The game I've been waiting for
If "Shenmue" were the only game made for the Dreamcast, I'd still buy this console. "Shenmue" is, quite simply, the closest possible thing to the realization of a concept that was unfortunately given little to no attention: free-flowing gameplay outside of the boundaries of common genres. This is the kind of game I always wanted to see, and "Shenmue" is most certainly not a disappointment.
You could argue "Shenmue" is just a mixture of popular genres, something that has been done many times before. But in fact "Shenmue" is not a mixture, it is rather a negation of all genres and the destruction of the borders between them. Is "Shenmue" a real adventure game? Hardly, as it has virtually no puzzles. So, is it an interactive movie along the lines of Tender Loving Care
? Not at all, since cinematic cutscenes are less important here than the gameplay. Can we call "Shenmue" a simulation of everyday life, like The Sims
? No, because the goal of the game is to follow its story, not just to let Ryo wander aimlessly around or initiate relationships with people. The one genre that is really treated more or less seriously in the game is fighting, but since fighting sequences aren't very numerous or difficult, "Shenmue" also can't qualify as a simple fighting game.
So, lacking all the necessary elements of all the genres it borrows from, what does "Shenmue" has to offer? Well, "Shenmue" breaks new ground precisely by removing all the "heavy" elements from the genres it represents, and leaving only those that are necessary to adequately depict a short period of a young man's life. Let's take the adventure genre for example. "Shenmue" takes from it the ability to control a single protagonist, the interaction with objects with people, the presence of a storyline. But it is not
an "interactive movie" that makes you watch cutscenes, doing some a tiny bit of the aforementioned stuff in between. No, there is a lot of gameplay in "Shenmue", and this gameplay is in many way much more open-ended than the usual adventure game routine. It's not "talk to character A, then give item B to character C, and character A will give you information about character D", but "talk to any of the characters from A to Z and you'll be sure to receive the information you need from someone". By eliminating the element of a strictly linear progressing and puzzles, "Shenmue" is a rare example of an adventure-like game that spares the player the frustration of getting stuck, and expands the limitations of the genre to a whole new dimension.
This, of course, has something to do with the way "Shenmue" was programmed. While being nowhere near the unlinearity and the interaction level of Ultima
games, "Shenmue" also doesn't need them, since it also strives to be a cinematic game with a strong emphasis on story events. Like Ultima and like Quest of Glory
, it has its own internal clock and night/day cycles. The game is divided into days, but those are real days, and not time blocks like in Gabriel Knight
games, where you had to perform a certain action to trigger the end of a time block. In "Shenmue", time will pass regardless to what you do. Similar to Quest of Glory, "Shenmue" relies heavily on events that will occur only at a precise moment and that you can't influence by performing an action. If you missed a certain person at a certain time, you'll have to wait a whole day to meet him again. At the same time, "Shenmue" cleverly avoids the annoying "getting stuck" syndrome that plagued Quest of Glory: it is next to impossible to get stuck in "Shenmue", let alone get irrevocably stuck (with no possibility to complete the game). I never needed a walkthrough for this game or anything of the kind. If you are late to an important meeting, there are always ways around.
By incorporating simulation elements, the game gains in credibility and manages to depict a large, living, and convincing world, with its inhabitants having their own lives, and with our hero having to study them properly in order to find the mysterious Lan Di and to avenge the death of his father. The world is open to you. You can look at, touch and take objects, among them many of those which are unimportant to the actual story. You can talk to anybody just as you would do it in the real life. You can practice your fighting skills or go and play classic Mega Drive games for the whole day. You can just walk around and look at the houses, the furniture, the people, the animals and all the other things. Speaking of animals, there's a little kitten in the game that you can take care of and visit every day, when you leave your house in the morning. You follow a certain schedule, meet your girlfriend from time to time, go to work, visit bars and Chinese restaurants, and come home to sleep.
This "simulation" has no other purpose but to immerse you into the game world, similarly to the Avatar being able to take part-time jobs and bake bread in Ultima. At the same time, the main plot of "Shenmue" keeps evolving all the time. You have some "free" days where you basically do whatever you like, but then certain events will happen, and you'll have to deal with them. The immediate goals of "Shenmue" are of a realistic kind: for example, you need money to buy a ticket to Hong-Kong, where you hope to track down the murderer of your father. So what do you do? Descend into a dungeon, hack some monsters and see how their dead bodies miraculously turn into gold? No, you get a job and earn the money!
From time to time you'll be treated to fights or to little arcade sequences, which are called "Quick-Time Events". They will require you to press buttons on your controller at the right time, usually in the midst of a suspenseful, nerve-tickling situations. I personally love those Quick-Time Events. The fights with goons, mafia people, and other guys are highly entertaining and exciting, being sometimes tricky enough to challenge, yet never too hard to frustrate. The cool thing about those fights is the huge variety of moves Ryo can perform. You won't need most of them, but it's fun just to try.
There is also an RPG element in the game, and this is training. By physically practicing your fighting skills you can increase the efficiency of your moves. It's not necessary to train everything to the highest possible level, but it is fun to watch how Ryo progresses and becomes more and more proficient in fighting.
Very important is the choice of setting for the game. It is today's Japan, clearly and simply. Strangely enough, many games prefer to avoid being set in present time and in a clearly defined location. Either they go to the past or to the future, or, more commonly, prefer a fantasy world over our Earth. One of the things that make "Shenmue" truly great is its detailed and realistic environment (not only in graphical sense) that deliberately avoids supernatural elements. This is an important step towards the independence of games from fantasy and sci-fi clichés that overpopulate the game industry.
Within the limits of this setting the creators of Shenmue series managed to tell a captivating story full of mystery and suspense. Unfortunately, the large story only begins in this game, continues in the second one, and is currently interrupted, with no confirmation of "Shenmue III" in development. The beginning is still very interesting. Ryo Hazuki, a Japanese young boy, investigates the murder of his own father. The clues lead him further and further, until in the end of the game he finds the trail leading to Hong-Kong, where the second game will take place.
There aren't many important characters in the game, but the ones that do play a role in the game are interesting and appealing. The game has place for sentimental and romantic moments (the relationship between Ryo and his girlfriend), for some comic relief (Goro), as well as for an excellent little sub-story about "men's friendship", with Ryo and Gui Zhang disliking each other, starting as rivals, and ending as comrades, fighting together, back to back, against a whole gang.
When I started playing this game, the only thing I could say was a quite wow
! The graphics of "Shenmue" are amazing, even for the powerful Dreamcast console. The perfectly crafted large and detailed 3D world is a masterpiece on its own. The character textures are very smooth. The best part is that there are quite a lot of characters walking around the streets of Yokosuka, and they are all different
! You won't see the same model painted in different colors: no, even the most unimportant characters, casual pedestrians, have each his or her own face, body, and clothes. The world of "Shenmue" lives and breathes in all its graphical glory.
The music could have served as a track for a movie. Overall, "Shenmue" would often seem like a movie if it weren't for its fantastic gameplay, which makes it such a great game.
This is not the flaw of the game itself, but, as it often happens, it was somehow hailed and praised for something it is not. It doesn't have such a marvelous interactivity and open-ended gameplay as some people say. The interactivity level is very high for an adventure game, and it is indeed possible to do a lot of things that are not connected to the story, but any Ultima
will beat "Shenmue" without any trace of doubt in this aspect.
The story does start a bit slowly, and after several days you get a call from a Chinese master, which completely negates all your previous achievements in the investigation (whatever they might have been), and forces you to make a fresh start. There isn't that much story in this first part of the series, although you aren't likely to feel its absence, being totally immersed in the game's world and entertained by its gameplay.
The voice acting is not very good, at least not in the English version. But we shouldn't forget that the Japanese follow quite a different way of expressing themselves. The "coldness" of Ryo has nothing to do with his feelings: he simply behaves the way he was taught.
The Bottom Line
I can't stress enough the importance of "Shenmue". This game was a ground-breaking achievement, not in terms of interaction or even immersion in a virtual world, like some people think, but in terms of fluent gameplay
. Having a gameplay that had a little bit for everyone, it was the one and the only game that totally disconnected itself from genre limitations. You could call it an adventure, you could call it a fighting game, you could call it a simulation - it was neither, and it was all. So far from sinking into the "interactive movie" category, "Shenmue" presented a kind of gameplay that deliberately avoided challenge, at the same time entertaining the player through its sheer versatility and the credibility of its world. "Shenmue" is pointing towards the future of gaming more than any other modern game I know.