It seems like we've been waiting a lifetime for Yu Suzuki's baby to hit our shores. Shenmue, like so many other Sega titles, promised to push the envelope and break new ground in the adventure game genre, and it does just that. The fully realized town, complete with suburb, residential, shopping and harbor areas, needs to be seen to be believed. The sheer detail is astounding, not to mention the fact that it's all fully populated with pedestrians, vendors and delivery people (you'll even catch a glimpse of Santa as you approach Dec. 25). To add even more life to this virtual world, the sun rises and sets according to the game clock (which is faster than real time, of course) and the weather changes randomly from day to day. During the Christmas season it even snows, coating everything in a blanket of white that makes the landscape look particularly majestic.
So we've established that the presentation is wonderful, but how does it play? The exploration, Quick Time Events (think Dragon's Lair) and free battle (now think watered-down Virtua Fighter) all flow together very well to tell an engaging story that only suffers once at the start of disc three. What really makes this game, though, are all the extra things Ryo can do. Go to the arcade and play Space Harrier or Hang-On. Race a forklift (something you'll do very often), collect toys and cassette tapes, train at the Hazuki dojo, the list of extra things to do in Shenmue goes on and on. And unlike traditional RPGs, you really feel like you're living the life of young Ryo, out to avenge his father's murder. Without even noticing it you become attached to him and his circle of friends, through the most realistic "life simulator" ever released. Was it worth the wait? Definitely. Shenmue pretty much defines a whole new genre, and will leave anyone who manages to finish the game with high expectations for the sequel.
This month, we present a small Shenmue portrait gallery from Yu Suzuki's latest masterpiece. The amount of detail in these close-ups is startling. Each strand of hair, every minute facial whisker has been rendered with much natural finesse. Keep in mind that these compositions are made up of polygons within the Shenmue game engine--in real time. The faded picture of the child (far right center) is the protagonist Ryo at a young age. Shenmue should be out in Japan this winter.
Inigo stood still a moment, panting. Then he made a half turn in the direction of Count Rugen and executed a quick and well-formed bow. "Hello," he said. "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." -- The Princess Bride, William Goldman
While Shenmue is most definitely not the comedic masterpiece by William Goldman, its main character, Ryo Hyabusa, bears some resemblance to Inigo -- each character is driven to exact revenge upon the man who killed his father. Ryo-san's "six-fingered man" is named Lan Di and, while he does not have an extra phalange to speak of, he does bear five fully-articulated ones, complete with fingernails. Lan Di is also the master of an unspecified martial art that greatly surpasses that of Ryo's family practice.
In The Princess Bride Inigo's father was a master swordsmith and upon his death at the hands of Count Rugen, Inigo takes his father's finest sword and masters all forms of swordplay, pining for the day of his revenge. In Shenmue, Ryo eventually claims his own father's sword en route to Lan Di, though he never quenches it with the blood of his enemies. Instead, Ryo chooses to use his meager understanding of his family form, never once considering that the man who defeated his father (a master of their art) barely broke a sweat in doing so.
Shenmue thrusts you into the role of Ryo Hyabusa, shortly after his father's murder. You are hungry for revenge and determined that nothing will stand in your way. All of this fuming has clouded your judgment and left you with a seemingly one-track mind. With your limited mental faculties equipped, you set off on your suicidal journey.
The storyline is reminiscent of any number of classic tales (such as Inigo's plight in The Princess Bride). It has twists and turns, a layer of sub-plot here and there. While interesting as a story (I'd love to read Shenmue as manga or a trade paperback), it is taxing as a game. There is not enough freedom in the plot to explore any possibilities other than the task at hand. This is seemingly due to Ryo's one-track mind complex. For example, one of the tasks in the game is to get to Hong Kong. As soon as you are given this task, anyone and everyone you talk to is always in regard to this subject. Conversation flow is completely scripted in Shenmue; consequently, every conversation you have with any one of the dozens of inhabitants of Dobuita (the main town on the first disc) are always along one of two threads. They either tell you to get lost ("I'm too tired/busy/disinterested now.") or they let you ask them the same question that you've asked everyone else ("Do you know the cheapest way to get to Hong Kong?").
There is one main sub-theme in the game, which is your girlfriend. She seemingly matters so little to Ryo, I have even forgotten her name now. What little evidence of the world "voluntarily" interacting with your character (instead of you having to initiate events and aside from people picking a fight with you) is centered around your relationship with this girl. Occasionally she'll send a friend of hers to bring you to the park (where all of your "emotional" conversations are held). Unfortunately, this attempt at sub-plot development is ruined by Ryo's one-track thinking. Even when she pours her heart out to him time and time again, all he can do is collect her disembogued emotion and hand it back to her, essentially saying "I don't care right now, can we deal with this later when I'm not blinded by hate?"
What's worse is that there is no way for you to steer the conversation to offer comfort or to make Ryo give a rip... you can only sit back and watch the cold-hearted bastard at work. The fact that the faces in Shenmue are detailed enough to convey fairly complex emotional states doesn't help. The girlfriend is constantly on the verge of tears when you talk to her (if she isn't already crying when you get there) and, even though it doesn't phase Ryo, it breaks my heart to see her like that. This all amounts to constant, palpable frustration. You control Ryo's physical body, but you cannot control his mind. I'd trade my role in his life in a heartbeat if I could... I have a feeling the game would feel much more free and be much more fun.
As Ryo, you can walk, run, turn, read, speak, and pretend you're killing people. This is pretty much the extent of your character's range of options. There is the occasional chase scene, mind you... drawing from the lighting-fast reflexes you developed when playing Dragon's Lair and Space Ace. Most of your time is spent running from point A to point B and then talking to someone once you get there.
The interface is simple enough to pick up. Only combat takes some getting used to, but anyone who has spent any time with fighting games will look at the in-game move list and take to it like a tropical fish to the Arctic Sea. Frankly, I was amazed that the same people that brought us the Virtua Fighter series could possibly have created such a terrible fighting experience. Bouts feel slow and clunky, the move timing is strange, despite how simple many of the combinations are, and most of the cooler moves, while great in practice, are way too slow to use in a real-time brawl. Most of the fights boil down to a series of quick punches and kicks; anything with panache gets saved only to polish off staggering opponents... unsatisfying to say the least.
The detail of Shenmue is breathtaking. This the most completely and accurately detailed game I have ever seen, especially on a console. Shenmue bleeds realism. You can quote me on that. I could spend the rest of this section nitpicking at little things, like how Ryo's leather jacket and his shirt all one texture, and how his shirt and his skin are the same polygon, but who am I kidding? The game looks fabulous and plays with very few noticeably dropped frames. I could also spend the rest of this section lauding the insane amounts of detail that are present everywhere you go: Pigeons on the ground that fly away at your approach, to buildings that look old and weathered. Snow on the ground and the roofs of buildings and hanging from the boughs of trees. Megumi, the little girl with a lost kitten in a box. Life-like koi in a pond. Amazing landscaping. Clouds. Rain. Snow. Wind. Beautiful women in business suits. (Larry from the movie The Big Kahuna would love this game). Neon signs. Drunks that come out near dusk and totter about rambling. Stuck-up school girls in uniforms who insult you vehemently. Christmas carols that echo through the streets on December 25th. Santa Clauses too. Motorcycles parked along the side of the road. People on motor scooters and bicycles. Layers of history behind the townsfolk. Secret societies, ancient partnerships. Digital people in a digital town with digital problems... But I won't. 'Nuff said.
The sound effects are convincing and the soundtrack surprisingly did not get old after a few runs through. Oh, sure, it can be comical to mimic it, but it really is a very nice score. It's almost an adventure in itself to see how many different sounds your feet make when walking and running on different surfaces (wood, grass, concrete, gravel, stones, etc.)
The voices sound good, though many of the actors seriously need coaching. A lot of them have that "pull-string" quality... not because they weren't sampled well, far from it, it's just that they have a kind of repetitive feeling, regardless of what they're saying. For example, borrowing from Sheriff Woody in Disney and Pixar's Toy Story, the difference in inflection between "there's a snake in my boot" and "somebody poisoned the water hole" is practically nil -- not a real reaction, just a canned response to every event, with the same emotion (or lack thereof) showing through.
All other aspects of the game's audio are top-notch or close. The score is well executed and doesn't seem terribly repetitive (it didn't drive me batty having to listen to it over and over again, at least). It is fun to mimic it from time to time, it's nothing if not predictable.
In fact, there is only one thing (beyond voice-actor training) I would recommend to the design team as far as audio goes: Make better use of Ryo's walkman. Let the player override the background music score with the music from the walkman. As it is, Ryo may only listen to the walkman as long as he is standing still with the walkman in front of him in the GUI. This makes no sense... a walkman was named so you could walk around while it's playing.
Shenmue is a terrible game held up by an incredible engine. It has a decent story, but leaves much to be desired in the gameplay area as well as overall freedom and flexibility. Graphically, it is an achievement and one that should be lauded highly. The combination of these "qualities" unfortunately only preserves the status quo fashioned by id Software. Like id, Shenmue's team has fashioned an incredible gaming engine, built an amazingly detailed world using it, yet have failed to make a remarkable game.
I hope that other people will use the Shenmue engine to make incredible games. The smartest move that Team Shenmue can make is to market the technology to others. We would never have had such incredible titles as Half Life had id Software decided not to license the Quake engine to third parties. Sadly, the console community does not seem as prone to sharing source as the PC community is, so we may never see a great game evolve around this incredible engine. We can dream though.