Title :Shenmue
Platforms :Sega Dreamcast
Publisher :Sega
ESRB Rating :Teen
Game Rating :8.3
Review by :Ken Gagne

For years, advances in game technology have been producing increasingly realistic games. 

Shenmue, a Sega Dreamcast game by Sega, is the first game to utilize not only lifelike graphics, but also a world so real, it's daunting. 

One night in 1986 Tokyo, a powerful martial artist murders the father of Ryo Hazuki, who immediately sets out on a quest for vengeance. Players accompany Ryo from an over-the-shoulder perspective with a free-floating camera, similar to Silent Hill and Dino Crisis for PlayStation. 

Shenmue is realistic. 

Now, go back and read that again. 

Ryo is part of a fully-detailed world. Everything in Shenmue can be manipulated. If you grew up on games like Shadowgate, you'd do well to put away the notion that every item and place has an essential purpose. I wasted the first hour of Shenmue going through Ryo's underwear drawers, closets, kitchen cutlery, and knocking on every door in the neighborhood, desperate to not miss hidden items or essential clues. This level of realism and freedom is unparalleled by any other video game, making Shenmue either incredibly fascinating, or unbelievably dull. 

Dull moments are broken up by Quick Time Events. QTE's call for a quick response to an on-screen button display — similar to the old Dragon's Lair games, but with more noticeable effects. If you fail a QTE, the game still progresses, but with a different storyline. There are also battles, with Ryo having more martial arts moves than many fighting game characters. 

Ryo can train to become familiar with his moves, which is recommended. His general movement also takes getting used to. Ryo moves more realistically than other video game characters, but not always accurately, since Shenmue uses the digital pad. The analog pad moves Ryo's head, with up being up and down being down — just the opposite of what most gamers are used to. 

Ryo's quest to avenge his father's death is a leisurely one. Ryo can do plenty that is not relevant to the storyline. There are toys to collect, kittens to pet, and arcade games to play (including complete versions of Sega classics Hang-On and Space Harrier). 

These side quests can help waste time while waiting for appointments, as many people and places are accessible at only certain hours. Shenmue's world changes as the clock ticks, with old people taking walks in the morning, stores closing in the evening, and bar fights erupting at night. Each day brings its own weather, with people carrying umbrellas or staying home as appropriate. 

The gameplay is often slow, centering on mere information gathering. But even in this area, Shenmue's realistic qualities continue to exhibit themselves, as the quantity of voice acting seems limitless. Every person Ryo meets has a unique voice, with answers to whatever questions he has. Some of the voice acting is worse than the first Resident Evil (that's bad, folks), but on the whole, people speak realistically. 

Though the words coming out of people's mouths may be realistic, their facial expressions aren't always. The detail in a person's face is astounding, so that you can see lights shining in their eyes, and individual strands of hair on their head. But when they talk, their mouths are all that move; the rest of their body is often stock-still, their eyes out of focus. People can fade in from nowhere as Ryo runs down the street. Packages in their hands might suddenly disappear. But when things are properly displayed on the screen, they appear with a level of realistic detail that helps bring Ryo's world to life. Despite the quirks, Shenmue is a beautiful game. 

The soundtrack was designed before Shenmue was, yet works in perfect harmony with it. The dramatic, beautiful music is subtle with a somewhat Asian sound to it. 

Shenmue is comprised of four discs, with one being a "Passport" disc to connect to the Internet. Online, players may get clues, weather forecasts, exchange items for prizes, or upload and rank their best scores in the many mini-games. 

It's difficult to describe a game like Shenmue. It is realistic, but not cinematic. Fast and frequent action, depth of characterization, and interesting dialogue are qualities owned by games like Metal Gear Solid, not Shenmue. But for depth of gameplay and environment, Shenmue is a stunning title that deserves exploration. 

This article is copyright (c) 2000, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 20-Nov-00