When it comes to talking about one of the most influential games for the modern gaming landscape, Shenmue deserves a mention. It has left a legacy that has since inspired many of the open world design in current generation games although taken as a whole, Shenmue has not aged that well mostly due to the nature of its controls and progression system that is completely different from most modern games.
In the current era of holding hands of the player to lead them to the next objective, Shenmue demands you to pay attention to the content on the screen and then use the knowledge to your advantage to progress further in the story. It is something that might not sit well with those who get used to having maps and objective markers telling them what to do and where to go, and it certainly doesn’t help that behind all this classic and well-crafted design is a gameplay system that feels archaic now. The major culprit of this is the first Shenmue game which is simply hard to control now.
The story of Shenmue is a long tale full of revenge, betrayal, and love, and simply reading a short synopsis of it was never going to do it justice. This is why I was glad to see Sega deciding to bring the first 2 games in the series to the current generation platforms ahead of the hotly anticipated Shenmue 3, which continues the story from these 2 games. As someone who has yet to experience the series, Shenmue was always a curious choice for me because the most well-known fact for it was that the game was at one point, the most expensive game ever in development. It was also considered the most ambitious game of its time and this shows even now.
Shenmue offers a world with plenty of possibilities however the technical limitations at that time meant that to fully realize this world in all of its detail, Sega had to compromise with the gameplay. This resulted in lengthy load times that could have easily broken the flow of the game, and considering how many times I had to go from one area to the next and end up with a load screen, it sounds like a nightmare. This is perhaps the most important improvement in this collection because the load times are now almost instant. Eliminating the load times greatly improves the flow of the game and helps with the slow pacing of the story.
The controls will take some time to get used to since they are rather dated. The first Shenmue is the biggest offender and it results in a frustrating experience because you have to talk to a lot of people in the game and the way Ryo controls makes it hard to do even the most simple tasks. Adding to this is the combat system which lacks strategy and feels more like button mashing at times. There will be plenty of quick-time events as well but I find them fun for the most part. I think they integrate well into the gameplay hence why they don’t feel like tacked on like most other games.
The story is the highlight for Shenmue but there are so many hurdles in place to enjoy it fully. Sometime you will have to patiently wait for time to pass just to progress through a story sequence, and there is no way to do it easily in the first Shenmue aside from waiting manually. Thankfully this was a major quality of life change that was present in the sequel. There is a lot of importance placed on realism in the game and this is clear with the watch that you can use to keep track of time. There is a lot of effort done to make the locations in Shenmue feel real and full of people however it can also result in a plenty of confusion when the game doesn’t make it clear what you have to do next.
Ryo will keep a notebook to keep track of every conversation or hints that he makes in the game and it is basically your way to find out your goals. There is no map in the game that will guide you where to go next, and instead, you have to talk to others to get new information from them. A lot of the dialogue will get reused so be ready to hear plenty of repeated phrases as you attempt to figure out where to go next. You will also do odd jobs around the town to help get some money that will also be a need for some story missions. I had a love and hate relationship with this design but knowing the original release of the game, I have to admire how the developers were able to pull so much together in the game in the first place.
Visually speaking, this is the most obvious change that has not worked out well for the remaster. I often feel that a proper remake would have done so much justice to the game, but that would have taken a lot of resources. As a straightforward remaster, it seems to look fine but nothing exciting. The problematic nature of the controls is the bigger hurdle than the dated visuals. The other issue is the lack of consistency between the aspect ratio which jumps from widescreen to 4:3 ratio in cutscenes resulting in an abrupt transition with black bars on all corners of the screen.
The most troubling part of this port is that it suffers from some game breaking bugs. Randomly throughout the game, I experienced annoying bugs like one where the game suddenly puts me in first person mode. The game is mostly shown in the third person perspective but camera view can change during certain segments like when you are following someone to another place. This was a rather annoying bug and can also potentially make you lose progress. There are also issues with the audio implementation where the sound gets broken or keeps looping in certain areas. This was rather disappointing to see for a port of such an old classic and I hope it gets patched with a future update.
Shenmue 1 & 2 Review (PS4)
Game Reviewed on: PS4
Game description: SEGA®’s most requested re-release of all time finally comes to a new generation. Shenmue delivers an epic story of revenge within a unique open world that is still unrivalled in depth and detail. Return to the epic saga that defined modern gaming. The saga begins…again.
As a series that has a huge legacy and influenced many games since its release, Shenmue hasn't managed to age that well. The awkward control scheme takes some time to get used to, and there are some unfortunate bugs that seem to hit hard enough to ruin the experience, but the story still has a lot of heart and charm to make you care enough to finish it.