Shenmue 1+2 HD Review – So Flawed yet So Enchanting
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: D3t (porting)
Release: 21st August 2018
Shenmue, only a few series are held as such classics of modern video games like this one. Originally released in 1999 the first Shenmue was a hallmark for both open world and quick time events. Yet, after its Dreamcast release and cult status, it garnered over the years, there was never any re-release or remastered. Same with its sequel. However, now that Shenmue 3 was successfully funded over Kickstarter a few years ago, got a publisher and is aiming for an August 2019 release, Sega thought it´s finally time to grace modern hardware with these classics. Sadly, the PS4, Xbox One and PC versions are merely ports but can they still hold up today?
It all started like many other stories: When Ryo Hazuki comes home one day, he finds his father defeated by a stranger named Lan Di, who´s after a mysterious mirror. However, when he finally gets his hands on the artefact, Ryo has to witness how his own father is killed by this Chinese villain. And so, he swears to himself to find this killer a few days later, as well as unravelling the secrets behind the mirror.
Speaking for both Shenmues, I still am baffled by how good their stories actually are. Ignoring everything except the writing, events and twists of them, the tale around Ryo and his search for his father´s killer and the revelations resulting of it can hold up surprisingly well. While they´re certainly lacking in pacing at some points and can´t quite brush off the sand of time nagging at some rather cliché-y ideas, both games could grip me until the end. From its characters to the actual plot, all of it is simply really well done. It didn´t suffer from the unfocused, unimportant mess the original Shenmue from 2004 wanted to tell or other early quirks of the genre. Instead, we´re offered an overall great, giant mystery with creativity, likeable characters and everything one could wish for even today. It feels like a script that could´ve been written today and no one would bat an eye.
However, as I already hinted at, it´s necessary to forget pretty much everything else, in order to truly appreciate the still good core. The open world in particular, by far the biggest two-sided aspect from a modern view. On the one hand, it´s a world so full of stories, side activities and realism in many ways, that I can´t hate it but almost love it for all the cool things. Ryo´s town from Shenmue 1 still lingers in my mind from time to time, because it´s such a believable, sleepy little town, I never found in any other game.
Unfortunately, everything about the game design itself is deeply flawed otherwise. In exchange for having believable cities with full-blown day and night cycles, people who actually have their own routine and time depending quests and side quests, nothing can be done in a game without forgetting one vital aspect: Pacing. Starting from the main gameplay of having to run through those giant areas as Ryo and ask people about stuff, then be re-directed to another guy who might know more than nothing before having to face the giant wall called time, since another day has already passed.
The whole game practically consists of having to run around, getting answers only leading to more running around and having to backtrack the whole way home since it´s night. On top of all that come the lacking map, overview and way descriptions blocking off any sort of fast progress. Especially when you´re not able to read Japanese, having to stop at every sign and go into every shop hoping it may be the right ramen shop becomes even more annoying. Generally speaking, “annoying” is probably the perfect word for Shenmue´s biggest chunk of gameplay and design. Despite the fact, I love everything about the cities’ design, atmosphere and little stories. Almost nothing here tries to help the player but prioritizes letting him slowly progress, like slug desperately trying to progress and see more of the promising story.
Sure, there´s also the fighting, occasionally popping up to provide some action. Honestly, it´s as clunky as the other controls, sometimes not able to perform precise punches or taking forever to react but it´s not bad. Given, I can´t truly appreciate it since Yakuza provides such a more modern, better system as a brawler. Yet, the hit feedback and overall animations are still quite impressive for 1999 and later. Only the fact you have to train at the dojo to get better, like in everything else in Shenmue, is tiresome for someone not able to have fun with Skyrim´s system.
Instead, the one thing able to impress me the most is the technical side of things. With D3T´s visual improvements, like the removal of flimmering, pixelated edges, low resolution and so on, Shenmue looks far cleaner than with any emulator and it becomes evident how far ahead of its time it was. In all honesty, at no point did the game look awful, instead, it still looks really, really good for a retro title and things like the overhauled skybox help let the whole thing look even better. If only the audio wasn´t so compressed and awful, I would´ve been true, in every regard, be impressed.
I don´t have a ton of fun with Shenmue 1 or 2, they´re practically the same in basic structure and gameplay after all. Even though I´m impressed by its quite amazing story, good writing, atmosphere and still great graphics, nothing about its design can be called “good”. It´s a sluggish, annoying walk through a game, constantly throwing obstacles your way and forcing you to wait or backtrack dozens of times. If that´s your cup of tea, go ahead, if not, preserve Shenmue as the cult series it deserves for everything great about its world.
[A Review Copy was provided by Koch Media]