Shenmue I & II (Xbox One) Review

By Nikola Suprak 26.09.2020

Review for Shenmue I & II on Xbox One

Every now and then, you run into a weird piece of gaming history. Shenmue was originally released on the Dreamcast in 1999, and Shenmue II was released the following year. They were some of the best selling games for the system, and quickly achieved cult classic status, but were complete and utter financial failures. Something about being "the most expensive game ever made" at the time probably had something to do with it, and the series sort of died off after the second game. It lasted this way for the better part of two decades, until the surprise announcement of Shenmue III breathed some new life into the series. While this was great for fans of the series, something about a two decade layoff made the events of the first two games kind of hazy in people's minds. Fortunately, a remaster of the first two games was announced to remedy this and allowed a whole new generation of games to experience the highs and lows of the franchise. After a peek at the PC version, here's another look at Shenmue I & II, this time for the Xbox One.

Shenmue wastes no time getting into things, and within the first couple of minutes, the hero Ryo witnesses his father being murdered by a mysterious, but clearly very bad man called Lan Di. It isn't exactly clear what is going on, but Ryo's efforts to save his father are in vain, and he can do nothing but watch his father be killed right before his eyes. Lan Di apparently knowing nothing of the desire for revenge, or the hero's journey, just leaves Ryo alive and wanders off. Thus starts the first game and Ryo's journey for justice (and a little revenge). The sequel, Shenmue II, continues Ryo's story, this time in the much larger city of Hong Kong. It has a completely different tone than the first game, and the large dangerous city feels much different than the idyllic small town life of the first instalment. Both titles offer interesting quests following the life of Ryo.

Shenmue is very old at this point, but what is remarkable is how unique it still feels. After all this time, there still isn't a game quite like this, and that is both a good and a bad thing. Something it always did tremendously well, and something that still makes it stand out is how open its approach to gameplay is. Ryo's father dies right away, and it might feel like things are about to start off on some sort of epic chase, but that really isn't the game's style or speed. This doesn't exactly tell anyone where they should be going, and the beginning segment is very slow, and has you trying to figure out what to do with as little guidance as possible.

Screenshot for Shenmue I & II on Xbox One

Both Shenmue and Shenmue II are this way, and the primary goal of the game is self-paced exploration and discovery. It really is an interesting approach to gameplay, and essentially all the players are given is an overarching goal and a sandbox to explore. There are going to be some people that aren't going to like this more laissez-faire attitude, but really it is one of the game's greatest strengths. There is this interesting world to explore here, and it wants more than anything for people to explore it with as little handholding as possible.

The world here is great, and it is amazing thinking how old this title is, and how dynamic the world still feels. Most modern games like this fail to actualize their world in such a real way, and the most interesting character here isn't Ryo or Lan Di, but the world itself. There are so many interesting people to talk to and interact with, and the intricacies of their daily lives become critically important in both entries. There are certain people that need to be talked to and certain events that need to be witnessed, but the world is always moving so it is entirely possible to be at the right location but at the wrong time, so it looks like nothing is going on. The time management is really interesting, and becomes sort of an adventure game at times, where in order to get the information needed or talk to the person that needs to be talked to, one needs to figure out how to get things to play out in just the right way. It is in this way that the world feels most alive, and it is at times like this that these games are at their best.

Screenshot for Shenmue I & II on Xbox One

And, of course, there is some of that delightful video game cheese that Shenmue was famous for. This was from of the era of video game development where voice actors were not so much actors as they were family friends and random people the development team managed to find outside their window and chase down. All the lines are delivered in a way that makes it seem like everyone had just seen the script for the first time, and they only got one take, and also they were pretty heavily sedated on horse tranquilizers. The script is similarly questionable, with lines of dialogue that sound like they were translated using nothing else than Google Translate and a very tired intern.

None of this makes the game bad, of course, but it is still funny to see this little slice of video game history, and remember exactly how far gaming has come in terms of polish and presentation. Unfortunately, some of the ways these games show their age aren't nearly as charming. Even though the fresh coat of paint is nice, both titles definitely show their age. Improved visuals don't really hide any of the games problems, and beyond the visuals there really isn't much of a change to the experience overall. The biggest issue here are the controls, which feel incredibly sluggish, and poor Ryo always feels like he is slightly intoxicated whenever you try to get him to do anything.

Screenshot for Shenmue I & II on Xbox One

This utilizes the old-school tank controls, something that rightly went out of style like twenty years ago. He never seems to move quite right, and compounding this issue is an unwieldy camera that always seems to get ornery the second you try to look at something. When Shenmue first came out, this sort of thing was standard, but trying to play it now feels incredibly archaic. It would be like they released a modern car with windows that needed to be manually rolled down, and the controls are so frustrating that they get in the way of the fun at times.

Also, while the exploratory nature of the game is its greatest strength, it also happens to be its greatest weakness. The sad truth is there is a lot of nothing in here, and hopefully hunting for capsule figurines or driving a forklift are fun ways to pass the time, because there is a lot of downtime during Ryo's quest. The pacing is incredibly slow, and a lot of people aren't going to get past the first act of the first title. The story starts off incredibly fast, but after that things settle down a lot, and it is mostly just talking to people. This isn't necessarily bad in and of itself, and the slower tone actually largely works for the game. It is just when you get to exploring the sandbox, it is fairly apparent the sandbox is fairly empty. Part of this comes in comparison to modern games like Grand Theft Auto V or Red Dead Redemption 2, where this is something to find and something to do almost everywhere, and advances in technology have made the world of Shenmue feel a bit more quaint since it first released.

Screenshot for Shenmue I & II on Xbox One

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 6 out of 10


The first two Shenmue games are undeniably very important, but they fall just short of being great. They are undeniably unique, even all these years after their release, and the best thing that can be said about them is that they are interesting. It is a really fun world the games put forward, and it is great to explore and figure out where to go and what to do next. At the same time, though, they don't necessarily play that well, and they show their age in a lot of unfortunate ways. This is definitely more of an acquired taste, and it is probably best to say that these are better experiences than they are video games. They're worth checking out, particularly for someone that has fond memories of them on the Dreamcast, but be warned that there are some warts that need to be looked past before you dive in headfirst.






Action Adventure



C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  6/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

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