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Shenmue graphics glorious, story boring

You'll have lots of time, not enemies, to kill during game

When I first began reading about Shenmue, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy.

Now that I've had a chance to play it, I'm torn between awe and dozing off. Shenmue is an experience, but it may not be one you're looking for.

Shenmue, produced by AM2 for Sega's Dreamcast, is an absolute feast for the eyes, perhaps the most beautiful console game ever created. The characters are perfectly drawn and move with an almost human grace. The details everywhere are amazing, down to tiny leaves, lettering on posters, shadows and sunsets.

It's actually playing the game that reveals the cracks in the glittering facade.

Shenmue tells the story of Ryo Hazuki, who lives in a cozy little town in Japan. He returns home one day to find his father, Iwao, being beaten in his dojo by a mysterious martial artist in a dark kimono with a brilliant dragon embroidered on the back.

Ryo tries to help but becomes a pawn in the battle when the mystery man, Lan Di, uses him as a hostage to force the boy's fallen father to give him what he wants — a small mirror.

During the battle, the boy learns his father was responsible for the death of someone named Zhao Sun Ming. Then his father dies in his arms, the man and two stooges in black suits disappear, and the quest for vengeance and understanding is on.

While you play as Ryo and manage his quest, this is not a typical RPG. In fact, it's really not an RPG at all. I'm not sure what it is, except that there is a linear story which you advance by traveling, meeting people, asking them questions and using the answers to advance even further into the tale.

The game also runs in real time, on a speeded-up clock. It gets dark, it gets light, the weather changes, stores open and close, people walk around on errands or play in the street, then they are gone.

Here's where I started to get lost. This game, on four disks, could take you weeks to finish, with the threat that it's only a part of a larger tale. Things move slowly, and the action is handled for the most part in cut scenes, although there are some spots where combat is required, in both free combat and QTEs.

The Quick Time Events are rapidly developing scenes which require you to punch buttons that appear on the screen. You have to clear the QTEs successfully or do them over; fun, but a small part of the overall experience.

Unfortunately for action fans, the battles are short and then it's back to talking to everyone in town and their dog, wading through long minutes of chaff to find a few kernels of wheat.

While this kind of character development will thrill some gamers, it left me cold.

As in my life and probably yours, Ryo has a lot of time to kill. He does it by playing games, chatting with children, playing with pets, exploring or practicing his martial arts moves. Fun for him, not so much fun for many players.

Graphics get an A+. This is without a doubt the most beautifully detailed, colored and executed game I've ever played, and the character movement, the changes in night and day and the interactive relationship with others is unmatched.

Sound is A quality. The music is splendid, meshing perfectly with the action on screen. Sound effects, from a kitten's meow to the thuds and crunches of combat, are perfect. The voices of the hundreds of characters also work well.

Control gets a B, marked down because it's a pain to line Ryo up perfectly to open doors and use items he comes across during the game.

Shenmue gets a B+. It would never be my first choice, but for many gamers, it will be a dream come true — and it's worth a spin just for the glorious graphics.


Shenmue is rated T, for ages 13 and up.