It’s been almost 20 years since Shenmue II launched. Fans of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, know the pain of the waiting game, but it’s finally here. Shenmue III has launched. For better or worse, it’s plays exactly the way that people remember, with produce Yu Suzuki keeping gameplay and exploration mechanics the same. It almost feels like Suzuki was frozen and thawed out and developed Shenmue III like no time has passed.
I played Shenmue and Shenmue II for the first time last year, having missed the initial launch (despite owning them for a number of years) for Dreamcast. The remastered versions were a great place for me to jump in. They obviously felt very dated, but looking at them from the perspective of their initial release it was very clear that they paved the way for future open world titles. Ahead of their time as they were, it’s hard to play Shenmue III as a new title. Despite being developed 18 years later, Shenmue III is very anchored in the past, staying true to its roots, and opting to continue a lot of the gameplay that began Ryo Hazuki’s journey so many years ago.
Players maintain control of Ryo in Shenmue III, picking up immediately after the events of Shenmue II. Ryo journeys with a young woman named Shenhua Ling, a girl whose father is missing, with events that have tied to Ryo’s father’s death. It’s strange thinking that Ryo’s journey has resumed, one that initially ended 18 years ago, especially considering the cliffhanger ending that wrapped up the events of Shenmue II.
Shenmue III is beautiful, but still shows the age of the franchises character design and Unreal Engine 4. Texture pop in is prevalent, and characters often look rather clunky during movement and conversations. Despite this, the overall world that Ryo Hazuki inhabits is very beautiful. The lighting effects are incredible, and the scope of the world and the people that live here bring it to life.
With the game design not changing all that much from Shenmue I and II, it’s hard not to find Shenmue III really charming. There’s a beauty in keeping things simple and not giving in the more modernized gameplay. That being said, gameplay often involves boring tasks, and some long stretches of unrewarding gameplay.
Daily life for Ryo involves a lot of walking, generally over a few areas of the game. Ryo lives day to day performing a number of different activities, none very exciting, like fishing, chopping wood, and talking to citizens. The kung-fu combat system makes a return, and a lot of these activities often end up rewarding the player’s mastery of that combat system in some way, but it does it in a roundabout way. Money earned can be spent at shops to teach Ryo new moves that can be practiced and levelled up.
Quick-time-events make another return here, and are integrated well into Ryo’s everyday life. It’s frustrating though, because Shenmue III often doesn’t give players enough time to input buttons. Even so, there aren’t nearly as many QTE’s than there were in previous titles, so it doesn’t feel like the end of the world when you end up having to replay sections a few times.
Early on in Shenmue III, almost all of your progress will be made by talking to people in order to progress the story. Fights are few and far between, and it won’t be until later hours that combat scenarios really start to present themselves fairly often. This was similarly true in previous titles as well. Shenmue has never been about moving from one fight to the next, and instead have naturally built them intelligently into the story, marking important moments in Ryo’s story.
The story in Shenmue III is rather great, but still takes a backseat role to exploring and performing daily tasks. You’ll spend a lot of time just existing and talking to people in the world, I just wish the character dialogue had been up to par with the daily task of surviving. Most of the dialogue in Shenmue III is well voice acted, so it’s pretty disappointing that the character’s stilted lines are so bad. It was something I would have let slide on the Dreamcast, but something that widely misses the bar in 2019.
Survival plays a big role in Shenmue III. The stamina bar that players use to perform most tasks gets smaller as Ryo gets hungry, and can quickly turn into a test of patience if you don’t remember to eat. It almost seems like these mechanics were meant for Shenmue II, and was a system meant for Suzuki to pioneer 15 years ago. Survival mechanics like these would have been groundbreaking if Shenmue III had been created when it should have, but here just feels like something I need to do just to progress at all.
Shenmue III would have been something special if Suzuki had created it when he wanted to. It still holds all the campy charm of the first two titles, and heavily benefits from the new technology of 2019. Still, it misses the mark for a title released for modern consoles, and seems stuck in the past. A larger budget (despite being the most backed video game kickstarter ever) would have benefited it. These things won’t deter longtime Shenmue fans, so if you loved the first two, don’t skip out on this one.
Shenmue III is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC. This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher. Purchases are available here.