It’s been a rough couple of decades for Shenmue fans. Ever since the multi-million dollar, highly ambitious game ultimately helped sink Sega in the early 2000s, those hoping for a continuation of the story that was to follow Shenmue II’s cliffhanger were left, well, hanging for years. It all seemed hopeless for people like me, for which the Shenmue games were formative experiences.
Then came Sony’s 2015 E3 press conference where seemingly out of nowhere — to me, anyway — series creator and videogame design legend Yu Suzuki stepped onto the stage to announce that Shenmue 3 would indeed be coming out, and that in order to get the project rolling, a Kickstarter would be opened. I wasted no time in contributing to my first ever crowd-funded game, and since then, I’ve kept in touch with all of the development news that trickled out via update e-mails and through the news. It all seemed worrying as continuous delays hit, and for as little that was shown of the game in trade shows around the world. Still, I held hope that it would eventually turn into something worth the long wait, and after finally getting to play the final release, I can say, as a fan, that it’s been a tough pill to swallow.
Picking up exactly where Shenmue II ended, the third entry opens up with Ryo and Shenhua making their way out of the cave where they found two giant emblems representing the mysterious mirrors that have caused Ryo so much anguish in the previous two games. It just so happens that his father was killed by Lan Di, a Chinese gangster who broke into their home in Yokosuka, Japan, in order to steal the mirror that was said to be hidden there. Since then, Ryo’s been on a quest for revenge which eventually led him to China’s countryside region of Guilin, and to Shenhua’s village, a girl who apparently held the key to finding out just what the heck was going on.
Both Shenmue games were revolutionary back when they were first released in 1999 and 2001 respectively. As parts of an incredibly expensive enterprise which took years and more than one console generation to bear any fruit, they introduced many elements that were eventually polished by other games that came after them. For as rough as playing through Shenmue is these days, they were amazingly ambitious and somewhat ahead of their time twenty years ago. Many consider the modern Yakuza franchise to be the spiritual successor for Shenmue, and I tend to agree. They basically broke off the aspects of Shenmue that slowed down the older games, keeping the investigative structure, the incredible ambiance, and of course, the hand-to-hand combat which were the signatures of Suzuki’s labor of love. But unlike Shenmue, Yakuza eventually grew in popularity and eventually turned into big sellers. Shenmue, sadly, was a flop, for as generally critically-acclaimed as it was, so much so that it’s garnered quite a following, eventually becoming a cult hit over the years.
Shenmue 3 doesn’t break the mold in any way. Outside of the obvious much improved visuals, it could otherwise be considered a straightforward sequel that in an alternate dimension, could have just as well been released twenty years ago. Suzuki’s Ys Net team stuck to the original game design doc to a T, basically ignoring all the innovations that have come since the first two games’ release. In a nutshell, Shenmue 3 plays pretty much exactly like Shenmue. It’s a game that would’ve already been considered old back when its project was announced, let alone a game released in 2019. It’s clunky, plodding, and maddeningly put together, and even a fan like myself, who was willing to put up with years of waiting and hope of finally seeing it through, can’t help but be heartbroken by the final product that’s been put out.
The argument that some other fans have been making that this game is exactly what the series needed to keep going rings painfully false. It’s been years since the original entries were released, and game design has been refined and improved, and there have been much better examples to follow and serve as inspiration to the dev team behind Shenmue 3. Sure, having Suzuki lead the project most likely swerved the whole thing towards what the game eventually became, but even him, a figure who’s seen as one of the big creative names in the industry, who’s put out some of the most classic arcade games ever for Sega, should’ve stepped back and had a look around what’s become of the videogame industry since 2001.
I could easily spend hours going through the list of what most frustrates me about Shenmue 3, but I’ll limit myself to only a few, starting with the combat. It boggles my mind that the same creator behind Virtua Fighter, my all-time favorite fighting game franchise, is also behind the development of what is served as an excuse to the martial arts in Shenmue 3. I won’t kid myself and look back in rose-tinted glasses to the original games’ combat and say it was anything amazing, but man, is it bad in this game. Fighting one-on-one is just painful thanks to how late the game is in recognizing button inputs, and the general sluggishness of the movement. It’s downright comical and even a little cruel to have the game lock early story progression behind winning a fight only for it to take a few hours to get through, forcing you to go grinding levels in order to have a slight chance at winning.
Then comes the pacing of the game in general. Shenmue was never known for its brisk progression, and Shenmue 3 feels even slower thanks to its uneven presentation and bizarre direction. Dialogue scenes drag as they’re cut into fade-in and fade-outs rather abruptly, mid-conversation, changing camera angles and throwing any sense of continuity out the window, like a badly put together TV show where the editor used pieces of film off of the cutting room floor to cobble something together. It happens all too often and especially during Ryo’s conversations with Shenhua, which are conspicuously the longest strings of talking that one character spends with another throughout the game. That doesn’t mean other dialog opportunities feel any less awkward, but it’s an entirely different issue altogether.
Given that like its predecessors Shenmue 3 is a game about investigation where Ryo has to go around and find clues about whatever he’s looking for at any one time, you’re forced to talk to people over and over in order to check off hints in his notebook, and only then can you make any progress. That means you’ll have to listen to the same lines of dialogue delivered by a mostly monotone Ryo Hazuki — doesn’t matter if you play with English or Japanese voice acting, it’s bad either way — as he endlessly inquires about his current objective. It doesn’t help that most of the folks he talks to aren’t that excited about a random Japanese teenager nosing about their quiet village, forcing you to click through needlessly boring exchanges that usually yield no results. Then there’s the matter of having the same piece of info being delivered to you repeatedly, with only a tiny bit of anything new, before it’s officially considered that you have reached the next step in the investigation — usually pointing you to yet another person to talk to, who’s most likely only home after 7 PM, prompting you to wait until that time before engaging them.
That’s right, Shenmue 3 follows up on the original games’ real-time clock system, which takes into account people’s schedules and having some of them be completely inaccessible depending on when you try to talk to them. So Ryo’s day normally begins with him waking up at Shenhua’s house and him making his way down to the village, but not before she comes to say goodbye. Every single time. You’re then given until the evening in in-game hours to go after your current clues, or engage in activities, like hunting for toys in capsule machines, doing menial tasks like cutting lumber as a side job, shopping, training in martial arts, playing a host of minigames, or simply picking herbs by the side of the road. Once 7 PM hits, Ryo looks at his watch and points out that he should head back, but you can keep looking around if you want, in the dark, like a weirdo. Your call.
Shenmue 3’s plodding pacing and overall jank doesn’t manage to play down just how beautiful it can look at times. Thanks to the Unreal engine, the rich in nature locales that Shenmue 3 takes place in are absolutely gorgeous, and thanks to some characteristically great lighting provided by UE, the game’s realistically rendered foliage and water are quite a sight, even with the equally trademarked drawn-in from time to time. The same can’t be said about character models, which vary wildly in quality and realism. Ryo himself looks okay when compared to his original Dreamcast model, and the same goes with Shennhua, the other protagonist who also popped up in the original games, but other humans in Shenmue 3 can be downright ugly and comically proportioned, or normally rendered. It’s a toss up, really, but when a character looks bad in this game, they look REALLY bad, scaringly so.
Admittedly, hearing the series’ string instrument theme instantly pulls my heartstrings in nostalgia, so it’s great to hear it be played in Shenmue 3 along with the rest of the decently put together soundtrack. The voice work in the game is of similar quality to what was seen in the previous entries, and for as weird as some of the line deliveries can be, I can’t help but not point a finger at a badly worded script. There’s only so much an actor can do with the lines that they’re given, so it’s easy to give a pass to the people who read the lines for this game. Although Ryo is far from the waterfront, he’s bound to discover some equally unintentional hilarity this time around when he asked around for sailors back in the first Shenmue. Something involving thugs, perhaps?
Expectations can be killer, and as a die-hard fan of Shenmue since the Dreamcast days, I tried not to let them color my analysis of Shenmue 3. Yes, I am one of the many backers for its Kickstarter project, and I could just as easily allowed that to steer my judgment, but there’s simply too much to overlook. There have been many evolutions over the years since Shenmue came out that should have been taken into account in this newest entry that just weren’t, to its utter detriment. What got released could’ve just as easily been put out alongside the original games, and even then, it would probably have been knocked for having some aspects of it that play even worse than its predecessors. Considering it’s coming out in 2019, it would be a disservice not to look at it through the lens of the current gaming market, and by that, there’s no way getting around the fact that Shenmue 3 is a deeply flawed game.