Review | Shenmue – A Flawed Masterpiece

Disclaimer – Shenmue was played on an Xbox One via the HD Remaster. This edition does NOT include Shenmue’s Passport mode, which adds optional backstory for many characters.

I was an early nineties kid, so I was alive and kicking at the dawn of the 3D era of gaming. Games like Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time showed the world what an open world could be, albeit a mostly empty one. It wasn’t until the following generation that things started to really get spicy, and this where the Dreamcast came into play (and then rather swiftly out of play…). Shenmue is one of the first truly open, open worlds with its tendrils encompassing games even today. But how does this oft overlooked title hold up to modern standards, and is it really worth playing?

You play as Ryo Hazuki, a young man from Yokosuka. He returns home from school one day only to witness his best friend Fukuhara launched out of his family’s dojo and his father murdered by the mysterious, and clearly skilled, Lan Di. Lan Di takes a mcguffin known as the Dragon Mirror and leaves, sparing Ryo, but not before he smacks him around a bit. Ryo then vows to avenge his father, and the game begins.

Shenmue’s opening succeeds on every level, introducing multiple key characters, providing motivation for Ryo, and hints at the vague mystery surrounding the Dragon Mirror. Lan Di is set up as this almost insurmountable force, not only murdering your father with a single punch, but doing so in such a manner, that made Ryo’s father, a master of Hazuki style martial arts, look like a novice. Whilst being a student of your father’s form, it is clear that you are far below your father, and even further behind the object of your revenge.

Ryo as the main protagonist is both endearing and brutal. He is driven purely by the desire to locate and kill Lan Di, however how he interacts with the people around him shows him to be a kind, considerate, but socially awkward man. He is no pushover however, and he will not tolerate anyone who stands the way of his goals, or threatens his friends. This often leads to the perpetrator being beaten to a pulp in a somewhat stylish fashion.

The main goal of Shenmue, aside from finding Lan Di, is to explore Yokasuka, gather information and uncover the mystery. In short, Shenmue is at its core, a detective story, albeit an incredibly quaint one. You will travel the various streets of your home town and talk to people in an attempt to gather some information that typically sends you to another location, and another string of conversations and sleuthing. Everything of note you uncover is recorded in your handy dandy notebook, making it incredibly easy to keep track of what you need to do at each interval.

When you are not gathering information, you are solving puzzles. These are not in the typical sense, although they can be quite the brain teasers. Due to the world of Shenmue being incredibly grounded (more on that later), puzzles revolve around understanding how the real world functions, or at least how it functioned in 1987. You need to find an address that belongs to a telephone number you have found? Well, why not take a look at a spoilerific book? Need to get a specific location? How about read street signs and consult one of the many map signs. Is a room a tad too dark? Well I am sure there are multiple ways to generate light. 

What’s more, the game rewards you not with arbitrary nonsense, in fact it rarely, if ever rewards you at all – not with anything tangible at least. Most rewards in Shenmue come in the form of a piece of story you may have missed, or an event. It is a refreshing change of pace, meaning if you go looking, the game will usually reveal something new. On repeat playthroughs it becomes apparent that many of the game’s important items can be picked up long before you need them, which is an unexpected level of attention to detail. 

Shenmue runs on a day, night cycle, and most NPC’s go about their life without you. Certain people may only be available at a certain time, and certain establishments may open, or close, in a similar fashion. Many events are missable due to time passing, once again making repeat playthrough enjoyable as there is quite a bit to uncover, some of which add a significant amount of world building.

Speaking of NPC’s, they are a real highlight of the experience. Every major character you encounter is instantly recognisable and highly memorable. Goro goes from being a thug, to something altogether different.. Tom is constantly (and I mean constantly…) dancing and always has something interesting to say. Nazomi is your love interest, and depending on how much time you spend interacting with her, the more you will get from her arc. Finally, Fuku-San is quite possibly the most endearing member of the cast. He is always trying to help you, even if that means taking a few fists to the face. He is your constant buddy, and becomes more relevant as time goes on. Of course we can’t forget about Lan Di, who has a total of about 2 minutes of screen time, but does enough to cement him as a compelling antagonist. 

The last part of Shenmue’s gameplay is the combat itself. Shenmue’s combat is split into two distinct parts – Quick Time Events, and Free Combat. Quick Time Events run rampant in modern games, however Shenmue is one of the first to implement them. Whilst they can be considered a negative as cutscenes can unexpectedly turn into a punch to the face, they are incredibly well choreographed (especially for the time), and remain very much grounded in the world that has been built. Ryo will never do anything you cannot do in Free Combat, and you can pick out specific actions quite easily. It is almost like the game is taking control to show you something really cool, that Free Combat wouldn’t be able to effectively.

Free Combat however, whilst a bit clunky, is incredibly rewarding. Styled off Sega’s Virtua Fighter engine, Ryo will perform moves based on directional commands combined with timed button presses. When you first start, you have an impressive list of attacks at your disposal, and this only grows as you progress through the main story, adding in powerful counter attacks and stylish flurries. If you invest time into the system, there is a lot to enjoy here, but it does have its issues. In fights that contain lots of enemies, it becomes incredibly difficult to target enemies effectively as the game has an uncontrollable auto lock on. This results in cheap shots quite frequently as you can’t always attack the person who is smacking you from behind.

When compared to modern day openworlds, Shenmue seems incredibly small. Even games released shortly afterwards, such as Grand Theft Auto 3,  dwarf Yokosaka in terms of scale. The world is split into three main areas which amount to mostly linear streets filled with people and various buildings to explore. Each area is divided by a loading screen, and you can run from one end of the world to the other in a couple of minutes. Size is not exactly Shenmues strength.

Where Shenmue shines however, is in its intractability. Unlike most games released at this time, and even today, Shenmue is jam packed with things to interact with. In your room alone, you can look at your table, turn on your lamp, pick up most objects, manually open every draw in your desk and open your wardrobe. Leave your room and you have a house filled with things to touch and manipulate to gain all sorts of items. Ryo will typically comment on the things you find, regardless of their use, or lack thereof, which is a nice touch.

Shops in particular are a highlight as you approach shelves, investigate what’s on offer, and take the item to the counter. It is a bit slow as each item has to be bought individually, but it is an extra touch that makes Shenmue, Shenmue. There are even items you can buy that have no intrinsic value outside of just buying them, although many items can be used in story events and side quests. 

Where all of this starts to fall apart however, is in the age of the game. Despite its admirable attempt to make the world interactable, there are far too many locations that you can’t do anything with. For starters, Ryo cannot eat, and drinking anything has no benefit making it mostly pointless, outside of the player wanting to roleplay. There are only a couple shops in the entirety of the game where you can actually buy things, despite there being countless stalls, shopfronts and bars that litter the streets. The game even has clothes shops, however there is no way to buy, or customise Ryo’s appearance, which turns them into nothing more than landmarks that contain recognisable NPC’s. It is a strong start, but it doesn’t go far enough. 

One of the potential downsides of Shenmue is the pacing of the story itself. Due to the game running on a clock, you are often required to wait around for the next interaction to take place, often having to wait a whole day. This is a negative, only if you play Shenmue in a specific mindset. By this I mean, with the pure desire to reach the end of the game. If you go into Shenmue wanting to be absorbed in the world and take your time, then the game provides plenty of entertainment for you to indulge in. The most notable pastime has to be the Arcade, which is full of classic Sega games such as Space Harrier and Hang On. You also have a variety of Dart games and even some QTE based minigames that can be used to sharpen your reflexes for the QTE sections later on. You can also gamble your money away on slot machines, although this is usually counterproductive – like actual gambling. Finally you can spend your money on the various ‘Gacha’ machines, allowing you to pick up a bunch of Sega themed toys. Unfortunately these don’t actually do anything, which is a shame. It would have been nice if they atleast started to litter Ryo’s room, or if duplicates could be sold at a pawnshop.

The final thing the game does to keep you invested, is throw fights at you at regular intervals. The game is about 20 hours long, and there are roughly 20-30 fights in the entirety of the game. This might seem like much, however they are cleverly interspersed throughout the run time and add some much needed action. Shenmue detractors typically point to the final part of the game as its biggest failing, which is understandable. You will eventually get a job working at a harbour as a forklift driver. You are forced to go to work, removing your agency, everyday and literally carrying boxes for about 20 minutes. Each day increases the difficulty, making it somewhat satisfying to accomplish your quota, but this is very time consuming and adds roughly two hours to the game’s run time. 

This again plays into your mindset. If Shenmue hasn’t hooked you by this point, then you will likely hate it, although I personally thoroughly enjoyed it, mostly due to the game purposely breaking these sections up with story development and combat sections. Heck, at the start of each day you partake in a Forklift race that controls surprisingly well, and is humorous and fun in equal measure. This final section is also where the majority of Shenmue’s action resides with numerous boss battles, plenty of QTE’s, Free Battles galore and action segments that dial Shenmue’s typically slow pace, to eleven.

One of the most surprising aspects of Shenmue, despite being 21 years old, is how well the graphics have held up, especially when they have been polished up a bit with the recent remasters. Ryo in particular has a detailed character model and fully articulated hands/fingers. Characters’ mouths move when talking, which is a feature still not present in all games. What stood out to me most, weirdly enough, is the attention to detail when it comes to hair. I was shocked to see hair actually moving in a game this old, and the texture quality is surprisingly high. Environments are also detailed and memorable, with each area looking, and feeling distinct from each other. Finally, animations, as I alluded to earlier, are fantastic, especially during combat and QTE’s. 

On the sound front, Shenmue is a mixed bag to say the least. Sound quality of the voice actors is noticeably low due to what I assume was low quality recording equipment. The English dub is also incredibly varied, with most characters sounding downright hilarious, especially the children, although Ryo himself is voiced fine, nailing the feel of the character. What’s even more impressive is that every NPC in the game is fully voice acted, something I was not expecting. Despite the vocals being a bit naff at times, the sound track is phenomenal. Each area has its own thematically accurate soundtrack and the game’s main theme is a beautiful track that crescendos in such a way that I expect some people might actually get slightly emotional when all is said and done. 

Shenmue is a game that will absolutely not appeal to everyone. It is a game that wants you to become engrossed in its unique, very personal journey. It wants you to take you time, and rewards you for exploring and paying attention to the world around you. If it gets its hooks in you, then it will absorb you completely. If it doesn’t, then you are not going to have a good time at all. For me however, I enjoyed every second of the twenty hours I dedicated to it, and for all of its flaws, I still consider it a masterpiece.

Toast Seal Of Approval

Editors Note – The voice sound quality was low not because of aged, or poor recording equipment, but due to heavy compression to fit onto the Dreamcast’s disk.

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