Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Note: This review is based on a playthrough of Shenmue only. Whilst Shenmue 2 was given a cursory inspection, these games are substantive even by today's standards and I didn't get the review copy in time to do a full playthrough of both titles. Look for our Shenmue 2 review in the coming days.
I never owned a Dreamcast in its heyday. The Dreamcast to me was some fabled console a friend of a friend from school might own (or in fact my own cousins) with blistering, cutting-edge graphics that put all other consoles to shame. That was of course until it turned out to be another misstep on Sega's road to flunking out of the console market altogether. No, I never owned a Dreamcast “back in the day”, but I did get my hands on a beaten up 3rd hand one around 2006, one that was so close to just giving out on me that I literally had to pop it open and spin the disc up to speed to get it going. But whilst the Dreamcast itself proved to be a temperamental machine, the one and only Dreamcast game I had blew me away. It was none other than Crazy Taxi. I joke. It was of course Shenmue. And I loved it. So much in fact that I ended up nabbing myself a copy of Shenmue 2 on Xbox, which presented its own issues when playing the next chapter in this franchise, which I'll get to a bit later. But such was the lasting impression these games left on me, that when Shenmue 3 was announced (I mean properly, officially, finally announced) I immediately chipped in my hard-earned cash to the Kickstarter to get my hands on a PS4 code. And with the announcement of the re-release of Shenmue 1 & 2, my excitement only deepened and I knew it was a great time to dive into this franchise I had loved so intensely so many years ago, but for one reason or another (mainly because that old Dreamcast completely died on me) had never played since. As such, much like the HD re-release of Okami, I remembered it in the broadest of strokes, the details having faded with time to become surprises all over again.
Originally released in 1999, but set in the winter of 1986, Shenmue tells the tale of 18 year old Ryo Hazuki who on his birthday no less, witnesses his father's murder at the hands of a Chinese assassin named Lan Di. Forgoing his studies, Ryo sets out to avenge his father, much to the consternation of his live-in housekeeper and caretaker, the ever suffering Ine-San (so far so Batman). What follows is a cross between a neo-noir detective story with a high school aesthetic (think Brick), an “open world” action game (as much as Shenmue could be considered that in 1999), wrapped up in a coming of age story steeped in nostalgia, hints of Eastern mysticism with dashes of virtual pet care and the ever-ridiculous hunt for sailors. If that sounds like a weird mix then you're not wrong. If you're nodding your head saying “that sounds about right” then well, you've played Shenmue.
Yu Suzuki's genre defining-yet-simultaneously-bending game boasted a system, nay a design philosophy that allowed players a chance to fully interact with the world around them. You wanted to blow off the main story to listen to music? You could spend your allowance on cassette tapes and jam out to them to in your room. You wanted to focus on continuing your martial arts training in your late father's dojo? You could. You wanted to play arcade games? You could.
Shenmue's arcade, featuring not only quick time event games that helped train you in some of the core mechanics that would help you through the action but also with a couple of classic Sega titles like Space Harrier and Hang On that when you spent your 100 Yen to play, booted up a full copy of said game for you to enjoy. Oh and the pet care? A kitten, orphaned on the same day Ryo was, that if you choose to, you can feed and pet back to health, even naming it in the process. As such it's very easy to get side tracked and, I'll wager that no two playthroughs of Shenmue are exactly the same, even if the narrative is fairly linear.
The bulk of the game sees Ryo following leads to track down his father's killer, which usually involves him asking literally everyone he speaks to about the topic at hand until he gets his answer. The hitherto mention of sailors is from one of the games most joked about moments, as babyfaced Ryo, completely straight-faced, stalks the alleys and bars at night, firmly alerting people that he's looking for some sailors, that being the latest lead on his quest for vengeance. Perhaps it comes across differently in its native Japanese? Again though, there's no one way to definitively progress through the game. One might accidentally stumble on a location or character, or one might deduce exactly who they need to speak to in order to get the info they desire. One time, a character I had come to depend on as a decent source on the movers and shakers about town, turned out to live right below a location I needed to find. I only found it because I saw the guy heading into his apartment at the end of the day as I toured the bars in the more sleazy part of town.
Time you see, also plays a huge roll in Shenmue. The calendar within the game is historically accurate to the dates back in 1986 and with approximately each hour of gameplay, an in-game day passes. Characters in the world live their lives, opening their businesses, do their shopping, only to head home or indeed to a bar at the end of the day. Whilst you can take your time and not rush the game, you're given the cryptic advice that by the time the cherry tree blossoms you should have completed this part of Ryo's journey. In other words, about 4 in-game months from when the game starts proper. Weather changes from day to day, with a weather forecast being available by ringing a weather hotline (it is 1986 after all), with the world around you subtly changing as you see the season change from winter to spring. The characters react differently too, throughout the day sure, but also to the weather and other events. Be in the right place at the right time and you'll trigger a cutscene and a sort of side quest. It could be as simple as buying a broke guy a can of soda, to helping an old lady to a friend's house. I'm ashamed to say that I forget about the old lady and left her in the park. She wasn't there the next day and I was never given the opportunity to help her again. In truth, there's so much going on in Shenmue that I'm not sure you'll be able to see it all in a single playthrough, at least if you're not some Shenmue master at this point. The journal Ryo uses to keep track of events may well end up with several blank pages as you miss out on certain side missions and plot points in your pursuit of Lan Di. And that's OK. Shenmue almost demands you play it more than once, to feel out the world it has created, so it's easy enough to dive back in and try it a little differently.
Every now and then Ryo runs into some character that might not want him getting involved in their business, whether it be school bullies, the aforementioned sailors or indeed criminal hitmen. These moments are met with either a quick time event that showcases Ryo's incredible reflexes (resetting fairly swiftly if you fail them) or switching into full on beat-em up style combat, where Ryo can unleashe the moves he's already learnt at the start of the game or utilise new moves he picks up along the way. The combat is impressive, especially as it is essentially a side mechanic. Fights however aren't all that common. At its heart, Shenmue is a detective story, so a few choice words, a favour here, a special item there, will usually get you much further than a fist.
Now, the state of this re-release is a thing to behold. From the incredible late 90s menu, Shenmue is a mater-class in visually bringing a classic back to life. The graphics of Shenmue, cutting edge at the time are of course dated now, but still hold up well with that standard issue HD remaster treatment, and loading times between areas are reduced from about 15-20 seconds to 2. It's the sound that seems to let it down. The second a character opens their mouth to speak, you'll realise that Sega must be using the old voice recordings from way back when, with little to no polish on them. I understand and even admire the desire to preserve the game as close to its original release as possible, resisting the idea of recording new dialogue, but with the crisp, if somewhat retro visuals, it can be quite jarring to hear this slightly fuzzy dialogue, as if you're watching a poorly dubbed VHS. In Shenmue's defence, you get used to it quickly and if given the choice to use the original audio or re-record, I stand firmly on preserving the original voice acting. It won't ruin the experience, it's just something that stands out and maybe needs to be addressed. The other only major negative are the controls, which are still somewhat – a word I kept using to describe them – janky. You'll probably find yourself running Ryo into more than a few corners only to have to walk him back out, all the while wondering how the hell we ever played games like this. Just like the PS4 remake of Shadow of the Colossus, the retro controls are obvious but certainly not game breaking.
Without going into story spoiler territory, you can probably tell that Ryo's story continues beyond Shenmue given the fact that this release bundles it with the sequel. Whilst I've yet to dive into that game just yet, I have fired it up and can confirm that it appears to be a re-release of the same calibre as this one, a decent effort well worth your time. You can play Shemue 2 cold if you choose, but as Suzuki-san almost certainly intended, by loading up your completed Shemue game save data in Shenmue 2, you can carry over your progress, collectables and even money into the next chapter of the story, making it into one near-seamless adventure. This was something I wasn't able to do back when I played Shemue 2 on a completely different format, making this is a feature I am very excited to use this time round. I didn't spend all that Yen on Gachpon Capsule toys just to leave them behind in pursuit of my father's murderer.
With this re-release I am very excited to see Shemue presented to both a new generation who may never have played it before and us gamers who remember it from all those years ago. I may not have been an OG Shenmue fan, but I didn't back the third instalment for nothing. Once I've got their worth from these games, and frankly I feel £30 for both these titles is more than fair, I can't wait to finally play next chapter in Ryo's story.