Shenmue: Chapter 1 Yokosuka
After years of development, unusual press conferences and an estimated $70 million in development costs, the first chapter of Yu Suzuki's epic Shenmue has finally been released to japanese audiences. Set in the sleepy Japanese town of Yokosuka, Chapter 1 delivers a cinematic adventure gaming experience unlike any other and sets the stage for what should be an awesome Chapter 2.
On Nov. 29,1986, Ryo Hatzuki's life changed forever. Witnessing his father's death at the hands of the powerful and mysterious Chinese man, Ryo opts to leave his normal high school life behind to avenge his father. Little does he know that the death of his father is but a small piece of the vast international conspiracy he's about to enter--as he investigates, he discovers an evil chain of command stretching to China, an ancient Chinese legend about the battle between heaven and hell and his father's mysterious identity and past.
Despite previous reports that would indicate otherwise, Shenmue bears nothing in common with the oft-ported, rarely liked Dragon's Lair. While the cryptic japanese-named genre "Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment" probably doesn't say it as well as it should, Shenmue is first and foremost an adventure game. Replete with an excellent story, item puzzles and tons of dialog, Shenmue strays from the typical adventure game by interspersing a number of action scenes into the intriguing story line. Action comes in two distinct flavors: Quick Timer Events and Free Battle.
Quick Timer Events are the controversial action sequences that initiated skepticism of Shenmue's gameplay--key events prompt you to quickly tap a button to protect Ryo in a variety of dangerous and unpredictable situations. While simple to execute, the resulting brawls are action-packed and beautifully choreographed, rewarding players with a cheap visceral thrill. The Free Battle System supplements the shallow-yet-satisfying Quick Timer Events with a more traditional brawler approach. Like Sega's Genesis classic Streets of Rage, Ryo busts heads with a wide range of impressive motion-captured karate moves. While these battles are unfortunately a little short-lived and underrepresented, the Free Battle System is surprisingly deep, and the game provides numerous opportunities to add new moves to Ryo's already formidable arsenal. Ryo can also take time out of his busy schedule to practice his moves in the park, allowing him to strengthen them even further.
But wait, there's more! As if the game itself weren't enough, Sega has piled the game high with some irresistible distractions. Shenmue has a little something for everyone. Ryo can drive a motorcycle or forklift, the latter done as a part-time job to finance Ryo's active toy-buying lifestyle. Yokosuka's lone Game Center offers two classic '80s Sega arcade games designed by Yu Suzuki, Space Harrier and Hang-On. Lucky players can win these games at the local convenience stores for free play on Ryo's anachronistic Saturn. Early in the game Ryo will stumble upon an orphaned kitten. In addition to naming it, it's up to Ryo to feed it and give it plenty of loving attention. Finally, Shenmue features an extensive, Sega-wide "Omake" mode. A vast collection of Sega-themed knickknacks are available in toy vending machines and convenience stores, and don't really do much of anything but showcase Sega's glorious gaming past. To top it off, players can trade these toys with friends online via the included Shenmue Passport disc.
After seeing Shenmue, you'll understand just why it's the most expensive game ever produced. The town of Yokosuka and the surrounding environs are lush, detailed and alive. Every building and object is carefully modelled and textured, with a majority of them providing players with some level of interaction, prompting the game's "Full Reactive" nature. While being able to flip through every drawer in Ryo's house may not sound like fun, exploring and fiddling with Shenmue's completely unnecessary world is entertaining in its own right.
Yokosuka teems with life as beautifully detailed people walk its streets. Would-be stalkers will be happy to know that one can follow many characters around all day and watch them work, buy groceries and end the busy day with a nightcap in one of Yokosuka's many bars--the only details that seem to be missing are Ryo's bathroom breaks and showers.
All of this excellent art is supported by the most impressive 3D engine seen anywhere. Your jaw will drop when you first see Shenmue in motion--still screens cannot prepare you. Despite pushing more polygons than any Dreamcast game to date, the game runs at a steady 60 frames per second, hindered only in the busiest parts of town when large numbers of people inhabit the screen. The environment never pops in, and people and other less-static environmental elements fade in as their models and textures load from the GD-ROM. This can be a little problematic at times--sometimes people will mysteriously appear right in front of Ryo as he runs through the streets, but these are niggling technical points and don't hinder gameplay in the least. To top it off, Shenmue features the most realistic lighting and shadows seen in any game. Each light source not only illuminates the environment but accurately shines on the characters' bodies as well (Rather than brightening up individual polygons on a character's body, most games save processing power by adjusting the color values of the entire model to simulate lighting.). The light sourcing also casts realistic shadows, allowing Ryo to have multiple ones that fade in and out as he runs through Yokosuka's streets at night. These aren't your standard game shadows, either--each one realistically staggers and stretches across multiple surfaces just as in real life.
If you can believe it, Shenmue's sound is just as developed as the graphics and provides an integral component to making the game feel as alive and special as it does. A combination of synthesized and orchestrated music appropriately match Ryo's feelings--terror at the sight of his besieged father, intrigue at the mention of the Chinese Mafia or out-and-out giddiness with Yokosuka's Italian pizzaman, Mario. While the music conveys the mood, the game's excellent sound design conveys the realism of the environment.
Dogs bark in the distance, footsteps pan from one speaker to another as people walk in front of you and every person has a variety of lines to say. Shenmue's voice acting is incredible, to say the least. Every character has a distinct vocal style--Ryo's voice and dialog is grimly determined, while the ever-dancing American Hot Dog vendor speaks a hilarious mixture of English and Japanese.
At the end of the Shenmue Chapter 1, all one can really do is wonder what awaits Ryo in Chapter 2. Sega of Japan has yet to announce a release date, but let's hope that Sega of America can get a head start and narrow the gap between the U.S. releases of the two chapters.
Of course, Shenmue is coming to the U.S. With all of the voice and text to localize, however, Sega of America has their work cut out for them. How they'll localize it remains to be seen.
Adapting a game this rife with Japanese signs, notes and labels will be difficult indeed--hopefully Sega will find an implementation that doesn't force them to retexture them all with English text and, thus, drastically alter the game's exotic feel. To widen the game's audience as much as possible, expect Sega to dub the speech in English rather than subtitle it. If they do as good of a job as they did with Sonic Adventure's speech, American gamers should be in for a real treat. We'll let you know as soon as Sega of America announces a release date for Shenmue.