This morning, after 18 years of waiting, I finally finished Shenmue III. As I’ve referenced before, I am a huge fan of the original two Shenmue games, and an eager Kickstarter backer of this third part.
So obviously, the big question is: How was it? Well, I’ve got a lot to say.
By now, Shenmue III has already been reviewed by gaming news outlets, and many of the opinions I’ve read on those sites do hold water. However, I’d also like to add my perspective as a Shenmue nerd.
As you’ve probably heard, Shenmue III picks up mere moments after the finale of Shenmue II: our protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, having met a girl named Shenhua in the wilderness of China, finds giant representations of the Dragon and Phoenix mirrors (the MacGuffins of the story) in a cave near Shenhua’s home near Bailu village. Shenhua’s father, the stonemason who created the mirrors, has disappared, so now it’s off to Bailu to gather information leading to his whereabouts.
Ryo learns enough to realize that the trail leads him to Niaowu, a city in the mountains, to continue their search, which is the game’s second location. Here, it’s more of the same, following the story while occasionally buying capsule toys, Skill Books to learn new fighting moves, and yes, even the option to work a good ol’ forklift job.
So as you can surmise, true-blue Shenmue fans should find what they’re looking for here: a slow-paced, virtual tourist experience of being sent on wild goose chases, collecting clues while plugging away at mini-games and kung fu training exercises to build money and stats. And yes, there are arcades, and some of them even have old-school electromechanical games to play!
But Shenmue — for me, at least, and I think this goes for a lot of fans — has also always been about the “feel” of the game. The locations, the music, the characters, and the overall “style” go a long way toward making a Shenmue game what it is. In that respect, the game’s presentation is spot on — for better or worse.
The environments are beautifully rendered and enjoyable to run around in. You’ll see many re-used objects throughout the world, however: the same potted plant in every corner, the same tray of mangoes in every vegetable stand, the same books on every shelf.
The characters are often cartoony caricatures, many bordering on straight-up ugly — much like they were in the Dreamcast originals, but now rendered at much higher resolution, with more realistic depth and detail.
It’s as if they intentionally placed some limitations on the game to make it feel like we’re still playing on the Dreamcast — which again, in a way, adds to the Shenmue feel, but newcomers to the series may be wondering what all the fuss could possibly be about with this game.
And with that, I must address the pacing and overall play experience of Shenmue III. Stick with me for a minute here:
If you played Shenmue I and II right before this — either the Dreamcast originals or the remastered versions on current consoles — you’ll feel right at home. However, the game I finished immediately prior to this was Judgment (aka Judge Eyes). Think about that for a moment: Judgment is a spinoff of the Yakuza/Ryu ga Gotoku series, which has been widely accepted as Shenmue’s spiritual successor. The Yakuza series itself has undergone refinement and streamlining over 7 main series titles and numerous spinoffs since its start on the PlayStation 2, continuing right up through the current console generation of PS4. Therefore, Judgment is the very latest evolution of the style of game that Shenmue itself created 20 years ago. Judgment and the last two Yakuza titles, Yakuza 6 and Yakuza 0, were fast-paced, seamless, yet robust adventures that wasted no time getting the player immersed in their world.
Then I started Shenmue III, and quickly realized that it dialed all those gameplay innovations allllll the way back to 2001. It’s much slower-paced. It doesn’t control as smoothly. Combat is once again closer to the first few Virtua Fighters’ stiff, strategic stick-block-dodge style than it is to Yakuza’s lightning-fast strings of face-bashing combos and hilariously over-the-top bicycle-smashing power moves.
Likewise, the tasks of discovering information and advancing the story are so much slower: it took me four in-game days to ask about a dozen Bailu villagers if they’d “seen some thugs recently.”
It was shockingly jarring to me, and I’ll be honest: when I started playing Shenmue III, I kinda wasn’t crazy about it, and I wasn’t sure if I could stick with it.
But three or four play sessions in, the strangest thing happened: I started getting into it, and the old feelings of what Shenmue was like started to return. Although I was conscious of the fact that the gameplay felt dated, it somehow started to feel really good to get into its relaxed groove. I knew nothing was going to be revealed to me immediately. I knew I was going to have to jump through a bunch of silly hoops to achieve the next beat in the story. But the real beauty of all of that is that it gives you the time to appreciate the world you’re exploring.
Shenmue is about escapism. And once you give yourself over to it, you get lost in it. You are in Bailu; you are in Niaowu. Just like you were previously in Hong Kong or Yokosuka, almost two decades ago.
So yes, the warm fuzzies return for the Shenmue faithful. Now, with that being said, there is still much room for improvement.
The dialog…oh, that Shenmue dialog. At first, it was just great to hear Corey Marshall reprise his role as the English voice of Ryo. However, the writing is so wooden and awful that I had to switch to Japanese voice acting for the rest of the game. You still get these types of classic Shenmue exchanges (and this is not an exact quote, but they’re just like this):
Ryo approaches someone standing in the road: “Excuse me.”
NPC aggressively barks: “What the heck do you want?”
Ryo: “I want to ask you something.”
NPC, doing absolutely nothing: “Can’t you see I’m busy? Go ask someone else!”
Yep, you’ll probably remember that much of the dialog in the original games was like this, and it’s back with a vengeance. Non-sequiturs abound. There’s a girl in Niaowu, standing outside a cafe in a maid’s uniform, whose job it ostensibly must be to greet customers, when approached (and this IS an actual quote):
Ryo: “Excuse me, do you have a moment?”
Girl, cute as can be, with a smile on her face: “Ugh, what?”
…Anyway, moving on.
Quick Time Events, or QTEs, are back. Now, as a Dragon’s Lair fan, I don’t mind them, but I felt like the QTEs in Shenmue III never seem to give you quite enough time to react to each button or direction prompt. I’m usually pretty quick on the draw, but I failed almost every single time until I learned what commands were coming, thanks to repetition of the scenes.
The health system is another point of contention for me: Ryo’s health meter constantly ticks down, even when he’s standing still, and drains quickly when he’s running. You are expected to keep Ryo fed to keep his health up (what is this, Gauntlet??), which means buying stocks of food and/or herbal supplements, which means you need to make money. So a large part of the game is actually working part-time jobs, like chopping wood or driving a forklift, in order to make money to buy food so that Ryo doesn’t run out of gas just from walking around. I hate it. It’s such an unnecessary mechanic that just creates busywork in a game that’s apparently worried about not giving you enough to do.
And it’s not just money; stats, such as Ryo’s Attack and Stamina (health meter), which combine into his overall Kung Fu level, must be built by training on wooden dummies and acquiring new Skill Books which need to be mastered by sparring with opponents at martial arts training halls. So, even though your health constantly drains, at least there are ways to build it up, and new attacks to learn, which make combat easier and more fun — which is good, because until you figure that out, the first few fights in this game actually kinda suck. I got my butt kicked more than a few times before I figured out how to beef up a little.
However, all this means GRINDING. There is so much grinding for money and stats in Shenmue III that it starts to grind away at the fun of the game itself. New moves must be repeated incessantly to build them up over 10 levels to “Master” status, and your stat meters grow slowly as you slog away at your training. Chopping wood yields little pay, catching ducks isn’t much better, and the forklift job is more lucrative but just as repetitive as there’s only one route (unlike the original Shenmue where you got one of several different routes every day you worked). Later in the game, there is an item which you must acquire for the price of 5,000 yuan. The game urges you to try gambling to make quick cash, and gives you the hint that a fortune teller can tell you your lucky color or number, which is what you’re supposed to bet on. Unfortunately, it’s never a sure thing: I got my lucky color, went straight over to the Flower, Bird, Sun and Moon game, bet on my color twice, and lost both times. F— you, ya two-bit, back-alley fortune telling fake! Forklift driving is the only sure way to make halfway decent money, and you can expect a full day of running that one route to yield a couple grand at best, so if you’re broke, you’re looking at 3 days of forklifting to afford that thing you need. (Fortunately, should you wish to play through the game additional times, you can start a “new game plus”-type mode, restarting the story while retaining your stats and inventory.)
There’s also a system of exchange in many shops, where you can trade herbs or items for Skill Books, or sell stuff for money, so there are various of options for ways to go about things. But honestly, it just results in more busywork, when you really just wanna figure out where the hell Shenhua’s old man is and find Lan Di for a chance to smack him around a little.
Which brings us to the conclusion: while I won’t reveal anything, this may be considered a SPOILER so read ahead at your own discretion.
The story isn’t over. Yep, after all this time, we are operating under the assumption that there are more Shenmue games coming. Which is great! A message from Yu Suzuki at the end of the game says he hopes that Shenmue IV is in our future. But at some point, I think we need to look realistically at some closure here. After all the time I spent with Shenmue III, the story has not advanced much further from Shenmue II, and that’s a little frustrating after that 18-year wait.
So did I like Shenmue III, overall? Yeah, of course I liked it. I’m a Shenmue fanboy, and proud of it. (I couldn’t find my name in the credits though, even though I was a Kickstarter backer!)
Shenmue nerds like me will be able to overlook the flaws in the game, or brush them off as just being part of Shenmue’s “charm.” And while I am willing to accept it that way as well, I also think Suzuki would do well to bring Shenmue IV’s mechanics up to speed somewhat with a bit more modern appeal. Would it be possible for Shenmue to come back to Sega? (Sega still owns the Shenmue IP, and licensed it to Suzuki for this installment — there are even Astro City arcade cabinets and Virtua Fighter references in the game). Because I feel like it may be a match made in heaven for Suzuki to work with Sega’s RGG Studio to streamline the gameplay of future Shenmue games. Although, perhaps being under the Sega banner again could bring unwanted corporate interference — I really don’t know about those types of politics. And I certainly don’t expect Ryo to bash anyone over the head with a bicycle.
But I do think a balance could be struck between the playability of a RGG studio game and the lazy escapism of classic Shenmue. Hopefully Shenmue IV will find it. Meanwhile, I’m very happy that Shenmue III finally happened, and is now part of gaming history.