Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment (FREE) - this is how Yu Suzuki has classified his first console game, Shenmue. Though derided by many as strange and overly ambitious, it becomes clear upon playing that placing Shenmue in a genre all its own is a valid idea. For better or worse, Shenmue is indeed unlike any other game in existence.

    Most games rely on gameplay, graphics, or storyline, but Shenmue relies on something totally different: realism and interaction. You don't simply play Shenmue; instead, as tired as the phrase may be, you live it. You'll find yourself exploring Shenmue's world at length not because you want to advance the storyline, but because it is simply enjoyable. You'll chat with the characters that you grow fond of, sometimes about nothing more than the weather or how business has been. You'll take the time to stroll down the main street of the town of Dobuita, watching the people on their way to their jobs or trying to sell their wares and listening the noise of the town filtering in and out of hearing range. Suzuki has provided players with an atmosphere that is ever-changing and immersive, and that is where the enjoyment of Shenmue lies.

    There are many ways that Shenmue conveys this atmosphere, and nearly all of them succeed greatly. Graphically, the game is without match. Developer AM2 has created extremely detailed textures, from the fine creases in the face of an elderly man to the dirt and grime on the side of a worn-down building. Likewise, the locations in the game are filled with items, including many that can be picked up and examined. Between these details and the overall epic feel of the presentation, it is hard not to lose yourself in the world that has been laid before you.

  I know kung-fu.
Ryo shows that he is tougher than he looks

    Another wonderful touch is the voice acting, both in quality and quantity. Every line that is spoken by a character is just that - spoken. Sega has filled Shenmue's 3 GD-ROMs with lines upon lines of spoken dialogue, even down to the nameless schoolgirls sitting on the curb skipping class. For the most part, the voice acting is also top-notch. While some of the minor, nameless characters re-use lines and voices or sound like the actors have been randomly pulled off the street, all of the named characters have their own unique voices, each of which fits their personality well. These voices are used to present dialogue which actually changes to fit the current happenings in the story. Gone is the static dialogue that is present in many games; Shenmue is precise enough that shopkeepers will complain about a lack of customers due to the poor weather that has been occurring lately.

   While Shenmue does possess a remarkable sense of atmosphere, all is not perfect in this "gift to the children of the 21st century." With all of the detail that has been paid to surroundings, story has largely been pushed aside. Shenmue has a great story hook, as the opening moments of the game show the main character, a boy named Ryo Hazuki, watching his father get murdered by a mysterious man with a unique martial art style who is known only as Lan Di. From there, Ryo plunges into an investigation that takes him into corners of the city that he never knew existed, dealing with everyone from the local punks to the Chinese Mafia. Unfortunately, thanks to the multi-chapter approach that Shenmue takes, the story doesn't offer any sort of resolution whatsoever. Though this chapter wraps up nicely, it remains just a single chapter in a longer work. To boot, thanks to the multitude of distractions in the game, players will likely come upon the realization that a good three-fourths of your time is spent doing little to actually advance the plot. These aspects leave the player with a bad taste in his mouth, especially when you consider how much time Ryo ends up more or less wasting by playing mini-games or simply waiting for events to occur.

Oh baby, it hurts so good.
Doing a bit of arm-twisting to find out the truth.

    Luckily, certain measures have been taken to help the player feel involved in what story is presented. Though criticized early on for its lineararity, the Quick Timer Events (QTEs) are incorporated very well into the various cutscenes that they occur in and require the player to stay on their toes. Some of the game's shadier characters would rather pull a knife on Ryo than tell him the information that he is seeking regarding his father's murder, and while a situation like this would probably be a non-interactive cinema in another game, the player takes a part here in helping decide the outcome. Likewise, the Free Battles occur when the story requires them, much differently than the random encounters that have become the norm in adventure games and RPGs. While neither system is perfect (the Free Battle in particular plays rather stiffly), they are a welcome step away from the norm.

    Of course, there are more traditional aspects that must be taken into consideration when looking at Shenmue, and the most glaring is the control system. An adaptation of the infamous Resident Evil control scheme, Shenmue is one of the most infuriating games in recent memory to control. Pressing left and right while standing still results in a full 90 degree turn, which makes it hard to line Ryo up with objects. Players should not have to take three or four minutes to navigate Ryo through an open door. While the Look ability does allow Ryo to focus on objects of importance, the clunky interaction between some things (like the aforementioned open doors) ends up souring the entire play experience.

A very accurate protrayal of Japanese schoolgirls
From the mouths of babes...

    Another deterrant to the game is the extreme amount of Japanese that is still present in the game. While Shenmue does take place in Japan, a large amount of Japanese signs have been left in their native language rather than localized with the rest of the game. Though Ryo will read some of the signs if you focus on them, some of them he will leave the player to merely guess at their meanings. Likewise, sometimes the translation will be slightly off, resulting in the player being unsure what location is being discussed. Also remaining in the English version are various Japanese formalities such as the use of '-san' and '-sama' at the end of peoples' names. A few players will understand these and the difference between them, but most won't. While these signs and phrases do add to the game's realism, in addition to providing a nice look into Japanese society, they do act as a significant hurdle for people who either can't read Japanese or don't care as much about general Japanese culture.

    A factor that can't be overlooked, but does little for the game in the end, is the well put-together Shenmue Passport disc. A collection of multimedia files and information, the Shenmue Passport lets you see into the world of the game even more, as well as letting you relive some of the most memorable moments. The online aspects are welcome as well, with Hazuki giving you hints when you are stuck in the game, and offering online trading of the various in-game collections. Though a nice bonus, it ends up being just that, and nothing more.

   In the end, Shenmue is a beautiful and well put-together game, though one that cannot be looked at like a traditional adventure or RPG. While Shenmue does have RPG, adventure, and fighting elements that are used to various degrees of success, what Suzuki really set out to do was to create an immersive world, one that was fully developed and extremely interactive. On this level, he succeeded incredibly.

Review by J.T.Kauffman, GIA
Developer AM2
Publisher Sega
Genre FREE
Medium GD-ROM
Platform Sega Dreamcast
Release Date  12.23.99
Sega announces Shenmue: The Movie
352 disc 1 screenshots
6 character renders
North American box art