Shenmue is a series that’s held in high regard amongst a certain sect of gamers. Is this status deserved? Let’s find out.
I feel like I should preface this review with the fact that I never played Shenmue on the original release. I have no nostalgic feelings towards the series as I never had a Dreamcast or Xbox as a kid. So with all that said, what the fuck is this series?!
So let’s talk about the Story of Shenmue 1 & 2. Shenmue 1 begins with our hero, Ryo, approaching his families dojo. Noticing some damage to a sign, he rushes in to discover his family has (I think?) been beaten down by men in black suits. He eventually reaches the actual dojo, just in time to get caught by said men in black suits. Ryo watches his father fight a man in a pretty sweet green outfit, while the man demands the location of Dragon Mirror. After Ryo’s father gives him what he wants, he is killed. The man revealed to be Lan Di, then makes his escape and creates the catalyst for Shenmue.
While Ryo vows to pursue Lan Di and avenge his father, he meets a fair few characters on the way, that’ll mostly be used to point you in the right direction, or to tell you where people go to drink at night.
Shenmue’s story is a simple one, it’s a story of revenge where you play as an adolescent. It suffers from the trappings that you’d expect from that exact scenario. It’s not the most unique idea in 2018 and I’m not even sure it was that unique in 1999? Who knows, I was only 6. The story premise isn’t really the issue with Shenmue though, as it serves its purpose to give players something to work towards, no matter how archaic it actually is.
Seeing as I alluded to there being issues with Shenmue, shall we just dive in it them? Of course, we will, you have no choice. The biggest gripe I seem to have with Shenmue is the fact that the game is legitimately boring as all fuck. What may have been revolutionary back in the 90’s just proves to be stale as a 4-month-old loaf of bread in the modern era.
Shenmue 1, and to a lesser extent Shenmue 2, suffers from masses of the game having you kinda doing nothing. There’s a huge amount of time where you walk to talk to one person, only for them to give you a vague answer about a second location that causes you to stroll about talking to random NPC’s until you find out what bar you’re meant to go to. Obviously then you either have to wait around for it to open, or you’ve missed the time that you’re actually meant to be there and have to come back another day.
While Shenmue tries to encourage you to enjoy the world while you wait, by allowing you to train or play various other SEGA games that are in an arcade, it’s just not what I actually want to do. The training is literally just you practicing button inputs to boost how much damage you do, which would be fine if you had an opponent, but of course, you’re just punching air most of the time. The arcade is a nice touch, but again, if I wanted to play those old games, I’d boot them up in some shape or form and play them there. It doesn’t help that I don’t have an attachment to them as I never experienced them as a child and I imagine most people coming to the Shenmue series now will have a similar experience to me.
While Shenmue 2 helps alleviate this issue to a certain degree as it actually has a wait feature to stop you from just looking at your phone for way too long, but considering that this “collection” is meant to have improved the games somewhat, I honestly don’t understand why there was no push to just plonk the wait feature into Shenmue 1 as well.
Combat features in both Shenmue titles, but it’s few and far between. Occasionally you’ll get into a fight with some rapscallions and, while the combat is serviceable, it certainly feels more than dated. Interestingly, there’s more than a few combat scenarios that you can just fail with no issue. It’s actually pretty strange that it exists, especially when some fights that feel like they should be failable, especially when you’re getting bounced around by multiple assailants.
Again, while I understand that the Shenmue port is essentially a just the Dreamcast version of the game, it’s still a massive shame they didn’t make almost any attempt to make the game feel more up to date and in the current decade.
Both Shenmue 1 & 2 suffer from some glaring issues too. Obviously, by now you’ve clocked on to the fact that we’re dealing with a straight up Dreamcast port. But how far does that really go? Well, as soon as you load into the game, you’ll notice that the bottom placement that appears in the bottom corner of the screen looks a little odd, right? What about the weird controller that appears in the menus? Yes, it must be the millionth time me saying it, but come on guys, we’re better than this, surely?
The audio is possibly the greatest asset in Shenmue 1 & 2. Definitely a joke, because all the voice acting sounds like hot garbage. Some of it sounds like the voice actors decided to scream their lines into tin cans. There are even occasions where you’ll be able to pinpoint where the audio has been chopped and cut. It’s a weird feeling that acts as a slight look behind the game production curtain, even if it’s not intended to be that way.
Not only is the sound production fairly terrible, the writing in Shenmue 1 & 2 is more than piss poor. Some of the lines are laughable at best and mildly racist at worst. These issues are definitely a product of the time the games were written, but it does strike as a little culturally insensitive in places.
As my points seem to be looping back around to the same thing, once again (and now you can say it with me) it’s such a shame that there wasn’t any improvement on the sound design. Considering the high quality we’re used to now, it makes it stand out probably more than it actually should.
I’d be doing you a disservice if I also didn’t mention the bugs that show I encountered in the PS4 version of Shenmue 1 & 2. I say bugs, but I suppose it was only really one bug, though it’s fairly immersion shattering, to say the least. I managed to run into a cutscene destroying bug when I was about 50% of the way through Shenmue 1. Basically, whenever I entered a cutscene, rather than being treated to the immense cinematography, I’d be treated to a shot of a random wall, the occasional bin or even a glimpse into the unending black void. It was in these moments I really had to fight back the encroaching existential dread that’s essentially taking over my life. Luckily, a reset of the game seems to fix the issue, but like, what the fuck?
Shenmue 1 & 2 are definitely a product of their time. They’ve been eclipsed by almost everything that’s happened in the nearly 20 years since their inception. Are they essentially to understanding the upcoming Shenmue 3? Probably, but we won’t know that until it actually drops. Are they some of the greatest games in the history of the medium? Absolutely not. If you’re interested in the series then I’d highly suggest watching someone who knows what they’re doing with the game. Playing the game serves little to no purpose other than to cause annoyance to its archaic practices. The most shocking fact is the lack of any modern bells and whistles. It’s commendable to release something as close to the original release as possible, but when there are clear improvements to be made, it just seems lazy.