Review by · January 20, 2000

Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.

It was a strange day when the incident happened. The weather suddenly changed from snow to rain and the black car parked in front of your home. As if confirming your fears, as soon as you walk through the front gate you see your father’s apprentice Masayuki Fukuhara flying out of the dojo and landing, badly hurt. After checking to make sure he was all right, you rush in… and find yourself held by men in black suits, helpless, resigned to observe the horror that takes place in front of eyes.

As you watch, you witness your father and a Chinese man, referred to only as Ran Te, square off in a furious battle. In the end, your father is no match for the man and soon falls, never to rise again. From that day on, you are filled with only one goal in mind, REVENGE.

Welcome to the world of Shen Mue-Chapter 1. Taking place in 1986 Japan in the city of Yokosuka, this is perhaps the most realistic game that has ever been released for the console market. You play the role of Ryo, whose mission is to find your father’s killer and extract your own justice upon him. It is hard to classify a game such as Shen Mue, being a hybrid of so many different genres. In fact, Sega has made up a separate genre for Shen Mue called F.R.E.E. or Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment in order to do this. If you feel that that is not a sufficient description, how about calling it a RPG/Adventure/Fighting game all rolled up into one package? Or, to take examples of other games, imagine the type of game you get when you take the basic interface of the Tex Murphy games, combine it with the fighting engine of Virtua Fighter, and add a dash of Dragon’s Lair.

The graphics of Shen Mue will be the first thing that you’ll notice when you play the game. All the characters have been based on actually people and it shows. Not only is each character properly proportioned, they have an amazing amount of detail. Their hair moves realistically, and their faces are so detailed that you can count the wrinkles on a person’s forehead with ease. Needless to say, games have never looked so good on a console, but there are some flaws. Given how immense the scope of this project was, you can tell that corners would be cut somewhere, and they did this in the texturing of a good number of optional items, such as items in drawers, boxes, etc. What is it I’m talking about? Mainly, 2D textures that are supposed to be 3D which results in flat-looking items. The quality of the work is lower at these times, and while that’s to be expected, it is still a bit disconcerting to see highly detailed items right next to lesser-detailed ones.

The most impressive part of this game is the fact that you are in a real environment. Time moves in real-time, there are weather changes, the various shops in the game open and close according to their store hours, and you even have a bus time schedule so you can catch a ride to the docks! Exploration is a critical aspect of the game and it is only by looking closely at your surroundings that you will be able to appreciate the finer aspects of Shen Mue. You have the ability to search every drawer, look behind paintings and even rotate every object you find in the game to closely inspect it from all angles. The storeowners, after they close shop, will go home and it is just part of the fun to see how each lives. Some walk home, some use a bicycle, and if you’re bored, you can even follow them home and see which house in the neighborhood they live in!

While there are many ‘non-active NPCs’, those people who always spit back the same lines to you over and over again, complaining about how busy they are and how they don’t like to be bothered, there are many ‘active NPCs’ as well. You have your old friends down the road, on the move, or hanging out, as well as Nozomi’s friends who keep dropping hints on how Nozomi feels about Ryo. Each storeowner has his or her own personality, and by talking to them and observing them you get a glimpse into their lives. One complains about how his wife is nagging him to do better in business, while the local bakery owner bemoans the fact that the Pizza store is stealing all the business that he once had. All these touches make the game a pleasure to explore and adds to the total enjoyment that you’ll get while making the game seem like it can happen in real life.

The most underdeveloped portion of the game’s story is the relationship between Ryo and Nozomi Harasaki. While she was touted as being the major female character in Shen Mue Chapter 1, in actuality she is relegated to just another side character that Ryo can meet. A great deal of her dialogue is of the “same-line over and over again” type, and their supposed relationship only comes out in a small number of scripted scenes, which makes their relationship seem to be a bit added on, just for the heck of it. While I realize that she is of the typicial ‘The Nice Girl Next Door'(TM) variety of heroines (I’m using the term heroine loosely here), she lacks much development in the story. She rarely moves from her spot in front of her grandmother’s flowershop and doesn’t even really act on feelings for Ryo. Nozomi had promise to be a major character in the game and it is a bit disappointing that Sega left her in the support character role.

As I mentioned before, the battles in this game are done in the style of 3D fighters, with lots of punches, kicks, and throws for you to use in pummeling the enemy into submission. The battle camera moves very dramatically, and while this makes the fighting scenes feel more like you’re watching a movie, it sometimes makes it hard for you to see the enemy which means you’ll be getting hit just because you couldn’t see the enemy coming. While this is a rather infrequent problem, it can get to be quite a bit of a nuisance when you’re fighting a number of very strong enemies and you almost lose the fight because of this. One good thing I like about these battle sequences is that the battlefield is large enough for you to maneuver around as well as the fact that your health bar regenerates as you rest for a few moments during battles. Hey, it wasn’t originally called Virtua Fighter RPG for nothing!

Curious how you ‘gain levels’? Well, there is no true system for experience points in this game, but rather you get stronger by practicing your moves. When you check the Moves list, you’ll see a bar by the name of each move that tells you how powerful it is. As you use the move more often, its power bar will gradually increase until it reaches max. There are many places in the game where you can practice, such as your home Dojo or an empty park or vacated lot. As the game progresses, you’ll need to practice often so that you’ll be strong enough to fight without taking too much damage.

Learning new moves works in a similar way as well. There are two ways you can learn new moves: by reading scrolls and having other martial artists teach you techniques they know. When other martial artists tell you their techniques, not only do they show you how to do the move, they also tell you when it is tactically advantageous to use this move and watch over you until you get it right. The VMU helps by showing you the correct button combination on the VMU screen, which makes it a heck of a lot easier to understand what you’re supposed to do than the person teaching you saying, “Take a step back to draw the enemy attack and at the same time use your hand to push the attacker to the side.”

As for the game itself, it is played out like a typical adventure game. You are in a free environment with the ability to move around and interrogate people about what happened on that day your father died. A great deal of the game deals with you going around trying to find out more about the mystery that surrounds your father’s killer, and this is where Shen Mue’s biggest failure shows up. While I have no question that an adventure game, which is what Shen Mue is at heart, is very movement based with major emphasis on searching and interrogation, Shen Mue doesn’t pull this off with the elegance that games by long time companies such as Lucas Arts have. The result is that it’s sometimes rather a chore to move back and forth in the town in a never ending “Move from Point A to Point B” feeling that you’ll get sooner or later in this 30 hour quest. The fact that the story of Shen Mue moves at the pace of a snail, while making it more realistic, also makes it really boring and offers less of an incentive for you to actually go around asking 20 questions to a dozen people just so you can add one more fact to your little notebook. Of course, there are times when the story picks up, but the entire chapter 1 of Shen Mue, if it were in a traditional RPG, would most likely take less than 3 or 4 hours tops for the exact same sequence of events to occur. The fact that Shen Mue makes such a slowly progressing game interesting and immersive enough to continue playing is proof of its genius.

Now comes the QTE (Quick Timer Event) Portion of the game. Those who are familiar with the ol’ Laserdisc arcade game Dragon’s Lair have a good idea of what QTE actually is. You basically have a short time span in which to press the correct button, after which a pre-choreographed scene goes on the way it is supposed to. If you’re not quick enough, you lose. Sounds boring, huh? Actually, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this portion of the game was handled well. The number of these events aren’t as many as I had originally thought, with approximately 1 every hour or so. Since you will never actually get a “Game Over” screen in Shen Mue, you never really have to worry about screwing up the game to no return. You lose in a battle? Try Again! Mess up a QTE sequence? Try again! By letting you mess up, it makes the frustration of Dragon Lair’s “Press A in 3 seconds or Die” pretty much non-existent. What is even more interesting is that you are usually allowed to miss a number of QTE actions and still be allowed to continued on, with the event unfolding in a different way than if you did everything right. Because the QTE portions of this game are only used to create battle/chase scenes that are too complex for the fighting game-style battle system, they are always used in refreshing ways, and adds to the ‘real world’ feeling that you will get while playing.

In addition to the game itself, there are a huge number of side games you can pursue in your own free time. The local arcade has a variety of games, including arcade perfect versions of both Hang-On and Space Harrier (the number of stages you can play are limited though. Wait until Chapter 2 :P), 2 QTE based games to hone your QTE event skills when they come up, and 2 versions of Dart games (they’re quite fun actually). In addition to all of this is the Slot Machine, the Fork Lift racing, raise a cat, and one game in which you’re actually on a ‘real’ motorbike! If that wasn’t enough for you to waste your time, you can spend your time playing Gacha-Gacha (you know, put in a 100 yen coin, turn the dial, out pops a collectable doll) and try to get the ‘special edition’ dolls, such as Super Sonic and Akira and the like. Not only do these games make the game more open-ended, they give you something to do while you’re waiting for an event to happen. For example, if you have an appointment with someone at 3PM, stopping by the local arcade would be the perfect way to spend a few hours instead of staying still for the entire time.

Of course, Shen Mue has its own share of problems as well, most of which are minor. The most annoying one by far is the pop-up in the game. Before I get mobbed for saying this, let me clarify. There is NO pop-up on the part of architecture, such as buildings, sign posts, etc. However, there is pop-up for anything that moves, such as people, animals, and vehicles. The pop-up isn’t severe and they usually pop-up at once you reach a certain distance from where they come into view, but it is still very annoying to see people just come out of nowhere. It IS possible to avoid most instances of pop-up by walking all the time, but I doubt most people will do that. This leads to the second problem. Shen Mue doesn’t seem to put objects’ into view unless the game thinks that you can see it, which means that if an item/person is at a certain angle, even if you know that person/thing is there, you can’t do anything unless get into what the computer deems line of sight. I often wanted to save myself the hassle of moving all around by just twisting my head (with the analog portion of the controller) but this ‘bug’ makes it usually impossible to do so, much to my chagrin. The last bug that I wish to report is that Shen Mue at times gets ‘stuck’ at a viewing angle. Looking at the sky? Well, I hope you like to walk around like that ’cause you’ll stay like that even if you’re not touching the controller! I fixed this by unplugging the controller than doing it again, and it only happened to me twice in my 30-hour session, so I doubt many people will experience it. Perhaps Sega will fix it for the US release…

The sound in Shen Mue is quite good as well. Shen Mue features some of the strongest voice acting that I’ve seen in recent years, and every single line is fully voiced by a VA. What I liked best about Shen Mue was the fact that the American characters in Shen Mue were VAed by American People, which gives credibility to the level of belief that you’ll have while playing the game, and you get to experience heavily American-accented Japanese to boot!

As for the music, not only are all the tracks in Shen Mue well orchestrated, its quality is high as well and a number of songs, especially the Shen Mue main theme and Flower Girl, have become some of my favorites. The only downside is that music in Shen Mue is used sparingly. In other words, music is used only when you are in a specific area of the game (bars, stores, and the like) or when a dramatic event happens, and there is no music at all when you are exploring in the main streets of Yokosuka. However, this keeps the feeling of the game alive, and the music, when used, makes the scene itself seem even more dramatic, something that is most likely a conscientious decision by the designers of the game. However, all is not lost for you music fans. You get a cassette player early on in the game and you can buy cassettes of all the songs that you like in the local convenience store for the low price of 300 Yen. So when you feel like listening to your favorite tune, feel free to indulge yourself!

Does Shen Mue deliver? In most aspects, yes. While there are a number of features that Shen Mue could’ve pulled off better, such as a better-paced story, a better set-up adventure system, and some bugs-fixing, there is nothing quite like it on any of the console systems that are out now, nor will there be for quite a long time. Shen Mue is an immense project that is the product of the work of over 200 people, a dozen companies, and even has the sponsoring of 4 major companies, including both Cola-Cola and Timex. The feats of Shen Mue will not be emulated for a long time, and that alone is worth the price of admission. With beautiful graphics and a fun battle system, make no mistake, Shen Mue is the reason why you got the DC early. And even if you have no intention of buying Shen Mue any time soon, at least try it out once. There is a good chance that you may change your mind soon after!

Overall Score 90
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WooJin Lee

WooJin Lee

WooJin was part of RPGFan's reviews team from mid-1999 until summer 2005. During his tenure, WooJin bolstered our review offerings by lending their unique voice and critique of the world of RPGs, and was especially instrumental in covering visual novels and Japanese imports.