Eighteen years is a long time to wait for anything, so it’s understandable that when Shenmue III was announced during PlayStation’s 2015 E3 conference, fans collectively took to Kickstarter to eagerly fund the elusive third entry in Yu Suzuki’s sprawling epic. Shenmue has forever remained a very tragic and romantic series, with the first title created at the dawn of 3D gaming and still touted today as the ‘first open-world game’, a technological powerhouse for the Dreamcast. Shenmue and Shenmue II were even once speculated to be the most expensive video games ever made as the two were made in succession of one another. Yet even the most die-hard fans of the original titles such as myself will tell you these games were far from perfect, with their dated (yet incredible for the time) character models and B-movie tier English dubs, it’s how ambitious of a project Shenmue was for 1999 and 2001 that has made them fundamental parts of gaming’s history, combined with one of gaming’s first attempts at an ever-growing, unfolding narrative, one creator Yu Suzuki initially mapped out to be 11 chapters long (with each game and some spin-off media covering multiple chapters).
Unfortunately, despite finding its niche and leaving a major impact on the gaming industry, Shenmue’s ambition wasn’t enough to save SEGA and the Dreamcast from failure, and the plug was pulled around five chapters into Suzuki’s story, with SEGA going third-party not too long after and the remaining team forming the studio’s now massive Yakuza franchise. Thanks to the power of crowd-funding, Shenmue III has finally made its way to fans courtesy of Yu Suzuki’s new studio Ys Net with additional backing from publisher Deep Silver. The best thing that can be said for Shenmue III is that, against all odds and for better or worse, it is definitely a Shenmue game.
Shenmue III continues Ryo Hazuki’s journey to fight the elusive Lan Di and take revenge for his father’s murder. After meeting a young Chinese girl his fate is intertwined with named Shenhua, he learns that her father had some hand in the creation of the Dragon and Phoenix Mirrors that Lan Di murdered Ryo’s father to reclaim, but now her father has been kidnapped by a group associated with Lan Di. Ryo spends his days questioning the townspeople of Bailu Village, Shenhua’s hometown, as to his whereabouts as the narrative unfolds, full of new and familiar faces, such as Lan Di’s main henchman and follower Chai and the beloved Shenmue II character Ren.
As Suzuki has stated multiple times, don’t expect any sort of definitive conclusion to the overall Shenmue narrative with Shenmue III as the title presumably covers chapters six and seven of the eleven-chapter story; however, Shenmue III does offer enough of a satisfying narrative as not to feel pointless. That said, the story is majorly downplayed in comparison to Shenmue II and takes an approach more similar to the first game’s, slowly stretching out the narrative by having the player carefully explore each section of the game worlds. Some will be disappointed that Shenmue III doesn’t do more story-wise, especially after the eighteen-year wait, but as a part of the larger Shenmue puzzle, I found the narrative to be satisfying enough, offering some of the series’ best character moments (finally fleshing out Shenhua past the final few hours of Shenmue II) and showing a surprising amount of growth for Ryo.
With Shenmue III, the team at Ys Net have confidently stuck to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” approach to game design to an almost stubborn degree. The player is once again dropped into one of two open worlds with the task of exploration within an in-game 10-hour day where they can try to progress the story by talking to the locals, work a part-time job to keep their funds up (fork-lifting, anyone?), train in martial arts in a dojo or gamble and play arcade games. While Shenmue III doesn’t take too many risks in trying to modernize or shake up the series, per se, it’s how Ys Net has had to work around rebuilding those mechanics from scratch now that the series has jumped from the SEGA Dreamcast to the PlayStation 4 and modern PCs.
For one, the combat system, which was originally based on SEGA’s Virtua Fighter battle system, has been completely redesigned here and is by far Shenmue III’s biggest problem. While combat in the original series was never perfect, it at least felt deep enough that you could see the Virtua Fighter roots. This time, on the other hand, combat feels like the video game equivalent of bashing toys together. The game tries to teach you its combos through the training functionalities in the dojos, but even after performing a command correctly, there’s a considerable amount of delay between the very small window of time that buttons can be pressed and Ryo actually attacking the enemy. It got to a point where combat got so borderline unplayable that I found myself dropping the game’s difficulty every time I reached a boss encounter. This is made even worse by the new mechanic that sees Ryo gradually losing health as he walks or runs around each area, meaning the player has to constantly run to a nearby shop and buy a large quantity of health items, reducing their money, which can be very difficult to earn in the first area.
As previously mentioned, Shenmue III takes place within two open-world areas, the first of which is Shenhua’s home, Bailu Village, with the second being Choubu, a riverside city with a port Ryo can work at and a ton of commodities and leisurely activities to take part in. Both act as refreshing callbacks to the contrasting designs of the first two titles, with Bailu Village taking the original Shenmue’s approach to having a smaller world with townsfolk the player comes to know over time and learn the day-to-day patterns of, with a generally more laid-back and slower approach to dishing out the narrative. Following this, Choubu takes Shenmue II’s more impersonal cities with lots to do and more focused approach to its narrative that really makes Shenmue III feel like a ‘greatest hits’ collection of the franchise of sorts. The arcade games this time have all been replaced with more standard, unlicensed affairs in contrast to the previous games allowing you to play classic SEGA games and win toys of SEGA characters from capsule machines. What’s left is some fun pastimes but nothing that left me addicted and wanting to pass the time as playing classics like Space Harrier and OutRun have in the past two games or even SEGA’s more recent Yakuza and Judgment games have. Still, there is nothing quite like winning a game of Lucky Hit or even frantically button mashing racing turtles as a new addition.
Being a lower-budget Kickstarter title (with some additional funding from Deep Silver and Epic Games), Shenmue III is unfortunately not the technical showcase in 2019 as the previous titles were for the Dreamcast. Instead, the team have opted for an art style that calls back to the past two titles aesthetically, a move that has come across pretty divisive reactions from the general gaming audience. While Shenmue III’s character models aren’t perfect by any means and definitely leave a lot to be desired, I do find it charmingly characteristic for a game of this series. Shenmue has always had a very awkward air to it, be it the stilted dialogue, hilarious English voice acting and even the painted on faces of the original character models. As a fan, there’s some sort of comforting consistency with the characters here that I don’t think many other games would get away with. Shenmue III’s visuals really shine in its environments and lighting effects, which take full advantage of Unreal Engine 4’s capabilities and make the worlds truly gorgeous and enticing to explore. The soundtrack this time is more of what made the first two titles so captivating with gorgeous orchestrated pieces and familiar motifs courtesy of returning series composer Ryuji Iuchi.
Even if it never truly tops its predecessors, Shenmue III is a confident and captivating return to Yu Suzuki’s wonderful franchise that helped shape modern open-world games. While the story doesn’t take any major twists or turns, it also doesn’t play things safe enough to feel unnecessary, and it helps flesh out new and old characters alike. While SEGA may have moved on to bigger and arguably better things, Shenmue III is a reminder that neither Ryo Hazuki nor Yu Suzuki have lost their magic.
Developer: YS Net
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platforms: PS4, PC
Release Date: 19th November 2019
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