Where to begin? Shenmue (Giant Bomb|Wikipedia) is widely regarded as the swan song of Sega console exclusives – the last great Sega game released only for Sega hardware. To this day, it is attributed with creating several innovations that are now standard in the industry such as open world city environments and quick time events. Created by Sega’s AM2 and Yu Suzuki, creators of such classics as Hang-On, Out Run, Space Harrier, After Burner, and too many more to list it was clear Sega put their best team on this project. Because of the pedigree of the development team and the ambition of the project – and make no mistake, Shenmue is ambitious if nothing else – the levels of anticipation for this game were insane. On release, Shenmue received generally favorable reviews – sure there were some issues, but critics agreed: if you had a Dreamcast, you needed to own this game. Despite all of this, Shenmue did not sell well and its sequel was never even released in the US on the Dreamcast – it was only officially released in Japan and Europe. To this day, it is adored by Sega diehards and I dare anyone reading this to find an article listing the best Dreamcast games that doesn’t have Shenmue on it.
All that said, my anticipation for this was high. I grew up as a Sega kid, but never owned a Dreamcast. I actually thought about not writing quick impressions of it, instead I was going to play through it entirely and write a proper review, but after spending some time with it I felt that this would be a good fit.
Shenmue is an adventure game – it opens with you witnessing your father’s death at the hands of a mysterious man. The goal of the game is simple: to find your father’s killer and get revenge. During gameplay, you can interact with most things in the environment – from lamps on desks to drawers in a dresser. I was honestly a bit surprised by the amount of interactivity, as most modern games don’t allow the freedom of interaction that Shenmue does. The presentation of the story and world is very cinematic – it honestly feels very much like you’re playing a movie. I know from other impressions online that there is a combat system, but in my time with the game I didn’t encounter any of it. Throughout my time with the game, I was able to wander the local city and interact with fellow citizens and various items in the world. The world feels fairly alive, and people go about their business as if they really exist. The only downfall here is that the whole city is available, but you need to load in areas of it as you traverse. I can see this adding up to a lot of time loading if you play all the way through.
Visuals are a strong point for Shenmue and it’s one of the best looking Dreamcast games I’ve seen – second only to maybe Soul Caliber. Animations are fairly good for the time with facial animations in particular looking very sharp. I will admit that some faces are more detailed than others, with main characters having the best looking of the bunch. This is most likely because of a budget and time restriction as the game was very delayed and extremely over budget at its release. The developers attempted to do a kind of motion blur during some action sequences and it looks – well, bad. I appreciate what they were trying to do, but I feel that it would have been better if they left it out.
Sound is a mixed bag here. Music is excellent – I can see myself listening to the soundtrack sometime in the future. It fits the atmosphere of the game perfectly, and I don’t think they could have done a better job. Unfortunately, some other parts of the game do not sound as great. Sound effects have a compressed sound to them, which is very distracting. Voice work is also a let down, with some frankly terrible voice acting combined with strange compression artifacts. I also noticed that in one of the earlier scenes, the lines of dialog for the main character sounded like they were recorded on two different recording setups – very disappointing to say the least.
Overall, I didn’t play enough of Shenmue to get a real complete feel for the game – it seems like this is a slow burn and will take at least five or six hours to get into it. I’m very impressed with how many technical tricks AM2 was able to pull to get this looking as good as it does. While there are some issues with the game, I think I’ll be diving deeper into it in the future.
Verdict: Play again. I need to spend more than an hour or two with this one to really come up with a final verdict.
Images courtesy of Giant Bomb