From Yu Suzuki comes one of the most anticipated sequels in gaming history as Shenmue III, against all odds, finally sees the light of day thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign and a lot of patience from fans of the franchise all over the world.
One of the original open world games, Shenmue was a big hit critically, if not commercially, back in 1999 and a sequel was soon released, also for the Dreamcast. The bigger and better Shenmue II later found a rebirth of sorts on the original Xbox and both games are currently available together for the PS4 and the Xbox One. The road to Shenmue III was a long one with numerous speed bumps along the way but here we are, finally. Shenmue II's infamously effective cliffhanger left fans with more questions than answers so the pressure was on for this third instalment to deliver the goods.
Of course, this being 18 years later, on a new console, with a significantly lower budget, Shenmue III was always going to be a different beast altogether. The big hope was that the game would, at the very least, keep that iconic Shenmue feel and I'm happy to report that this late sequel definitely achieved that. Shenmue III may look slicker but it sure feels like a Shenmue game with its chilled out pace, beautiful settings you can't wait to lose yourself in time and time again, its celebration of time-wasting, the emphasis on martial-arts training, that off-beat sense of humour, the playful dialog and characters, the atmospheric soundtrack etc. It's all back and, for a Shenmue fan, this is both a treat and a huge relief.
You can tell that great care was put into making Shenmue III as legit of a sequel as possible. That said, you can also spot the elements of the game that just couldn't meet the rather high standards straight away. And, while one can look past the odd glitchy conversation, clunky character movement or subtitle typo, other shortcomings are harder to dismiss but we'll get to all that.
The game picks up where Shenmue II left off. Previously, Ryo Hazuki and Shenhua Ling had gone looking for the latter's missing father Yuan in a cave. There, they found that Ryo's Phoenix Mirror was the key to unlocking a mysterious sword. Finally, they exit said cave and continue their search for Yuan and Ryo's father's killer Lan Di. We therefore get to explore Shenhua's home of Bailu, a small, inviting village surrounded by hills, forests and flowery fields. Bailu Village is a beautiful setting by any standard and it is truly a pleasure to take one's time and discover all that it has to offer.
In Shenmue II, walking in Guilin was a joy but also a somewhat limited experience. Here, you are given a lot more space to explore, you can pick various herbs all over the place which you can then exchange for money or skill books (martial arts move scrolls) and, as you get further into the game, there are lots of fishing spots you can use. Yes, fishing is one of the new activities available to Ryo this time around. Wood chopping is another, and it's a fun one as Ryo earns money chopping wood and is rewarded for particularly good chops with music from old Afterburner arcade games.
Gambling-wise, there's pail toss, frog and turtle races, new Lucky Hit stands, arcade games and more. In Shenmue III, however, you are expected to purchase tokens in order to gamble, which is good in that it saves you wasting too much money as the tokens are cheaper, but it also means you'll have to go to a Prize Exchange instead of earning money directly. You'll quickly notice there are changes to familiar games as popular SEGA properties you'd expect like Sonic The Hedgehog are sadly absent from capsule toy machines and the arcades, replaced with more generic selections. While the new arcade games are enjoyable enough, especially the Chobu Chan-starring Virtua Fighter spoof, they lack a certain cool factor and don't live up to the ones available in recent Yakuza spin-off Judgment.
Another big change is the fighting. Controls-wise, the free fights aren't exactly like they were in the other games but close enough that it all still feels good, familiar and appropriate. Whereas sparring used to merely be a means to practice one's moves for fun, it is now a must. One of Shenmue III's big innovations is to prioritize training over fighting and put sparring front and center as you don't just master a move by opening up a scroll but instead practice by sparring with others in order to level up your kung fu, endurance and attacks. You can also use wooden dummies to do that through the One Inch Punch, Horse Stance and Rooster Step mini games. Once a move is finally mastered through sparring, you are then free to use it in battle as a special move, which is only one click of the R2 button away. But choose wisely as some moves are slower than others.
The old QTE system gets a bit of a makeover here also. However, the result is hit-and-miss in that the ticking and blinking of the buttons on screen whenever you are urged to avoid or attack someone is replaced by a meter that fills up clockwise around the button and an element of urgency is therefore lost making the QTE sections a bit of a pain. Unfortunately, you are expected to catch ducks and chickens in this new format, though this activity is admittedly tons of fun regardless. More options in terms of switching between new and old controls, formats and such would have been welcome. Same goes for the zooms that show a camera-style box in the middle of the screen, and the ability to skip dialog, not just cut scenes.
In Bailu Village, Ryo's detective work isn't really the focus as the plot moves quite slowly, allowing you time to enjoy Bailu and its activities as well as connect with Shenhua. This is a surprisingly enjoyable part of the game where you come home by 9pm and have long chats with Shenhua. You ask each other questions, the player gets the option as to what Ryo should answer next, and there's even a silly "Face-Off" game thrown in. You get a good feel for these characters and Ryo shows more personality than he ever has in these moments, which is refreshing. Sadly, this is toned way down rather than built upon in the Niaowu section of the game.
There are some optional side missions in the game, often involving kids, where you are sent to recover a particular item, whether it be a stolen teddy bear or a particular capsule toy, and you are usually rewarded with a sellable/collectible item or a secret fishing spot tip. Speaking of selling, the pawn shops are back and they accept complete sets of herbs, toys or other items either in exchange for skill books or money.
There are also normal shops where food and drinks can be purchased and, even though this used to barely be a thing, eating and drinking are essential in this game as it fills up your health bar which depletes as you walk around, spar and fight. Though you still don't see Ryo actually eat. Some energy drinks are even available to use during fights and will come in handy for more impatient players. One small downside is Ryo buying a can of soda at a drinks machine isn't an event anymore, you simply click on the drink and that's it. There are no special prize draws at the Tomato Convenience Store either. On the plus side, Ryo can actually change his clothes this time. There are even fishing tournaments where you can win some fancy new jackets.
The Bailu part of the game ends after Ryo faces a group of thugs for the third time, along with old foe Chai, and solves a couple of puzzles. This first section feels a lot like the first Shenmue game with its smaller scale, slower pace and overall simplicity. You are sad to leave it behind when the time comes but also excited to see what comes next.
The city of Niaowu follows and it has a different vibe, to say the least. Though, thankfully, it manages to keep everything about Bailu you enjoyed and feared you might lose going forward. Niaowu is a little reminiscent of Wan Chai in Shenmue II: a big, busy area with lots of shops, restaurants, temples and a harbor. It's impossible to get bored in Niaowu and exploring it is a real treat as there's tons to discover from adorable little chickens hidden in every single location (see Chobu Chan, above), tons of mini-missions, lots of moves to purchase and practice, a Shenmue shrine with playful nods to the Kickstarter donors, fighting tournaments, forklifts, vast areas with herbs agogo, several arcades, many capsule toy machines, fishing spots all over, and so on.
You can even call your favorite characters from previous games on the phone. Though, be warned: some of the voice actors in the English version are not the same and sound very different.
There's a genuine worry, once you leave Bailu, that whatever comes next might be too similar in scale but Niaowu delivers a really fun and unique experience. You finally see more of Shenmue II's influence and the game now starts to feel like an evolution, like... Shenmue III. This is when Ren, from the previous game, comes into play and helps drive the plot, which becomes almost like a treasure hunt instead of a revenge story before finally, and randomly, settling into a last-minute rescue mission. There are some nifty twists and new characters in there, plus the climax of the game definitely has its moments, but the Niaowu section of the game is ultimately bittersweet since it turns out to be the last thing that Shenmue III has to offer.
Indeed, Shenmue III gets your hopes way up with what is a really cool setting and a plot that finally seems to lead us somewhere exciting only to end on an awkward note, nowhere near wrapping things up story-wise and leaving you to scratch your head wondering why things had to end so quickly. The final challenge you are faced with isn't too tough either and Ryo's inevitable showdown with Lan Di is but a trailer for possible future games, instead of an epic face-off built-up over many years. A risky move seeing as every single Shenmue game has been a chore to get off the ground and 18 years went by between II and III so promising another sequel now is rather ambitious.
In the end, Shenmue III may not be a short game in terms of hours you can put into it if you take your time with it (and you should) but, story-wise, it is bare-bones, even compared to the first Shenmue. You can tell there's a bigger plot there, a script Yu Suzuki probably wrote long ago, only a third of which made it into this game. The relatively low budget does play a part in this, of course, as it does the overall unrefined, if nicely designed and textured, character graphics. This was never going to be THE Shenmue III that fans dreamed of all these years but the amount of care put into what we got will give you hope that it might actually get close enough to it. Only to then send you crashing back down to Earth, I'm sorry to say.
Shenmue III is not a bad game. It's just not really a full game, which is a shame. There's a lot of good in it and it has tons of potential: you can see an awesome Shenmue game in there, you can even feel it throughout. In fact, one might say that this isn't so much an official Shenmue sequel as it is a new way for fans to experience being in the Shenmue universe, long after it was thought to be unreachable. In all honesty, as a fan, I enjoyed everything the game had to offer, even stuff like the occasionally cheesy dialog, the silly sense of humour, the overall rejection of a modern game feel. I enjoyed looking for Chobu Chan everywhere, I enjoyed searching for herbs and training obsessively, I enjoyed all the new characters, I enjoyed learning more about Iwao Hazuki's pre-Yokosuka life and Bailu Village's history, Corey Marshall's excellent and timeless performance as Ryo, the many nods to the other games...
In short: I enjoyed Shenmue III.
While it lasted.
And, if you just want to be in that world once more, you will enjoy it too. However, if you're expecting something super slick or very big scale-wise or in terms of story, or any sort of conclusion, you will be disappointed. I would recommend the uninitiated to opt for the Shenmue I & II collection instead, just to see if they like the games and like them enough to try the third one. Then, maybe pick it up at a slightly reduced price. As for die-hard fans, I would advise them to manage their expectations, see the game for what it is, in the right context, and have fun with what we got because there is a whole lot to have fun with here. Though this review may sound harsh to some, please also note that, for me, just playing any new Shenmue game is gravy as I never thought this project would actually see the light of day.
I'm even looking forward to trying out that new DLC, it sounds fun.
Think of Shenmue III as a particularly rare Chobu Chan, one you just want to cherish and hug as much as possible, until it breaks apart. Shenmue IV talk is already a thing with fans online and, after this latest one, count me in but especially if the next one focuses a lot more on story while keeping the little things that make Shenmue special intact and polishing the character animations and dialog a bit. This is a franchise still in dire need of a conclusion so I'm hoping that this is what'll come next. With, perhaps, Judgment-style spin-offs down the line.
We shall see.