Monday, 20 January 2014

Now Playing: Shenmue

The original Shenmue was released on the Dreamcast in 2000. The game is set in 1986 Japan, when our protagonist Ryo Hazuki’s father is murdered. Ryo vows revenge and the game sees him trying to track down the killer and unravel the mystery surrounding his father’s past. Taking control of Ryo in his bedroom a few days after the murder, you are then free to investigate and explore the world of Shenmue at your own pace.

Progression (at least during the first two acts) is entirely player driven. You can follow up several clues in a single day, or you can take an entire week, depending on how you choose to spend your time. Shenmue may be the only game you can actually lose by being lazy. The game begins in late November and you’re expected to complete the main story by Spring, but if you don’t get too sidetracked, you can easily finish it before Christmas.

The world isn’t exactly massive in terms of the external environments, but there are dozens of internal locations. This is a world with a fantastic attention to detail. There are hundreds of NPCs, all of whom have daily routines. They get up and go to work. They may visit a bar in the evening. They may go jogging in the park. Many are completely irrelevant to the story, as are many of the locations you can visit. Yet all of them have been carefully crafted despite a chance the player may never even encounter them. The world has a day/night cycle and a weather system for rain and snow. As Christmas approaches you’ll see decorations being put up in the streets. It feels like a living world, far more than many modern sandbox games.

And there’s a ton of hidden stuff in the world of Shenmue. Even playing it again today I encountered scenes I’d not seen before as there are many situations triggered by date, time and location. Yet the story and your adventure grow organically out of how you choose to approach it and the time you choose to take. Graphically, Shenmue may be looking a little rough here and there these days, but there are times when the detailed textures would amusingly put some modern games to shame.

Shenmue has a fine soundtrack, but the VA work is pretty awful. It’s stilted and often (unintentionally) hilarious. They should have stuck with subtitles and the original Japanese VA as they did in Shenmue 2. You can’t help but cringe at times as Ryo speaks to people in an odd, awkward manner.

Outside of the main story there’s quite a bit to keep you busy. Collectible toys are an addictive (and expensive) way to burn through your limited cash. You can also buy music tapes you can listen to, and there are also raffles to enter to win more toys, tapes and even Sega Saturn games you can play on Ryo’s home system (presumably sent from the future). There’s also an arcade of different games to play as well as slot machines, and scrolls which you can buy to learn new attacks for the game’s combat system. And you can train and spar in certain places to ‘level up’ these attacks.

The combat system feels very similar to Virtua Fighter. It’s quite slow paced, with precise button combinations, dodges and timing being key. It has a fair degree of depth if you explore it fully, but I felt it was a system best utilised in 1v1 scenarios, and sadly there’s not too many of those in the game. Instead, you fight more often against multiple opponents, and it’s a lot easier to spam a couple of heavy attacks to win in those situations than use any sort of strategy or finesse, and this renders a lot of that depth rather redundant.

There are plenty of cinematic scenes, but none are either too long or intrusive. There are also QTE sequences for combat/chase events with multiple paths, so a single slip in most cases simply leads to a diversion, and these can add flavour to certain cinematic moments. So far, so good, right? Great graphics. Robust combat system. A mixture of free roam sandbox with player led progression and exploration. Unfortunately, the third act rather lets it all down.

Ryo is trying to track down a gang and takes a job at the docks to find them. There’s a novelty to this for the first few days but it rapidly becomes a rather tedious chore. To make matters worse, the plot is no longer player driven, so you’re really just killing time during and after work until the next story scene triggers. There’s no way to advance it through your own initiative and investigation as in the rest of the game, which is quite disappointing, because that’s where Shenmue really shines.

But despite the disappointing third act, the game does end on a high note and sets things up nicely for the sequel. It remains today a very enjoyable, engaging experience. A player driven adventure that has a remarkable attention to detail in a lovingly crafted world. Shenmue felt quite unique and revolutionary at the time of its release. There was nothing else quite like it, and in many ways, that’s still true today.


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