Review: Shenmue I & II

This is it! My review for Shenmue I & II is finally here! This also marks the last game in my “final four” list. After this review, I will be taking a short break from my “generational-backlog grind” and I’ll be focusing on a couple of fun projects. But for now, let me share my thoughts on this long-awaited collection.

For many, the Shenmue games are often considered to be two of the greatest video games ever made. I have long been aware of the legendary status they hold. But personally, I never had the chance to experience them until now. Both games were originally released on the Sega Dreamcast, a system often considered to be ahead of its time – but one that never seemed to break into the mainstream. For this reason, very few gamers actually got the pleasure of experiencing these titles the first time around. Regardless, Shenmue’s legacy refused to die. Finally, in 2015, a Kickstarter campaign was announced to fund the release of the third installment. The Kickstarter was a smashing success. As a result, the original two games have finally seen a re-release.

These are two games that I’ve wanted to get my hands on for over a decade. Now, having played and completed both entries, I’m excited to finally share my thoughts. Despite being two separate titles, I am reviewing both games together as a single collection. As a result, some parts of this review may contain mild spoilers. Be aware.

So, let’s start with the first game. Aside from taking place in 1980’s Japan, and being somewhat of an open-world title, I really didn’t know what to expect from Shenmue. I think a part of me was expecting some sort of martial arts beat-em-up/RPG hybrid. But that’s not all what I found. Instead, Shenmue ended up being more of an interactive story than anything else. Sure, there are some brief combat and action sequences – a number of which consist of brief QTE-style events. But for the most part, the game is very casual. The main character in Shenmue is Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man who is on a quest for revenge. Early in the game, Ryo witnesses the death of his father at the hand of a mysterious Chinese martial artist. He decides to do everything in his power to learn the identity of his father’s killer and hunt him down.

The game itself consists of open world exploration, as Ryo hunts for clues. He starts by questioning locals about the events of the day his father was killed. With each clue that is uncovered, a trail of breadcrumbs begins to appear that Ryo must follow further down the rabbit hole. His quest takes him from the streets of his local neighborhood into the secret bowels of the Japanese black market underworld.

While there are certainly some action sequences in Shenmue, I was surprised to learn it is more of a detective game than a fighting game. The majority of the gameplay is actually spent talking to NPCs and exploring than engaging in combat. Time passes as you hunt for clues. Ryo only has a few months to piece the mystery together before too much time has passed. That being said, the games gives you more than enough time to explore till you heart’s content. Part of the fun of Shenmue lies in environmental exploration/interaction. Ryo can visit stores and purchase various goods like groceries, toys and cassette tapes. The tapes contain musical numbers from the game’s soundtrack and can be played back on a cassette player Ryo finds in his bedroom. The toys are collectible items  that are obtained at random from gacha-style capsule machines. Ryo can even visit the local arcade which allows the player to experience some of Sega’s classic arcade games first-hand. To be honest, a lot of the game’s content is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. But… that’s part of the charm.

As a consequence of the game’s open nature, some parts of the story do seem to drag on occasionally. For example, anyone who’s really sat down to play Shenmue, will likely roll their eyes at the mention of the phrase, “Do you know where any sailors hang out?”. This is a reference to a seemingly endless storyline thread early in the title. Was it annoying? A little. But that didn’t bug me as much as the portion of the game in which Ryo has to work a nine-to-five  job at the local shipyard. Which of course, requires the player’s interaction. I don’t know about you… but if I wanted to play “Forklift Simulator”, I’d have bought that game instead. Despite these minor annoyances, I completely enchanted with the overall game itself.

Eventually, the first game comes to an end when Ryo departs Japan, headed for Hong-Kong.

Shenmue II was originally released in 2001, two years after the first game. But it picks up right where the first title left off. In fact, you can import data from the save file of the original game into this one. This is a feature not often seen with console titles, but one that I found to be very welcome. A year after its original release, it was ported to the Xbox. The Xbox version of the game is the source for this remaster.

In Shenmue II, Ryo’s search for his father’s killer has led him to Hong Kong. It is there that he must continue his hunt for clues. His journey will take him deeper into the criminal underworld. But not all of his interactions in Hong Kong are bad. During the story, Ryo will also make some new friends. I found the characters in this game to be much more interesting than those in the original title. Often times in the original Shenmue, interactions with NPCs often felt forced or unimportant. Sure there are a few exceptions. But for the most part, none of the NPCs really left an impression on me. That’s not the case at all in the sequel. The new characters are much more colorful. In fact, they often steal the show.

In many ways, Shenmue II is very similar to its predecessor. It’s also is largely an open-world, breadcrumb style game. However, the number of mini-games and interactive side-quests has increased. As players explore the streets of Hong Kong, Ryo can participate in street fighting and wrestling tournaments. He can also try his hand at a number of street-side gambling games. Of course, capsule toys make a comeback as well.

Shenmue II also ups the action a bit. There’s more combat and button-mashing QTE events in this title than were found in the original game. There’s also much more to explore. Players wanting to get the most out of the experience would do well to take their time and explore. There’s quite a few miss-able scenes and even characters tucked away in this game for those willing to dig deep.

Eventually, the setting for this game moves from the city of Hong Kong and further into mainland China, to an area known as Guilin.  The last portion of the game takes place in this locale and, despite being almost twenty years old, it features some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen in a video game.

I’m not going to give anything away, but the story for Shenmue II ends with a massive cliff hanger. It’s going to kill me to wait a whole year to see the next chapter in this title, so I can’t imagine how bad it must have felt for original fans of the series.

Shenmue I and II is a great collection for a great price. Many aspects of these games were very much ahead of their time, while others have not aged well at all. Many people call this release a “remaster”. That isn’t exactly true. This package contains both games, presented in an HD format, but aside from being presented in an updated resolution and with a few QOL improvements, they are largely untouched from their original versions. I had a ball with these games, and I can’t wait for the next installment. But, I can also see how these are not going be games that will appeal to just anyone. Still, if you fancy yourself to be a gaming historian, you won’t want to miss out on these classic titles.

Difficulty: Easy – For the most part, these games provide little real challenge. They are played at a very casual pace with only a few tricky QTE-style events to pose any real difficulty. But even these events can be retried as many times as needed.

Story: This is why you want to play Shenmue. The tale told here is out of this world. Each game feels like an episode in a serial, and the storyline rivals any classic RPG you might come across. What starts out feeling like a crime drama, eventually ends up feeling much more epic and mysterious in the end.

Originality: While open-world style games were really nothing unheard of, Shenmue brought the genre to the console in a big way. The way it integrated mini-games into an explore-able environment was a radical change of pace. Another aspect of the game that really broke new ground was the way that it took real world locations and translated them into an open-world video game. Locales found in both games are real places. Dobuita Street in Yokosuka Japan, the walled-city of Kowloon – all of them were locations that were special to creator of Shenmue. In some ways, these games feel like a love letter he composed as a way to share his passion for certain places that were special to him.

Soundtrack: Overall, both games feature a varied and wonderful soundtrack. I have to give higher marks to Shenmue II when it comes to both music and overall audio quality. But admittedly, the voice acting in both games tends to be a bit sketchy at times. In fact, it ends up sounding a lot like an old Kung Fu movie. Which, in a weird way, is oddly appropriate.

Fun: Fans of open exploration and Asian-themed games will love Shenmue I & II. Players who prefer more structured or action-oriented games may be a bit put off.  Personally, I found the games to be relaxing and entertaining.  Despite being a bit surprised by the gameplay itself, I found myself having a blast with these two games.

Graphics: These games were released in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Despite being presented in an HD format, they show their age, but they do so pretty gracefully. At the time of release, they were both top-of-the line visually.

Playcontrol: This is probably my biggest complaint. Both games can be a bit hard to control at times. Ryo moves in a directional “tank-style” way – very similar to the classic Resident Evil games. Thankfully, this scheme takes place during the exploration portions of the game only. The QTE events in both games seem to be a bit touchy and unforgiving, and are often not very clear. Thankfully, the controls in combat are much more intuitive and function a lot like a beat-em-up style game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Martial arts violence, mild language.

Value:  This collection is available for $30.00 and at that price is well worth it. I’m surprised to see bargain pricing for a set of games with a legacy as renown as Shenmue. So, even if you’re on the fence, the prices makes it worth checking out. The only thing that’s missing from this collection is the proper presentation “Shenmue Passport” content – which was online content exclusive to the Sega Dreamcast. However, these were really nothing more than some scoreboards and an online jukebox. The titlescreen for Shenmue II in this collection features almost the game content.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Shenmue I & II are not perfect games. But the quality of the storyline combined with the amount of content and the attention to detail gives this collection a four-star rating. If I had to pick a favorite of the two, I’d go with Shenmue II as the better of the two games. That being said, the first game provides a lot of atmosphere and an overall “comfy” feeling. So it’s hard to say the second is really “better”.  Again, if you’re a fan of Asian culture, or games with great storytelling, this collection is a must-have.

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Steam