Reviewed: 11/16/2003


This Dreamcast-exclusive title is one of the games that really puts a feather in the machine’s cap. Upon Release, Shenmue became one of (if not THE) most realistic games ever created. The plot uses a bit of fantasy, but hey, a game exactly like real life would get boring kinda fast, wouldn’t it? Anyway, such a fresh approach turned out to be quite impressive, indeed.

Shenmue relays the story of Ryo Hazuki and his quest to avenge his father’s murder in 1985 Japan. The poor lad had to helplessly witness his father be beaten by a deadly martial arts master named Lan Di, and has since sworn vengence. The player takes on the task of finding the killer by taking Ryo all over his huge, greatly detailed world.

That in mind, the larger portion of the game (especially early on) is spent searching for information. This entails much travel all around the local towns trying to find certain people, places, and clues, and talking whatever people necessary to set you on a path to story progression.

Now, just reading this, it might not sound like anything remotely close to fun. However, with the controller in hand, the world of Shenmue has the power to completely absorb the player. The said world, previously described as “huge” and “greatly detailed,” is a living breathing Japanese suburb with countless NPC’s going about their daily business. The realism in this environment gives the player a world they can relate to, which helps immerse those who play the game. That immmersion makes the story all the more personal, and as the game goes on, players will find themselves more and more enveloped in Ryo’s world.

There is more to this game than simply walking around talking to people. Shenmue is peppered with two kinds of action scenes. The first is called “Quick Time Event.” These are cinematic situations that can be changed while taking place, depending on your reflexes. For example, if a story scene involving a bar fight begins with a man behind Ryo swinging a chair at him, hitting whatever button briefly flashes on the screen will cause him to duck, then strike his attacker; at the same time, poor timing will result in Ryo being hit with the chair. Too many failures in one scene will lead to Ryo biting the dust, and the scene starting over.

The second type of faster-paced action in Shenmue is the Free Battle. Much like the game Fighting Force, the mode is a free-roaming beat ’em up affair. Certain combinations or sequnces of buttons will perform real-to-life martial arts moves in style similar to fighting games. Getting your trash kicked in these events will cause their respective scenes to start over. The fighting is pretty fun, but what hurts is that there’s not enough of it, especially in the earlier parts of the game.

High Detail.

The game’s graphics were easily the best around when the game was first released, and are still among cream of the crop in that department. The attention to detail is nearly unrivaled. The downfall of this, of course, is some ocassionally long load times and loud, loud laboring on the part of the console.

The sound is of similar quality. The sound effects are plenty solid, but the music totally steals the show. Shenmue‘s soundtrack is as praiseworthy as almost any other on the market, and any game music collector should have this soundtrack.

Shenmue‘s biggest downfall would have to be the inconclusive ending. Now, I’m all for endings hinting at sequels and the like, but the intesnsity built up by 30 hours searching every street, shop, and house in the city for information while fighting off hoards of gangsters just doesn’t fit well with this game’s ending, and it leaves a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth.

In conclusion, Shenmue is a very memorable game which may move slowly at times and not pack much of an ending, but flaws like that just end up fading into the shadows of its wonderful qualities. One would be justified in buying a Dreamcast just for Shenmue.

-Heath Hindman

Score Breakdown
Out of 10
See our Review Criteria
Gameplay Great
Story Great
Graphics Legendary
Sound/Music Excellent
Replay Value Good
The Verdict: Great