During the month of April 2000, I wrote a review for Resident Evil—Code: Veronica that challenged game developers. I proclaimed that today's near photo-realistic graphics made some gaming conventions of the past seem outright ludicrous. Game developers needed to either steer their designs toward being more stylized and abstract or embrace the responsibility of what it meant to fashion reality. Ironically, about the same time that I wrote that review, word had just got out about a major title in-development with Sega's design guru Yu Suzuki in-charge. When Suzuki declared that this new title would be one of unprecedented realism and freedom, I knew I wasn't the only person who felt videogame design had reached an identity crossroad. In spirit, Suzuki had accepted my challenge by attempting to develop a game that not only looked like reality, but played like it as well.
The grandiose title that Suzuki spoke of would eventually be known simply as Shenmue, and the buzz only seemed to grow larger as its release date drew near. This was not only because of the potential barriers it would break as far as gameplay conventions were concerned, but also because of the record-setting production costs that had ballooned up to around $60 million. So does the final release of Shenmue live up to all the hype of being the most expensive game ever made and deliver Dreamcast owners onto the promised land of gaming bliss?
The answer is yes and no. Shenmue is the Bill Clinton of videogames; extremely ambitious, arguably successful, and yet undoubtedly flawed.
Shenmue has players assume the role of Japanese college student and martial arts protégé Ryo Hazuki. After witnessing the brutal murder of his father at the hands of a mysteriously skilled fighter, Ryo sets out on a long and arduous journey through the mean streets of Japan to track down the culprit and avenge his father's death. A large part of the game is played through a typical explorer-friendly, third-person behind-the-back perspective, but thats only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing the game mechanics. What sets Shenmue apart from most other games is the many diverse styles of gameplay offered. Shenmue doesn't fit into any particular genre neatly because there's usually a unique mode of play or mini-game for specific moments and events throughout the game. The only one thing you can expect is that you never know what to expect, and there's always something new to do. One moment you're throwing darts in a bar and next thing you know, you're racing a motorcycle.
Despite the promising description I just gave, my earliest impressions of Shenmue were far less than favorable. Like most gamers who charted Shenmue's progress closely, I had high expectations and hoped the game would be of the highest caliber and worthy of Yu Suzuki's world-renowned reputation. Unfortunately, those high hopes were sent crashing down to earth almost immediately after I started playing.
Right from the get-go, I had issues with the controls. Spoiled by games using a similar perspective like The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time and Legacy Of Kain: Soul Reaver, I was expecting smooth and responsive analog controls on par with those aforementioned titles. No such luck. Instead, Shenmue misuses the analog stick as a secondary "looking" feature while the digital D-pad facilitates movement. While for the most part serviceable, I found that using the D-pad in conjunction with the analog triggers and face buttons to be at times imprecise and awkward. The "look" lock-on feature also proved to be a mixed bag (good for quick gestures, poor for precise spying). This was certainly not the seamless interface I was hoping for.
The storyline in Shenmue gets off to an equally inauspicious start as well. The setup is basically the old "Fists of Fury" kung-fu movie cliché. The only difference was that Bruce Lee rode the formula to fame and success because he was able to transcend the cliché by conveying raw emotion that translated into viciously entrancing primal martial arts choreography. The problem is that Ryo Hazuki is no Bruce Lee. Despite being an amazingly detailed and life-like 3-D polygon model, Ryo still isn't able to express potent and complex combination of motivating emotions like anger, pain and sorrow over the death of his father. Quite the contrary, Ryo's one-dimensional expression and often dry speaking voice gave me an impression of almost distracted indifference. The effect is most evident in early conversational encounters with local neighbors who suffer from the same problem. Unable to convey a delicate balance of sympathy and concern, their efforts to console Ryo over his loss seemed either confused or ridiculously casual—compounded even further by Ryo's nonchalant responses.
What further undermined the weight of the situation were all the many side quests and activities that are unexpectedly thrust upon Ryo. After personally witnessing the murder of his father, it seems highly unlikely if not ludicrous on his part to be caring for a kitten, getting so much joy from a can of cola or collecting little toys found from vending machines. This issue, along with the all characters' inability to express themselves genuinely, really hurt the credibility of the game in the early goings.
Aside from all the nagging issues of credibility (all of which became less irksome as I progressed through the game), I also had a major issue with balance in gameplay. Sega deserves ample credit for trying to undertaking a game with such massive scope, but at the same time, it's obvious that the final product probably suffered under the weight of its own ambition and needed to endured several major compromises in order to speed its development. The aftermath of those compromises is that many parts of the game feel uneven, trimmed or abandoned to varying degrees.
Most obvious of those trims has to be the unsatisfying ending that doesn't feel genuine. Shenmue is decent in overall length, but it ends rather abruptly and leaves too many elements of the story unresolved. The ending generates a considerable amount of excitement and anticipation for its inevitable sequel, but at the same time, it also felt rushed (evident by the martial arts technique that is introduced so late in the game that players are barely given an opportunity to use it) and doesn't build to a proper climax.
Other areas, like the deceptively deep hand-to-hand fighting proportion of the game, also does not get its just due. There's are never enough opportunities to get accustomed to the dozens of different attacks, and just as I was beginning to understand the understated nuances of blocking and counter attacks, the game ends and all the effort put into the battle system seems all the more wasted.
The same can be said of the "collecting" aspect of the game as well. As I mentioned earlier in the review, it is possible to purchase and accumulate hundreds of little collectible toys and items, but the idea never comes full circle with any real purpose. By the end of the game, having accumulated all that junk was just meaningless. I have a feeling that perhaps the developers wanted to do something more with the feature, but ran out of time to fully develop it.
There is also a serious imbalance in the overall flow of the game. While the first two-thirds of the game is setup so that players can gradually grow accustomed to the considerable amount of freedom that the game offers, the latter third of the game is unexpectedly restrictive and oppressively routine in comparison. It's as though you are trained to do things one way, then all of a sudden forced to change gears.
Yet the most surprising thing about this break-through title is that despite all the major problems that I just elaborated on, the game still manages to hold together. As with many things, time does wonders to heal the memory, and the most major flaws fade into the background in favor of Shenmues better qualities. The game may be terribly unbalanced, but it does hit some high notes, and there are noteworthy stretches through out the course of the game.
One of those high notes is the presentation. Simply put, Shenmue is visually and musically arresting. The soundtrack—consisting of many dramatic and film-quality scores—is one of those most memorable in recent memory. Environments such as Ryo's traditional Japanese home (complete with dojo and Zen garden), local residential towns, commercial districts and the harbor docks are digitally crafted with such loving and painstaking detail that it's hard not to walk around the environments with the utmost admiration for those who put such an effort into developing Shenmue. The same could be said about the character models. They may not be able to convey complex emotions, but they are still the most detailed and noteworthy 3-D models to appear in any game to date. To top things off, just about everything animates beautifully. Shenmue delivers all right—a small part of Japan circa 1980s that is.
Another thing that Shenmue manages to do well is to convey the more subtle joys of life in the form of a videogame. Set to an internal real-time clock, Shenmue challenges players to interact with its world as if it were a real one. Players get up early in the morning to start the day and need return home by late night in order to rest. Other computer-controlled characters follow their own daily schedules as well. Shop owners will open and close their business according to designated hours and can be seen making their daily commutes to and from their homes at appropriate times of the day. Shenmue is largely set in a small suburban town where everyone is on a first name basis with one another, and the game does a wonderful job of creating distinct personalities and a sense that this is a tight-knit community.
As strange as it may sound, one way to describe the often rich layers of gameplay in Shenmue is how it interprets the daily routines and banalities of everyday life into a series of objectives and digital mini-games. Something as simple as taking a bus to a new location, purchasing products or dialing a phone somehow becomes more "fun" than it should actually be. Shenmue has a way to make the most mundane tasks and accomplishments that we face with in our everyday life feel more rewarding. Playing Shenmue is sort of like being a child amazed by first-time experiences.
And while the game is generally lousy at conveying emotions through its characters, there is one moment in the game that comes together brilliantly. I won't spoil the exact details, but I will say that there is a point where Ryo begins to uncover some of the mysterious details of his father's past and the method in which it is done is a understated and yet still a masterful stroke in interactivity and immersive depth. For that one moment in the game, I truly felt the gravity of Ryo's relationship with his father, emotionally and physically.
There's no doubt that Shenmue is a lavishly produced title of epic proportions that exhibits some if not many moments of gaming bliss and design genius. At the same time, this is a title that is severely flawed with problems that are so far reaching that they are difficult to ignore. For every step that the game seems to leap forward in redefining the grammar of videogames, it also seems to take a few horrible missteps backward. Shenmue isn't one of those moments in gaming history where the stars and planets are all aligned perfectly to produce something that is a special once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is however a step in the right direction in terms of simulating reality in the context of a console videogame. Yu Suzuki and his army of developers obviously saw the need to set a new benchmark for freedom and realism in console gaming and on many levels they succeeded. The final results, while ambitious, isn't all that I hoped it would be, but there was still enough there conceptually to challenge and stimulate my senses.
Parents: According to ESRB, this game contains Animated Violence, Strong Language, Use of Tobacco & Alcohol. You should be aware that this game is rated for teens because the dialogue is peppered with PG-13 level profanity. Parents may also have ethical issues with high-degree of realism in the game especially in its portrayal of violence used to resolve most conflicts and the criminal element in the form of gang members and unsavory-looking thugs.
Dreamcast owners expecting Shenmue to be the official swan song of the system are going to have to wait awhile longer. While Shenmue has some great qualities to it and has many revolutionary features, the game is also undoubtedly wrought with consistency and balance problems. Shenmue is also a hard title to recommend to fans of specific genres because this game elevates the term hybrid or cross-genre to all new levels. Shenmue consists of all kinds of different styles of play that range from a Dragons Lair-like QTE system to a free roaming 3-D fighting engine. Though if I had to pick one genre, I would have to say that Shenmue is most like a role-playing game in the truest sense. Players must inhabit the life of Ryo Hazuki.