If you could hear beyond my screams of elation, the announcement of Shenmue I & II for PlayStation 4 overnight brought with it murmurs of excited curiosity: a new crop of gamers are finally going to get their opportunity to try out this cult series for themselves. That’s a good thing, as Ryo Hazuki’s revenge story sits among the pantheon of legendary franchises that practically all engaged gamers have heard of – but few have actually played.
It also means that your expectations need to be appropriately calibrated. For fans like me, Yu Suzuki’s open world adventure is a cultural touchstone; it’s held in the highest esteem, and slathered in superlatives. But the truth is this: even in 2000, when the “most expensive game ever made” arrived on the Dreamcast in Europe and North America, it was a divisive title. Fast forward almost two decades and that won’t change.
Many compare the series to the Yakuza titles, and there are similarities. Both seek to provide an “authentic” slice of Japanese life, although Shenmue is much, much more grounded than the soap opera theatrics that make Toshihiro Nagoshi’s gangster games tick. In truth, the franchises are quite different; Yakuza is an action RPG with martial arts, whereas Shenmue shares more in common with walking simulators – or even Quantic Dream titles like Heavy Rain.
The pacing, in the first game in particular, barely crawls. You’ll spend a lot of time investigating, speaking to the colourful characters of a dowdy 1986 Yokosuka about black cars and the weather. In some instances, the title will set up meetings for you to attend, and you’ll have to find things to do while your in-game Timex watch tick-tocks to the appropriate o'clock. It’s a bit like Persona 5, but slower and more realistic; for oh so many, boring.
While the second game in the series introduces some changes that relieve the tedium, this lifestyle simulation is what sets the titles apart from virtually anything else available today. The game wants to embed you in its world, and so virtually all buildings can be explored; all drawers can be opened. You can take paintings off the walls; there are jobs you can do to earn money. Sometimes this factors into the story; other times it’s just there because Yu Suzuki was a madman with a blank cheque.
This is a series that wants to immerse you in its world; it’s a franchise where watching NPCs randomly go about their business is a big part of its appeal. But it’s also, as I said at the start of this article, almost 20 years old. You have to remember the context, because it preceded even the ground-breaking Grand Theft Auto III. Nothing like this had ever been done before; a story like this had never been told before. It was innovative in so many ways.
But in a modern context, that’s less true. The world – even in the much-larger Shenmue II – is small, segmented, and claustrophobic. The writing and voice-acting, while iconic, is diabolical. The gameplay is cumbersome and slow, and it’s unlikely that the modernised control scheme being added to this remaster will change that. And it’s absolutely riddled with sloppy QTE sequences – the title practically invented them.
I’m not trying to deter you, I want you to play these games – but I also want you to be prepared for what you’re getting into. Shenmue is a cult classic; the kind of game that hinted what the medium was capable of, and paved the way for the likes of The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. But it’s also old and the first of its kind, and that means that it comes with all of the warts and imperfections you’d expect of a pioneer yet to be refined.
Will you be playing Shenmue I & II for the first time on the PS4? Are you keeping your expectations in check, or have decades of enthusiasm for the series coloured your outlook? Look for the man with a tattoo in the comments section below.
Will you be playing Shenmue I & II for the PS4? (200 votes)
Yes, this will be my first time with the franchise
Definitely, but I'm a long-time fan of the series
Hmm, I haven't decided either way yet
No, I've never played 'em but don't think I'll like 'em
Absolutely not, I hated these games on Dreamcast
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