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Shenmue - Retroview

A Vision, A Dream, An Incredible Series

By: Phillipe Richer


Review Breakdown
   Battle System 7
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 7
   Originality 9
   Plot 7
   Localization 8
   Replay Value 5
   Visuals 10
   Difficulty Very Easy
   Time to Complete

25-35 hours

 
Overall
8
Criteria

Shenmue
 

   Yu Suzuki had a dream. It was a dream of a gigantic series which would take players to a level of involvement and freedom never seen before in a game. He succeeded marvelously well into crafting his vision into a reality and gamers all around the world were first able to delve into Suzuki-san's imagination in the winter of 2000 - manifested in Shenmue for the Sega Dreamcast.

   The story starts out in the year 1986, in Yokosuka, Japan, at Ryo Hazuki's house. His father is confronted by a man named Lan-Di, a man which apparently knows a lot about the past of Ryo's father. He attacks and kills Ryo's father who was hiding a very special mirror. Not knowing much about the details of the incident, Ryo sets out on his journey to avenge his father and learn the truth.

   Shenmue features many different "battle" modes. I say "battle" because the game's emphasis is not really based on fighting, rather following a more story-oriented pace filled with interactive events. One of those event is the QTE (Quick Timer Event) in which you'll have to match the buttons shown on the screen in order for Ryo to execute the right action, be it dodge a punch, throw a kick or jump over a crate of fruit. If you miss the command too many times you'll instantly be brought back to the beginning of the altercation, making death all but impossible in the world of Shenmue. These events are usually very entertaining although there are way too few of them.


Your nemesis - One hell of a martial artist.
Your nemesis - One hell of a martial artist.  

   There's another battle system present in the game. Dubbed the "Free Battle Mode", these action packed sequences will allow you to do battle against numerous opponent in a 3D fighting game kind of way. However, since Shenmue isn't primarily a fighting game, it seems that not much time was spent on the battle production. The result of this is that battles are very choppy and hard to deal with. Ryo will have a wide arsenal of punches, kicks and throws, but you'll quickly find out that pulling off those complicated moves is very hard and not really worth it. You'll most probably only learn a couple of effective moves and use them at profusion half the time while you just mash some buttons the other half. It's very sloppy all-around and the controls aren't very responsible either, making those battles only mildly enjoyable. You can train your moves in the dojo and acquire new ones by talking to your various friends.

   Most of the game will turn around a sort of fetch quest where you'll have to gather more and more information to advance the story. The game can be frustrating at times, especially when you have no idea what to do next or who too talk to. To keep things organized, Ryo will note down every important piece of information in his notebook for quick references. You'll be free to roam around, play in the arcade, buy useless things and talk to whoever you want during the course of the game. The in-game clock moves at a reasonable pace and dictates pretty much everything from the stores' opening hours to your bed time. Later on in the game you'll find a part- time job which breaks the info-gathering pace of the game.

   The developers were bragging about Shenmue's FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) aspect which lets you do what you want whenever you want. It all seems good and well until you realize that pretty much every other RPG features the same thing, letting you wander around and talk to people at your own pace. However, thanks to the great graphics and the lack of numerous locations, Shenmue really does propose a free-gaming experience unlike no other. You're not able to do everything you'd like though, because if we did, I could have kicked Tom's jaw out of his mouth.

   The first thing you'll notice when you start playing is that you cannot walk around using the joystick. At first, that decision seems pretty dumb considering the life-like 3D environments you'll have to navigate through, but after a while you'll get used to it. You can only start walking or running in one of eight directions, but once he's gone Ryo can maneuver at will. Turning around in a small area is still pretty awkward, and you'll waste a lot of time twisting and turning just to get in front of that stupid pot you want to examine. The joystick is instead used to take a closer look at things, which you'll have to do very often, and is easily controllable. Every time an action can be performed the corresponding button will be displayed at the bottom of the screen, right next to the ever-so-important watch. You may choose between 4 different dialogue styles, from text only to voice-acting along with text, which leads me to Shenmue's biggest annoyance.


The sloppy battle controls will take much of the fun out of fighting.
The sloppy battle controls will take much of the fun out of fighting.  

   Why are English voice-actors so god-damn bad? Why is it that I get a surge of rage every time Fuku-san opens his mouth? In case you haven't guessed, the voice-acting is terrible. Not necessarily compared to other English dialogues but rather to the quality of Japanese ones. I endured it for the first 5 hours, then I got so mad I turned it off completely for 20 hours, and after convincing myself that I was missing out on an integral part of the game I put it back on for the last 10 hours or so. The actors don't sound natural at all, and their fake Japanese accent is often nauseating. It still isn't THAT bad, but when the voices are supposed to be the game's big attraction, it's less forgivable. The music is something else. It suits the atmosphere perfectly, and those oriental instruments help give the game its authentic feel. The main theme is an enchanting piece of music, and the few vocal songs found in the game are quite good.

A lot of time was clearly spent on the sound effects department. Every surface you walk on, every can of soda you gulp down, every door you open has the absolute matching sound in real life. It enhances the "real life" feeling of the game greatly and is by far the best sound sampling you have ever heard. It's quite mind blowing, and the sound testers deserve a lot of credit on that part. So if we recap the music/sound department, we get 4 for the voice-acting, 7 for the music and 10 for sounds which gives the average shown above.

Considering that the series will spawn 16 chapters, and that the first game only contains the first chapter, the plot is not so bad. It's very small-scale, however, as it mostly involves searching for clues and beating up bad guys who don't want to give you clues. The pacing is decent too, until you hit that point where you don't know what to do next. A lot of things will happen during Ryo's quest, and be it small or big in scope, it's always entertaining. When all 16 chapters will be chained together though, you can expect one hell of an engaging story-line.


I can almost hear the bad voice-acting.
I can almost hear the bad voice-acting.  

Although the voice-acting isn't very competent, the lip-synch work has been completely re-done for the American release. It's near perfect, but the bad voice-acting overshadows that. The script is very solid, although not very complex. But since most people don't talk in an extravagant manner it's quite appropriate. There aren't many typos either, which is quite a feat when you take into account the huge amount of text. Since the game is very linear and relies mostly on a gamer's curiosity to go forward, subsequent playthroughs aren't going to happen in most cases. Yes, you can play at the arcade, and yes you may have missed a couple events in your first playthrough, but chances are you won't get the unquenchable thirst to delve into Shenmue again. Personally speaking, I will probably go through it again if only to re-live that feeling of unconditional immersion.

The game's visuals are astounding. Even now, with graphics the likes of MGS2, FFX and Dead or Alive 3, Shenmue's visuals are still at the top of the food chain. Every little bodily detail is represented in a marvelous fashion, and Ryo's surrounding environments are equally impressive, both technically and artistically. Weather effects are also sublime, and some women are voluptuously exquisite just as they should be. Just staring at Nozomi will give you a good remainder of what has been accomplished in the field of CGI. You have to acknowledge the good things in life, you know.

It's quite hard to describe the feeling that engulfs you when you play Shenmue. When you think about it, Shenmue isn't really revolutionary in any way, but the way that Yu Suzuki succeeded in creating his own little world with so many different locals is simply astonishing. It's a wonderful game which serves its purpose well at being the prologue for what may be the second biggest adventure ever, right behind Xenosaga of course.





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