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Shenmue (Dreamcast)

89
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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.1
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (171558)
Written on  :  May 04, 2004
Rating  :  3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars3.43 Stars

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Summary

Graphical showcase concealing an average game

The Good

The initial "wow factor" of this famously expensive, extremely hyped-up game is very high. Immediately upon firing it up you begin to bask in the warmth of its visuals. The graphics of Shenmue are quite amazing. The game presents a fluid, detailed 3D world with some very impressive effects. The only thing that blew me away more around that time was Ultima IX, but Shenmue beats it in the smoothness of its character models. There are quite a lot of people walking around the streets of Yokosuka, and they are all different. Even the most unimportant characters, casual pedestrians, have each his or her own face, body, and clothes.

You can explore the game's world at your own pace. Mind you, it's not large at all, it's just busy; but hey, you can't demand too much from a Japanese adventure. At least here you have a reasonable freedom of movement, and physical actions are finally allowed. You can look at, touch and take some objects, including those unimportant to the actual story. You can talk to any character you meet. You can practice your fighting skills or go and play classic MegaDrive games for the whole day. You follow a certain schedule, meet your girlfriend from time to time, go to work and come home to sleep. Oh, and you can feed a kitten!

I liked some of the realism injected into the gameplay to fit the deliberately prosaic plot. 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!

I didn't hate the fights and the quick time events. I didn't exactly love them, either: they were, so to say, tepid - definitely not too off-putting and not particularly exciting. Without those action segments, however, the gameplay would have been significantly more boring. You literally sigh with relief when a fight breaks the overwhelming monotony of the game.

The Bad

Alas, Shenmue is a typical example of an overhyped game. People talked about groundbreaking concepts and revolutions in game design, but those were just words: the actual game is remarkably timid, shying away from any kind of serious concept and trying to convince the player to be satisfied with casual minigaming.

I'm anything but an expert in fighting games, and that's why my experience should really count here: I won all the fights in the game without any problem at all - and I haven't even trained! There is no challenge whatsoever in Shenmue. An even bigger problem is that the fights are not really fun - they are clumsy, repetitive, and way too infrequent to make a lasting impression. Indeed, Shenmue is much more of an adventure game with fighting sequences than the other way around.

And as such, it fails completely. The Japanese used to make good action games and their RPGs can be entertaining; but the overwhelming majority of their adventures are dull and pointless, being almost entirely devoid of true gameplay. Unfortunately, Shenmue is yet another one of those Japanese adventures: it just fools us into thinking it's more than that because of its free movement and fancy 3D. Seriously now: 90% of the gameplay in Shenmue consists of walking around and participating in uniformly dull conversations. There are no puzzles or challenging tasks of any kind. It's just running from one boring character to another and asking a myriad of unnecessary questions. In fact, even that doesn't matter: regardless of what you do, after a few days you get a call from a Chinese master, which completely negates all your previous achievements in the investigation - whatever they might have been.

It's like they didn't even try. And that's the game's ultimate problem: obviously, all the effort went into designing the visually impressive world, while gameplay was clearly an afterthought. There is absolutely nothing there that hasn't been done before many times and better. People went "oh" and "ah" at the sight of Ryo opening a drawer, forgetting they could open many more drawers (and find much more useful stuff) in simple RPGs of the 16-bit era. Once the novelty of seeing familiar actions performed in 3D wears off, you are left with paper-thin gameplay taking place in what is actually a small and restricted world. We are only talking about a few streets of a quiet town where you cannot even enter most of the buildings.

Another mystery, for me, was the praise directed at the story and the cinematic direction of Shenmue. At that point I could only ask: what story? Ryo's father was killed, so Ryo meets a couple of Chinese people who help him, earns some money and goes to Hong-Kong. This is, in all seriousness, the summary of all the important events that happen in the game. To get to them you'll have to endure days upon days of aimless wandering and inane dialogues. As for the game's dramatic qualities, they have been vastly exaggerated as well: the cutscenes are impressive only because they demonstrate the power of the game's engine. Otherwise, they are completely unremarkable and further undermined by bad voice acting.

The Bottom Line

Shenmue has lavish visuals and a few nice ideas here and there, but it's hard to understand why it was considered a revolutionary game by some people. It is, at best, a mildly entertaining collection of minigames superimposed on visual splendor without any actual gameplay backbone. The sequel is indeed more dynamic and more fun to play, but I'm not at all surprised the series was discontinued: the second game has already squeezed everything possible out of the nearly empty formula that tried to pass for a breakthrough in game design.