Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Shenmue I & II

Sega’s Dreamcast would be the company’s final venture in the videogame console business before developing titles for other systems, with among the better-received titles on the system being developer Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, ballyhooed as the most expensive game ever developed in its time to the point where even if every Dreamcast owner purchased a copy, it still wouldn’t have profited, some of the expense covering its first and thus-far only sequel, which would see an Xbox port before further entries fell into development hell. Over a decade later, both games would see mostly-untouched direct ports to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as the collection Shenmue I & II. Though it has a few things going for it, the first game ultimately comes across as a rushed product, despite its alleged cost, and its successor doesn’t fare any better.

Both games follow the same protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, in a classic tale of revenge, Ryo yearning to avenge his deceased father, traveling his Japanese town (in the first game) and mostly Hong Kong (in the second), accomplishing a fair amount of detective work, recorded and somewhat unorganized in his journal, in order to advance what little meaningful storyline the game has, with abundant red herrings in the first game the narrative generally dragging until the end of the sequel, which ends on a cliffhanger. For the plot actually to make sense proved miraculous considering the abysmal quality of the translation, with characters repeating themselves way too much and sounding way too unrealistic, alongside occasional errors even middle schoolers could find.

Thus, the gameplay remains to shoulder the burden, and mercifully, neither game falters horribly in this regard. The quick time events necessitating successful button presses within a second or so can possibly catch players off-guard, though fortunately, the sequences don’t randomize during repetitions, and a few leave some room for error. Players don’t actually engage in combat until a few hours into the game, with these particular segments pitting Ryo against one or more foes, players able to input sequences of button presses to have him execute special fighting game-style moves, although attempting more complex attacks can be somewhat tedious and make him more vulnerable, especially when faced with multiple foes.

In the first game, the player can assign one of Ryo’s many fighting moves to a shortcut, although this feature is absent in the sequel, where the player can acquire multiple skills with the same sequence of buttons, one for each sequence equippable at a time. Unless players have eidetic memories, they may find it easier to stick to two or a few more key moves, and this reviewer actually beat the final boss of the first game by simply spamming regular kicks, the difficulty of the game regarding combat generally inconsistent, some pre-final-battle fights actually harder than the true final ones.

Successful execution of moves slightly increases their level and power, which is pretty much the only real roleplaying game aspect of both games. Some fights in the second game necessitate frozen-time button presses for success, with one battle late in the sequel requiring a simultaneous press of two face buttons that can be difficult, failure resulting in the repetition of the preceding melee battle. Overall, the gameplay definitely doesn’t burden the game, although it can definitely drag at moments, with money slightly hard to come across in Shenmue II, where the player early on has all money acquired in the first game stolen early on unless they stock up on certain buyable items they can later resell.

Control fares significantly worse, aside from the thankful ability to record progress most anywhere, with the first game, for one thing, not having maps at all, a burden given the complexity of its urban Japanese setting, although the second entry rectifies this with maps buyable for some money. Both games suffer greatly in terms of pacing, with the first having no option to forward time (which, again the second resolves somewhat), and the sequel, if Ryo asks for directions on how to get to certain buildings, resulting in a lengthy sequence of following the person providing direction with no fast-forward option. The tank movement system was also a bad idea in both games, and interaction definitely feels loose and very unrefined.

One somewhat positive aspect of both games is their oriental soundtracks, although no particular piece is memorable, and the English voicework is generally abhorrent, the sequel’s poor enough to warrant a page on Audio Atrocities, the initial entry suffering in terms of quality that sounds as though the performers are speaking too close to their microphones, and interacting characters, given the unnatural disposition of the dialogue, sounding as though they’re galaxies apart. Fortunately, players can switch to the Japanese voices, although the audio as a whole could have used catchier music, mayhap a few central themes.

Neither game looks as though their development came at great expense, although in a break from most anime-inspired Japanese RPGs, most characters in the Japan, Hong Kong, and China settings actually look ethnic. However, the texturing job on the character models and their environments generally looks sloppy, blurry, and pixilated, the graphics looking much the way they did on the Dreamcast and Xbox. Neither game, furthermore, has any upscaled CG full-motion videos, although this reviewer definitely believes both game’s 1980s setting, with the real-life settings likely faithfully recreated. Regardless, the games would have seriously benefitted from greater graphical quality.

Finally, each game is beatable in between twelve to twenty-four hours, with some semblance of lasting appeal in the form of trophies.

In the end, the PS4 collection of the first two Shenmue games does have some things going for it, such as its more-than-functional gameplay systems, the ability to record progress most of the time, the above-average pleasant quality of the soundtrack, the ability to switch between English and Japanese voices, and the existence of replayability. However, there are many areas where it falters, such as the absolutely-abysmal pacing, the slight annoyance of the quick time events, the poor narrative with subpar localization, the weak English voice performances, and the absence of visual polish. The games definitely feel more like expensive turkeys than true masterpieces, although a forthcoming kickstarter-funded third entry provides the potential for true redemption should it take advantage of modern videogame technology, and the investment of time and money in the first two titles fortunately isn’t too great for PlayStation 4 owners.

The Good:
+Gameplay gets the job done.
+Save-anywhere (most of the time) feature.
+Much of the music isn’t bad.
+A choice of English or Japanese voices.
+Trophies add lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Glacial pacing.
-Quick time events can be annoying.
-Disappointing narrative with subpar translation.
-Weak English voicework.
-Lack of visual polish.

The Bottom Line:
Definitely not bucket list games.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 4/10
Story: 3/10
Localization: 2/10
Music/Sound: 6/10
Graphics: 5/10
Lasting Appeal: 8/10
Difficulty: Inconsistent
Playing Time: 12-24 Hours per Game

Overall: 5/10

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