Thursday, 1 April 2021

Shenmue I & II (PS4)

 It is the first of April again, and as tradition dictates, it's time to write about a game that's a bit more well known than the usual fare. And this year, it's the turn of SEGA's divisive, absurdly ambitious adventure (and its sequel). In case you're wondering, I'm firmly in the pro-Shenmue camp. 


For those who don't know, the Shenmue games tell the story of a young Japanese man in the mid-1980s named Ryo Hazuki, and his quest to get revenge on Lan Di, the mysterious martial artist who killed his father. Well, they tell part of that story anyway. Unfortunately, though the games are absurdly ambitious, those ambitions never even came close to fruition. This story's been told many times before, but the original intention was for Shenmue to be twelve games, all as long as the first. Shenmue I is the first chapter in its full intended length, but then chapter two was skipped entirely, and the second game comprises chapters three-to-five. I haven't played the third game yet, but I do at least know that the story still isn't finished after twenty years.


But anyway, despite the reduction in scope from the original plans, these games are still incredible. They're open world adventures where you gather information, occasionally get into fights, and if you feel like it, you can waste time playing various side games, including a bunch of actual SEGA arcade games contemporary to the setting. Though they weren't the first open world games, you could make the argument that they were the first modern-style ones, with all kinds of distractions and things to do alongside the main quest. 


I could also talk about the way every character in the game has a name, backstory, and daily schedule, no matter how minor they are, or all the other bizarre and incredible things that are in these games, but to do so would be to do them a disservice. They're games that are much more than the sum of their parts. There's just a certain magic to them that's hard to describe, and judging by the way some people have reacted to them over the years, it's something that you either get or you don't.


Though I finished the first game a few times back on its original release, I never got all the way through the second until its HD rerelease. Furthermore, though I was always a fan of the games, it wasn't until I'd played all the way through both that I really realised how special and beautiful they were. Beyond the specifics of the plot and mechanics of the games, they're also a celebration of life, with themes of personal growth, the way people, places and events come and go with ever-shifting levels of importance, and all that kind of stuff.


There's a lot of stuff to see and do and find and collect in the games, but they aren't really made for completionists. Instead, it makes everyone's experience of the game slightly different: most of the main points will be seen by everyone in mostly the same way, but there's plenty of stuff you'll see that your friends might not, and vice versa. I mentioned earlier that I played through the first game a few times back on the Dreamcast, but on my recent playthrough of the PS4 port, I saw for the first time a pretty lengthy dialogue seen that is not only fully voice-acted (like all the game's dialogue), but even has a unique flashback cutscene. And unless you do a specific set of actions, you might never see any of that stuff! And there's a whole bunch of things like this in both games!


The atmosphere of the games is also noteworthy, in how immersive it is. There's some kind of magic captured in these (by 2021 standards) low polygon models and grainy textures, such that you can practically smell the environments you're exploring. Even playing back then, as a fourteen year old in the north of England, I recognised that these games were instilling in me a nostalgia for places I've never been to, at a time (slightly) before I was even born. I know lot of people don't think highly of these games, but to me, they're two of the best and most important ever, and I think everyone should play them both at least once.

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