race, which is fun, but you are then tasked with transporting crates to a warehouse. You have several days of this, and even though it’s interspersed with a few events related to the story, it is wearying. In reality, it only takes a couple of hours in real time, but the mundane nature of the job makes it feel a lot longer. Once this section is done the game picks up pace quite rapidly, and the final battles and scenes that close out the game are excellent, providing a satisfactory conclusion to the story, and sets the game up nicely for Shenmue 2.
As a direct port of the Dreamcast version, it’s hard to criticise the janky controls and lacklustre fighting mechanics for not being modernised, as they are faithful to the original, but it’s important to note that it may not be to everyone’s taste. The audio is average at best, and the voice acting is pretty dire. Switching from the atrocious dubbing to the original Japanese audio is slightly better, but still far from perfect. It’s the same again for the music, which isn’t particularly varied and suffers doubly from being 80’s influenced as well as being poorly ported across. The graphics are rendered in a higher resolution but textures are particularly poor, and it really shows when you investigate items close up, but the art style is appealing, with a realistic approach being taken to the design of the buildings and the layout of the world, and the depiction of a sombre, moody, 1980’s Japan is unique. Loading times are minimal, but the lack of any real fast travel mechanism, bar when you first leave your house in the morning, can make getting to and from locations a slow process. It’s a conscious decision by the developers to adhere to a more realistic approach to world building, and it does add to the immersion of the game, so whether you will see it as a negative is down to personal preference.
Despite the many imperfections I really enjoyed Shenmue, and its memorable characters and story will stay with me far longer than those of some modern games I have played recently. I spent around 25 hours playing the game through to its conclusion, and earned the full 1000 gamerscore in the process.
Shenmue is at heart a Dreamcast game, so it would be unfair to base a score against its modern day competition, but even so, the story and gameplay still hold up remarkably well. Yes, the graphics are dated, but the detail put into creating a living, vibrant world is exceptional, and thanks to the excellent character building and story, the overarching sentiment is one of a very well crafted game that is definitely worth playing.
If you missed the original release, Shenmue is still worth playing today, with the caveat that the game’s pacing may not suit everyone, and the controls and movement may be off-putting. Get around these shortcomings, though, and there’s a complex, lovingly created game to explore and enjoy.