Shenmue 3 Review
Press X to grind
Ryo Hazuki is stuck in time. A teeanger who hasn’t aged a day since fans last saw him eighteen years ago. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to Yokosuka’s most famous son.
Despite being set in 1987 and released in 2019, everything about Shenmue III feels distinctly 2001. Picking up exactly where Shenmue II left off, with Ryo continuing into China on his hunt for Lan Di — the man who killed his father — this infamous saga of vengeance and retribution has barely evolved past its turn of the century pause point. More tired than vintage, the return of Shenmue feels like stepping into a time machine. As if Yu Suzuki dusted off a nearly two decade old design doc and his team got to work.
Shenmue III is a relic. Where near-unparalleled levels of realism and interaction with the world are the things fans will remember fondly from its predecessors, Shenmue III feels adrift from the medium it once helped to revolutionise.
Graphically and gameplay-wise, it pales in comparison to anything else released this year, and perhaps anything released in the last decade. The visuals offer up something resembling a modern Dreamcast game, smoothed out with a thick Vaseline-like sheen and a basic lighting engine. Looking into the horizon will occasionally offer up a picture postcard view of China, but in motion it leaves a lot to be desired. Faring serviceably in cutscenes, the transition to gameplay is harsh, with blurred, muddy, and generation (or two) old textures plaguing every flat surface — something that is especially highlighted in indoor areas, or when scouring areas for clues.
Even Ryo himself looks out of place. He’s an OK-looking, less polygonal version of his original incarnation (something that can be said for everyone else in the game too). Still, the transition to modern consoles seems to have stripped the character of his remaining personality. Dead behind the eyes and with all the expressiveness of a plank of wood, he lacks the kind of charisma and charm expected from the protagonist of the kind of martial arts epic that Shenmue III looks to emulate. His deadpan delivery causing some accidental laughs is one of our hero’s few redeeming features.
The rest of the characters don’t fare too well either. The world is populated by rubbery, anime sea-front caricatures of people. A collection of flirts, drunks and assorted weirdos that sound just as odd as they look. The English voice acting is completely confused, with voices often not even close to matching faces most of the time only serving heighten the game’s unintentionally farcical nature. It’s clear that the developer wanted to have some fun with these characters, but everything about them is so maddeningly inconsistent.
In fact, the only thing consistent about Shenmue III is how inconsistent it is. Well, that and it’s overall moth-eaten feeling.
Simply navigating the world feels more akin to driving a forklift truck — irony very much intended — than walking the streets as a living, breathing, human. Ryo is stiff and stilted, his movements laboured and limited. This makes simply exploring the village of Bailu and, later, the port city of Niaowu, a chore.
It’s not like you can pick up the pace too much either. Anything more than a leisurely pace will put a serious drain on your health. No, I’m not kidding. Shenmue III has linked health and stamina systems, so if you want to do anything quickly you best make sure you’re stocked up on food.
As if making sure you don’t die of exhaustion from running down a short path wasn’t baffling enough, the rest of the game’s systems are similarly time-honoured. Talking to other characters — whether a key story beat or a chat to a shopkeeper — takes forever, with barely a hint at being able to skip dialogue (something that’s possible provided you have been through it once before — I found out all too late), the map is a pointless extra detail cluttering up the HUD in an inelegant mess of on-screen prompts.
Combat is where the only changes appear to have been made. Whether they’re for the better is up for debate, but the Virtua Fighter-esque systems from the first two games have been simplified down to short face-button combos, but even that is a gift and a curse.
The term laughable isn’t one I like to use lightly, but the tutorial screen for Shenmue III’s combat system is exactly that. “Just press cross, circle, square and triangle… Try pressing R2”, it reads. To be fair, it’s not like that doesn’t work. And whilst there is some strategy to combat, a well timed button press is not exactly a system. That’s unfortunate for a game where combat is one of the core tenets, but when it comes to dispatching enemies quickly it can be a huge help. Plus, the traditional route is there for those who want it, and the QTE sequences that the original game pioneered add some excellent flourishes to big fights.The changes to combat came as a surprise, especially when everything else is anchored to the roots of Shenmue.
Shenmue III still has glaring pacing issues. An urgent quest to save the father of your companion Shenhua, this is a story that requires the kind of intensity that ultimately never materialises. Despite her father being missing, both Ryo and Shenhua seem perfectly fine with taking things as they come. Everything happens at a snail's pace. Being drip-fed story beats for hours on end is no way to keep a player on the hook. Worse is when you feel like you’re finally getting somewhere only to have a huge roadblock (often to the tune of needing 5,000 yuen) in your way. This leads to endless frustrating minigames: chopping wood, gambling in a variety of games of chance (skewed by giving cash to a fortune teller), and a variety of quick but uninspired training sequences.
The latter is the only minigame that made sense to me. Shenmue is, ultimately, the videogame representation of a kung-fu movie. You could argue that its slow pace and need for steely determination mirrors martial arts themselves. You could also argue that tapping X when required to squat in Horse Stance or practice your One Inch Punch is an incredibly tedious way to spend literally hours of time. Still, at least training felt like I was getting somewhere and not only being held back by unfair, archaic game design.
The grind is real in Shenmue III. By the time I reached the end of the game, I had had enough. I was genuinely miserable. The only saving grace was the story; something that, even with seemingly endless strings of complex exposition, required so much prior knowledge of the world and its characters. Just a little acknowledgement of the passing of time would have gone a long way. Thankfully, there is a catch-up movie accessible from the menu if you need it.
Although marred by some truly abysmal writing — although it was more in general conversation, where things would often make zero sense — the overall arc of the story in Shenmue III is to be commended. I was driven to discover what had happened to Shenhua’s father, the story of the Phoenix and Dragon mirrors and how that tied into a narrative that had spanned three games and over twenty years. And whilst it didn’t wrap up as cleanly as I hoped, it did just enough to get me to the end.
The only thing dragging me down was the game itself. Unfortunately for Shenmue III, it is in fact a videogame.
There were other high points in my trek through Shenmue III. When the writing clicked and characters had a decent back and forth, there were some genuinely funny and endearing moments. I even laughed out loud at some of the game’s flashes of comic timing. Unfortunately, it was only towards the very end of the game where I can say I truly had fun. Rounded out with a well-paced, entertaining and varied climax, it was still too little, too late. These bursts of genuine, unhindered entertainment merely pockmarked what I found to be an otherwise stale slog of a videogame.
The Yakuza series and even later Persona games have built upon the principles of Shenmue and bettered them. This was the opportunity for Shenmue to be more than a series confined to history — an opportunity that wasn’t capitalised on.
Still, despite the fact Shenmue III delivered my worst experiences with a videogame in 2019, I have a kind of absurd respect for both the game and Yu Suzuki. To have been so determined to deliver this vision, to have not flinched in the face of an industry tied to ‘the next big thing’, and to have created a game that feels so close to the original is a feat that’s almost admirable.
The choices made in the creation of Shenmue III are the complete antithesis of modern game design, but its strict adherence to the roots of the series is something the hardcore fans — the people that crowdfunded this game into existence — will likely adore. Still, I can’t help but feel the legacy of Shenmue would have been better served by moving forwards instead of treading almost two-decade-old water.
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