I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that Shenmue III was downloaded to my PlayStation 4 and was ready to play. It’s been eighteen years since the last Shenmue game was released, and probably at least fifteen years since I first played it, and though I had picked up the remastered versions of Shenmue I and II earlier this year, and I was aware of the impending release of Shenmue III, I don’t think that I’d ever actually expected that I would see a continuation of Ryo Hazuki’s story. Nevertheless, here we are, with a new Shenmue game released and the chance to return to the hunt for Lan Di and to solve the mystery of the Phoenix Mirror.
For better or worse, Shenmue III feels like a continuation of the Shenmue series, though with some additions that make the game feel a little more current. As there seems to be in almost every game released these days, there’s a set of RPG-lite systems, here tied to your health and your fighting skills, and these can be improved by practicing your martial arts and improving your body strength by taking part in sparring and mini-games. There’s also a stamina system, where you need to make sure that Ryo eats regularly to keep his health up, and entering a fight or attempting to perform a task while hungry will leave Ryo at a serious disadvantage. It’s a system that makes sense in real-world terms, but it can occasionally feel a little much like padding, and an attempt to force the player into getting involved in the cycle of working small jobs, gambling and shopping, instead of just mainlining the narrative. However, the Shenmue series has always tried to be about making sure that the player feels part of a world that could feasibly exist, and these mechanics seem like an extension of that ambition, so the heavy-handedness with which they’re thrust upon the player can be forgiven.
One thing that the original Shenmue did that seemed to be neglected in the sequel was to make you care about the various NPCs that you would bump into each day. This in turn gave you a feeling that you were starting to get to know individuals and starting to become part of the community. If you had a particular question or mystery that needed solving, you would often have some idea of who would be the best person to ask, even before the game itself started to lay a breadcrumb trail you guide you in the right direction. Shenmue II dropped the ball on this a little, and though it make sense that Ryo would feel lost and anonymous in a larger city that was new to him, it had the knock-on effect of making Shenmue II feel a little soulless. Thankfully, Shenmue III encourages getting to know your fellow man again, and though there aren’t many characters or locations that are as memorable as the first game (though it’s likely nostalgia is playing its part there) you do start to feel more and more involved in each community that you visit.
Without trying to venture too much into spoilers with regards to the hows and whys, Ryo spends most of his time in Shenmue III split between two different locations: Bailu Village and the city of Niaowu. Bailu Village is an idyllic, if sleepy, habitation in the Chinese countryside, full of older residents and green pastures, while Niaowu is a bustling port town, not as large as Hong Kong or Kowloon from Shenmue II, but big enough that you’ll often lose your bearings for the first couple of days that you’re there. There’s an interesting twist in the dynamics of the game as you travel from one to the other, and I only noticed it once I began to think about how the game was structured and why each location felt so different from one another. I realized that in Bailu Village, if you had a question that needed answering, you would often know of a particular individual that would have an answer, or would at least be able to point you in the direction of someone else who might know. In Niaowu, though, you would be looking for a particular type of institution, say a martial arts shop, or a restaurant, rather than looking for one person alone. This switch adds greatly to the sense of Ryo beginning to belong in Bailu Village, but struggling to fit in to daily life in Niaowu, and it’s part of what marks Shenmue III as a return to form for the series.
On the other side of the coin, though, is what holds Shenmue III back. A lot of the issues that I had with the game stemmed from what the Shenmue series is at a basic level, and while some of these problems would have been more forgivable back around the year 2000, they stand out a lot more in 2019. For example, the game stumbles horribly in the first twenty minutes, to the point where I was starting to worry about what sort of experience I was in for. Again, without trying to spoil anything for players that have waited almost twenty years for this game, Ryo and Shenhua make it out of the cave that they finished Shenmue II in, and begin to make their way to Shenhua’s home on the outskirts of Bailu Village. Along the way, they begin a conversation, and this is where the troubles start. As a player experience, you’re given multiple instances of control over Ryo for enough time for him to run forward five steps, before there’s a smash cut towards snippets of him and Shenhua talking. These conversations are awkward; both in terms of writing and line delivery, and some of the camera direction is questionable at best. It’s a bad sign when a sequence between two people is directed in a way that makes you unsure that they’re even talking to each other, or where they are physically, and the fact that this initial sequence lasts for the first fifteen minutes of the game gives off the worst possible impression for those who are eagerly anticipating this new entry.
Though that was the only major, prolonged example of seriously shoddy direction, the remainder of the game is rife with poorly delivered lines, badly written dialogue and a pervasive sense that Ryo isn’t especially interested in the questions that he’s asking people, and even less interested in the responses that they give him. On a side note, and as a personal grievance, if they removed each time that Ryo responses with a ‘Huh?’ or ‘What?’ to a statement, I reckon that we could trim about five hours off of the running time. The other aspect of interacting with NPCs that makes Shenmue III feel a little bit off is the fact that it feels like 50% of the game’s inhabitants come from the real world, and 50% come from a cartoon land where everyone is a marionette. In an average cutscene, you’ll notice characters with faces made up of straight lines or over-emphasized features, and even the palettes used on them feel entirely different. It genuinely feels like a crossover game, where characters from two different franchises have met up, but each maintains their respective art style. I’m not exactly sure why the decision to do this was made, but these characters stand out like a sore thumb and just seem strange.
Despite the weirdness, I was surprised by how much I threw myself into Ryo’s life again, and how excited I was to wake up on each virtual morning and anticipate what the day had in store for me. Some days I would know that I would be able to push on with the main story, and I had a map in my head of where I needed to go and who I needed to talk to to make that happen. On other days I was aware that Ryo was in need of a little bit more cash, or some training for his martial arts, and so I would take an easier route and chop some wood or spar and train. A lot of these tasks play out as mini-games, and the series that they reminded me of most was Fable and the job system that appeared in the two later games of that franchise. Chopping wood, for example, involves you pressing the X button at the correct time, with the objective of Ryo dropping the axe into the middle of the log that he’s cutting. Better timing gets you a better grade, which in turn gets you a bigger payout, and the fact that you can get a chain of good grades together means that you can rack up some decent cash if your timing is good. Most of these side tasks are relatively mindless, but they’re enjoyable enough, and you’re perfectly fine to do them for a couple of hours before heading out on other tasks, meaning that you’re not stuck on endless days of forklift duty like the latter hours of the first Shenmue.
Once you get back onto the main story path, you’ll find that a lot of your time is spent running from point-A to point-B, knowing who you need to talk to or what you need to do, but having to actually perform the task to get the game to allow you to continue. There are some more frustrating segments where you need a specific piece of information to allow you to trigger the next piece of story, and only one character knows this information, so you’re traipsing from one place to the next, asking the same questions and listening to the same responses until you happen to stumble upon the correct trigger that allows you to progress. This is the Shenmue series at its core, though, and there is a sense of satisfaction once you find something valuable out and then can then act on that information.
I did find though, particularly in Niaowu, that running from place to place causes some technical issues to show up, often in the form of NPCs or assets taking a few seconds to populate in a particular area. For a game like Shenmue, where characters operate on a schedule and can appear in different places depending on the time of day, it can be confusing to enter an area, think that the character isn’t there, and then for them to slowly fade in as the game manages to load. Niaowu even has artificial bottleneck areas where Ryo isn’t allowed to run or has to slowly navigate around tables in an attempt to hide the fact that the game is loading the next area, but these still aren’t enough to prevent these issues from occurring, which is concerning.
The biggest questions surrounding the release of Shenmue III, at least for me personally, was would it hold up in the modern gaming scene, or would it feel like a game out of time, one that should have stayed back in the early 2000s? The answer, to be honest, is a little bit of both, but it thankfully veers more towards the modern day than it does the past. There are some holdovers from previous years, such as QTEs, that I would have been happy to never see again, but for the most part, Shenmue III succeeds on its own merits. There’s also the issue of audience, as aside from those who have eagerly awaited a sequel to Shenmue II, I’m not sure how many gamers would be interested in this title, and Shenmue III isn’t particularly forgiving to newcomers unfamiliar with the story or mechanics.
Despite that, the fact of the matter is that Shenmue III exists, it is playable, and it is enjoyable, and for that we should be happy. It’s not perfect, and it drops the ball every now and then, but if you had asked me what I would have wanted from a Shenmue sequel in 2019, what we have received is pretty close to what I would have asked for, and I’m intrigued to see if we’ll ever get a Shenmue IV.