Yu Suzuki's very ambitious Dreamcast game Shenmue introduced a lot a great new ideas to the action/adventure genre, but didn't really excel in any of them. By far, the most impressive part of the game was the graphics. The characters all look great and the attention to detail was wonderful. For example, the Koi in the pond outside Ryo's home. There isn't anything you can do with them, but they sure look great.
The game is also extremely immersive. Suzuki's new FREE system allows you to interact with nearly everything. At least at first, you get the feeling you're walking through a very large city filled with thousands of different people. Which makes your task somewhat daunting at first. With so many people and such a big place it's easy to get lost or not know who to talk too. Unfortunately, after a few hours you realize the entire city is only a few blocks large.
The storyline is ok, but pretty standard. The mysterious Lan Di has killed your father and you want to get revenge. Most of the game is spent following clues trying to figure out who the mysterious killer is, and how to get to him. On the other hand, the voice acting is horrible, especially the main character's.
The game itself has several flaws. Anyone who enjoyed games like Grim Fandango or King's Quest will be really excited when they start moving around and exploring in Shenmue. The FREE system is excellent. There's no typing annoying commands, or even clicking all over the screen. If you want to open the drawer you just walk up to it, look at it and do it yourself. You can play with just about everything. Turn lights on and off, pick things up, open and close just about everything and occasionally add items to your inventory. Here's where the game will go awry with many adventure gamers. Almost all of the items have no important use at all. So, you found the candles and the matches? Great, you won't ever really need them for anything, though you might get to light them. With a few minor exceptions the items you find are just fluff. The majority of the "puzzle solving" in the game is running back and forth between various places in the city. I finished the game in a few days and never ran into a single difficult task. So, in general, the FREE system is wasted, since most of the game is running around, and not looking for items.
Fortunately, there's more to the game than your standard adventure game. Throughout the game you get into battles, usually with multiple opponents. The fighting is similar to other fighting games. You can move around freely and execute a bunch of martial arts moves. These battles were way too easy though. I hate fighting games but I easily got through all of the battles with only one or two tries. And there's no difficulty levels, so you shouldn't look to this game for great fighting action. There are also "QTE" events where a button or direction appears on the screen and you have to hit it on your controller in time. In the battles and QTE events if you lose it just starts the event over again. This is sometimes annoying since there is usually a "movie" before the action starts that you have to watch over and over again.
Shenmue also features several mini-games. The Sega "classics" Hang-On and Space Harrier appear, along with 2 dart games and two QTE style games. These games serve one major purpose: to waste time. Time goes by in Shenmue at about an hour per 5 minutes, and since you often have an appointment with someone you need to waste a lot of time. I found while playing that I was never bored with this though. I always found something interesting to do while waiting so this wasn't a big problem for me.
There are a couple of other things to do in Shenmue as well. At one point you get to ride a motorcycle, which was like Hang-On without the other riders in the way, and then there's the forklift. This was really fun for some reason. You got to drive a forklift (and race it too) around some warehouses, moving boxes from one location to another. I could've spent hours doing this.
The only other thing I can think to mention is the toys. Throughout the game there are machines that dispense little toys in plastic bubbles. For some reason, Ryo really likes these even though he's a Senior in High School. I ended up with a collection of about 50. Besides seeing what kinds there are and looking at them I don't think they had any real use. Just another time waster. You could get special toys by doing good at the mini-games or winning prizes at a couple of the stores.
Overall, I had a pretty good time playing Shenmue despite it's flaws. One big letdown was the length of the game. Within a couple of hours you'll see about 2/3 of the whole game environment. I always enjoyed in an adventure game getting to a new area and seeing new places and talking to new people. This never happens in Shenmue. The FREE system could easily be used to revitalize the dying adventure game genre, so it is a good sign for the future. The Dreamcast is kaput but they will be releasing Shenmue 2. I'm not sure what happens with the other 11 or so chapters.