It was a brief comment in Dave Halverson’s review of Dragon Quest VIII from the November 2005 issue of Play Magazine, and not especially relevant to the full review, but it’s stuck with me ever since: “…given the detail, that the lead character is not dynamic to steps and slopes does take a bite out of the realism.” I wouldn’t say I’ve paid attention to the functionally irrelevant detail of characters walking on stairs in every game I’ve played since, but sometimes I notice. In Shenmue III for instance, whenever the protagonist Ryo walks up or down a flight of stairs, his feet hit every step. Every. Step. I know relatively little about the rigors of game development, but it seems ludicrous to offer such attention to detail for something as banal as navigating a flight of stairs. And yet, Shenmue III is in many ways a game about embracing the banal, for better or worse. Continue reading Shenmue III [PlayStation 4] – Review→
Touting itself as one of the most critically polarizing games of recent times, the Director’s Cut release of Deadly Premonition highlights a quirky game with many inspirations. When it was originally released stateside for the Xbox 360 on February 23, 2010, the game was met with critical reception that ran the gamut of the traditional 1-to-10 rating scale. Almost every aspect of the open-world horror game caused a rift that placed players in a love it or hate it camp. Released on April 30, 2013 for the PlayStation 3, the Director’s Cut rectifies nothing and instead doubles down on the cult following it created. Having played it myself, I can safely say I’m in the love it camp but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed every bit of it.
Set in the fictional town of Greenvale, Washington, the game follows FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan as he investigates the grisly murder of a young woman. The case deepens as more young women are murdered by the mysterious Raincoat Killer. At the crime scenes and around town, York encounters a recurring symbol and the presence of red seeds, both of which play an important role and portend an otherworldly quality to the plot. In regards to the general plot, setting, and characters, the developers at Access Games, and likely the game’s director Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro, seemed to have drawn heavily on another instance of cult entertainment: Twin Peaks.
Besides the similarities listed above, many of the townsfolk that York deals with through his investigation are representative of characters from Twin Peaks. So much so there’s even a Log Lady equivalent! Most everyone has a ludicrous trait that keeps the experience from feeling like a representation of the real world; such as York’s tendency to monologue about famous movies and directors to Zach, another personality of his – the result of his dissociative identity disorder. Or the fact that York finds himself in otherworldly versions of the real world while profiling his suspect. On the other hand, Emily Wyatt, the deputy sheriff, came off surprisingly grounded, in part because of her girl next door portrayal. The relationship between her and York depicted a budding romance that culminated in a wrenching conclusion, one that really made me sympathetic for the two.
The significance of the ritualistic killings, symbology, and red seeds are eventually made apparent and everything relates back to a gruesome night in the town sixty-odd years prior. The pace really picks up around this point and I didn’t want to stop playing the game. I spent about fourteen hours playing in the weekend leading up to its completion; a feat that I haven’t done in a long time. It was also about this point that all semblance of reality began getting stripped away as the game’s true villains were revealed, leading me to find commonalities between the final third of the game and Inuyasha.
The final sections showed off an array of noteworthy boss fights (I had to call Jenny in to see some of them), although the rest of the combat was defiantly rote. Combat sequences took place in closed off areas, usually with the objective of finding clues to aid in York’s criminal profiling. While trying to push the narrative forward, York dealt with innumerable zombielike creatures that populated these otherworldly versions of existing locations. Combat was highly derivative of Resident Evil 4, down to York planting his feet while I aimed. A lock-on feature reduced the ire caused by the troublesome aiming but couldn’t help the combat from growing tiresome after a section or two. The few run-ins York had with the Raincoat Killer did result in tense and stylish escape sequences, with a fair amount of quick-time events for good measure.
When not in combat, York was free to explore the town of Greenvale and perform a wealth of favors for the townsfolk, totaling fifty sidequests in all. This fact didn’t dawn on me until about halfway through, coincidentally, about the time the plot was striking my fancy. Completing the sidequests not only broadened my understanding of the characters and their relationships, but also served as the open-world “collectible” to obsess over. It doesn’t take much to convince me to collect everything of something (thanks Pokémon!) but the fact that trophies were tied to these meant I was going to collect them all, and “platinum” the game in the process.
For the most part, the sidequests were very simple, although their variety and outcomes were immense. They ranged from block-pushing puzzles and collect-a-thons to the retrieval of specific items strewn about Greenvale. Starting them was simple, just talking to the quest giver but finding them at a given point wasn’t so simple. The town of Greenvale operated no different from ours, with individuals performing tasks and working based on the time of the day and the weather conditions. While I could solicit tasks from the owner of the Milk Barn grocery store during the day as he was working, I wouldn’t be able to at night when he was home resting. The criteria for these were openly displayed and I found the overall structure to be reminiscent of the Bomber’s Notebook from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
It’s somewhat surprising to think about the quantity of influences that this game draws upon. I’ve made mention of so many at this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t compare the open world qualities to be evocative of Grand Theft Auto, by way of Shenmue. Overwhelmingly, these influences come together with a surprising degree of competency. Despite this, it’s hard for me to walk away from my time without criticisms. I felt many of the combat sequences dragged on far too long considering how unrewarding the combat itself was. And, not to stigmatize too much but this was a budget game originally, and the quantity of “open-world jank” I encountered is a testament to that; not to mention the near-PS2 quality of the graphics. There are so many other grievances I have with the game, but I still spent forty largely enjoyable hours with it and if that’s a testament to anything, it’s to the redeeming and endearing qualities of Deadly Premonition.
I could go into excruciating detail about the narrative and highlight all of the major plot points of Shenmue II, but I won’t. Actually, I can’t say that I won’t because I did and I’m just not publishing it. What I wrote was a two page article that read more like a set of game notes. I dove fairly deep into explaining the three major sections of the game and even then, I barely scratched the surface. What you as someone who is unfamiliar with this game needs to know is that Shenmue II is narratively rich, yet ultimately unfulfilling. Narratively speaking, that is. It’s still a joy to play.
In short, the game picks up directly where the original left off. Ryo Hazuki has travelled to Hong Kong to exact revenge on the mysterious Chinese man who murdered his father. Ryo investigates the Wan Chai and Kowloon areas of Hong Kong in a similar manner as he did in Yokosuka. He follows up on leads by asking residents, gets into street fights and other scuffles, and finds odd jobs to pay his bills. All this eventually culminates in a trip to a remote village where an event that has been foreshadowed since the beginning occurs. The beginning of this sequence had my friend and I sit straight up as we knew what would follow was very important. However, eleven years after its original American release, the cliffhanger ending is still unresolved and the current stopping point for this ill-fated trilogy.
As I mentioned, the structure of the game is identical to its predecessor, although elements have been improved. The primary emphasis was still on investigation and completing odd tasks and I found their resolutions very rewarding. Brawls and QTEs were still a large part too, but they seemed less prevalent. I find it peculiar that the fighting system appears to have such depth and yet it was hardly utilized. This made it a little tough for my friend and me towards the end as the rising action and climax consists of dozens of easy and tough fights. Needless to say, we relied very heavily on simple punches and combos.
And what a climax! These last few hours were simultaneously tumultuous to play and epic to witness. Kicked off by a stressful quest to raise money, my friend and I spent a solid hour gambling and resetting the game when things didn’t go our way. This was followed up by a convoluted trek through 18 floors of a massive 40 floor building. The dozens of fights Ryo had provided closure for the events that took place in Kowloon and they eventually led to a climactic scene where Ryo caught up with Lan Di. Although nothing transpired between the two, he now knows that Ryo is after him. Afterwards, the chance encounter that had my friend and I sit at attention was drawn out, torturous, and a great opportunity for two characters to become acquainted before finding out their destinies lie with each other.
I’m doing it again. I’m trying to delve into the narrative and I just need to stop. There’s a reason this series has such a zealous fan base. Shenmue and Shenmue II are fantastic examples of the narrative-driven single player video game. An epic coming of age tale coupled with exploration, investigation, and action. The blend of gameplay elements kept the game fresh and despite a few tumultuous sequences and the occasional camera or control issues, Shenmue II was an overwhelmingly positive experience. The passion of Yu Suzuki and his development team shines through in this game as it did in the original. Now, what about Shenmue III?
Shenmue definitely has a reputation that precedes it. At the time and for many years afterwards, it was reportedly the most expensive video game ever produced. With respectable sales that weren’t near the expected numbers, it assisted in ending Sega’s home console development. Nonetheless, the game received high praise critically and is routinely cited as an influential video game. Shenmue has always been on a personal bucket list of mine and I’m finally able to check it off.
Before being consumed by Virtua Fighter, Yu Suzuki was a titan at Sega. He was the major figure behind a plethora of the company’s marquee arcade titles in late 1980s. Space Harrier, Hang-On, OutRun, After Burner – this guy had a knack for designing video games. I’m not intending to short shrift Virtua Fighter either. It’s one of the most respected fighting game series and has a dedicated fan base. Shenmue is Yu Suzuki’s magnum opus however, and it oozes his passion. In the manual, in the credits, in the way he describes the game – the fictional world and gameplay elements that comprise the game were undoubtedly personal muses for the man.
Shenmue takes place in Yokosuka, Japan during the winter of 1986. The game is a tale of revenge, following Ryo Hazuki as he tracks down the mysterious man who murdered his father. Ryo’s father, Iwao, was a master martial artist whose dojo was in a remote suburb of Yokosuka. Iwao’s murderer, Lan Di, is a mysterious Chinese martial artist who had an unknown grudge against Ryo’s father. Not only that, but Lan Di’s ties to a Chinese criminal syndicate further complicate the affair as Ryo investigates the mysterious Chinese man.
Exploration and puzzle solving are the primary focuses of Shenmue’s gameplay, although there is a minor emphasis placed on brawling. Knowing practically nothing of Lan Di, Ryo takes to the neighborhoods and shops of Yokosuka to find and follow up on any leads he can. Interacting with dozens of townsfolk, it was easy for me to get immersed in the day to day heartbeat of the city. Ryo’s leads introduced him to friends and foes from practically all of the storefronts, and since the game had a strong adherence to portraying a realistic setting, I’d have to make sure to check in with individuals at the corresponding hour of the day, or night.
I was dead set on making a physical map of the shopping district and outlying neighborhoods, but by the time I sketched it out, I was familiar enough with the areas to abandon the prospect. The neighborhoods contained little to experience but the shopping district was densely packed with unique individuals and storefronts. To an outsider, such as myself, it was a joy to experience what this slice of Japan might’ve been like in the late 1980s – minus Ryo’s Sega Saturn.
The puzzle solving aspect of the gameplay revolved mostly around locating the proper individual to speak with. Then, utilizing the information they provided with Ryo. Be it an area to check or another individual to speak with. I didn’t find monotony in constantly seeking someone out, only to be pointed elsewhere. It didn’t seem like it was filler content. For the most part, every lead advanced the plot, if only slightly.
One related point is what I interpret as shoddy localization. The game is fully voice-acted and everyone will respond to Ryo if he prompts them. However, a lot of the dialog doesn’t sound natural. It’s as if the script was translated directly from the Japanese original with no localization. Translating the game is one part of the localization process, but another would be making it so the characters speak realistically. Some lines of dialogue didn’t make functional sense to me. Then again, the game contained a friendly Jamaican hot dog vendor named Tom, and he doesn’t make a lot of sense either.
The third pillar of the gameplay is the action sequences. I’d break these down into two categories: brawling and quick-timer events (QTEs). Both were infrequent, but an important aspect nonetheless. Brawling was reminiscent of the fighting system from Virtua Fighter – deep and very precise. Ryo had a wealth of moves at his disposal, but I was able to meander on by button mashing. This was helped by the fact that there were about twelve fights across the entire game. QTEs are now commonplace in video games and we have Shenmue to thank for that! They were pioneered in the game and allowed the player to experience a handful of exciting action sequences and actually feel some involvement. They were also infrequent.
After a dozen or so hours, I had brought Ryo to the end of his quest in Yokosuka. Shenmue ended with a slew of events, beginning with Ryo getting a job at the Yokosuka docks. This entailed me operating a forklift for about a week of in-game time which translated to a few hours. It was a decidedly dull climax to the game, but it was far from over. At the docks Ryo got a better understanding of the criminal syndicate Lan Di was aligned with.
Eventually, Ryo was too late to confront Lan Di who was already heading back to China. Ryo’s story was just beginning, but I wasn’t left unfulfilled. Shenmue capped off with an exciting motorcycle ride through the nighttime Yokosuka highway system. The goal was to reach the docks which lead to an epic brawl against 70+ gang members. Ryo intent on pursuing Lan Di to China and many of the interactions with Ryo’s friends and family were heartfelt.
With Shenmue off my bucket list, I’m anxious to begin Shenmue II on the Xbox. The series was originally proposed as a trilogy so my journey with Ryo will end with an unfulfilled cliffhanger upon completion of the second game. Heck, I’ll probably convert into one of those crazies trying to get a grassroots effort started to develop Shenmue III. It wouldn’t be a surprise. The game came out nearly a decade-and-a-half ago and it still feels modern. Its combination of storytelling, setting, and gameplay meld together to form one of the most realized and worthwhile video games out there.