I like to pretend I have classy taste when it comes to films, but I just can’t help myself sometimes. Cheesy action movies, especially the ones from the 80’s, will always hold a place in my heart. Playing Shenmue is a lot like living in an 80’s martial arts movie. It has cheesy “acting”, fights that happen for no apparent reason and a protagonist with no personality. Despite all this, Shenmue is still one of the most unique and addictive action/adventure games that I’ve played in a long time.
Ryo Hazuki is a 17 year old schoolboy (who never actually goes to school it seems) living in a quiet town in Japan. The year is 1986, which adds a bit to the atmosphere and the cheese factor. One day, Ryo’s sensei father is murdered right in front of poor Ryo! Who is this mysterious martial arts expert who murdered the honorable Iwao Hazuki? Ryo vows to find out and ultimately avenge his father’s death, all while wearing his painfully tight 80’s jeans. Sounds a bit clichÈd, doesn’t it? It doesn’t help that Ryo talks and acts like a robot, displaying no human emotions at all. Thankfully there’s a few supporting characters who are more exciting. Not to spoil it for you, the storyline gets only marginally better. Just wait till you meet the guy who uses the word “bro” excessively.
The uniqueness of the game doesn’t lie in the storyline, but in the atmosphere. Shenmue was the closest thing to a living, breathing world ever seen on a console game when it was first released. Time passes as it does in the real world, and you can only meet certain people at certain times. Each day progresses from afternoon, to dusk, and then finally to night. The weather also changes, much like it does in the real world. It could be snowing one day, sunny the next. The attention to detail in this game is amazing. When it rains, people have umbrellas. During Christmas decorations can be seen all around the town. Almost any object can be examined or picked up and any drawer or closet door can be opened. People walk around town, enter stores, and have their own personal agendas of what to do all day. It isn’t even always the same person running the convenience store each day. The game is full of realistic touches like that.
Ryo’s quest to avenge his father’s death basically consists of finding a person, getting a clue, then finding someone else to talk to. Throughout your journeys you encounter QTE (quick time events), which are cutscenes that require a sequence button taps in order to pass the scene. The taps usually make your character attack a bad guy, or something as simple as dodging a soccerball kicked towards your head. While most aren’t particularly exciting, they’re a good way to keep you focused and on your toes.
The more exciting part of the game is the actual fights. Imagine a simplified version of the Virtua Fighter series without the frustrating learning curve. You learn moves from certain people, or from move scrolls that can be bought or found. Extensive training is required to make the moves more powerful, so practicing in empty parking lots and the dojo is a must. You’re often ganged up on in fights, so targeting can get to be a problem, but the main problem with the fighting is that there simply isn’t enough in the game! It’s a shame that such an excellent fighting system wasn’t put to use more. Sega must have realized this, because once you get to a certain event in the game you can replay the incredible 70 person (!) battle as often as you’d like.
The main reason why this game is so damn addictive is the amount of extra stuff to do around town. You can visit the arcade and play some darts. Good ol’ Sega classics like Space Harrier and Hang On also make an appearance. Head on over to the bar to take some trick shots in a game of pool, and then spend hours winning tokens at the slot machines. You even take care of a stray kitten. Not only can you collect tapes of the music in the game, but you can play your very own Sega Saturn (note how the year is 1986). You can also buy toy capsules featuring popular Sega characters. It’s a blast racing forklifts towards the end of the game. Depending on what kind of gamer you are hours could be spent just doing some of these things I mentioned. If it weren’t for these added things to do, the game might drag on at a few points.
Keeping in tone with the realistic atmosphere are the realistic graphics. The characters look surprisingly life like. Wrinkles can be seen on the elderly. Tattoos can be seen on the punks that try to mess with you. The places you explore look great, from the poster covered walls of some dark corners, to the freight ships on the dock. Despite the eye candy there are still two serious flaws with the graphics. When there or more people are on the screen at once, the game occasionally slows down and becomes choppy. Also, people just magically appear in front of you when you’re walking, with no warning or anything. This is incredibly annoying while driving the forklift and people just pop up in front of you. This stops the forklift dead in its tracks, and you have to wait for them to get out of your way.
To be blunt, 90% of the voice acting is total garbage. Whatever you do, don’t talk to the little kids in the game. If you do then be prepared for the most annoying “Hey mister” you’ll ever hear. I did like a few of the voices though. Ryo’s almost-girlfriend Nozomi wasn’t bad, and the creepy villain Chai was appropriately over the top. The music is much more enjoyable, with jazz and some “epic” scores interspersed throughout the game. There’s even a J-Pop song in the game. Unfortunately it isn’t that good, but the rest of the soundtrack makes up for it.
As bit of a bonus, the game comes with an extra disc. On this disc you can listen to music tracks, watch some of the scenes from the game, and watch some tutorials. Originally you could go online and trade items, but sadly Sega cancelled this service.
So should you buy this game? If you’re in the mood for a deliberately paced adventure game with some moments of incredible action, then you should definitely check this game out. The Japanese setting and the life-like world make this one of the more original games out there. The game is a bit on the short side (15-20) and the cliffhanger ending may turn off some, so just remember this is the first of a trilogy. Shenmue is far from being one of my favorite games, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable.