The summer of 2003 was a particular highlight of my childhood. G4 had just started broadcasting, I discovered Honey BBQ Fritos, and I finally got my hands on a game I had been eye-balling for awhile: Shenmue II. I had never played the original Shenmue. I didn’t have a Dreamcast, but if we’re being honest here, who did? So, I watched the recap movie that came on disc of the Xbox version of Shenmue II and proceeded to devour approximately 37 bags of Fritos as I spent the summer asking questions to every resident of the country of China. Once that was over, I waited 13 years for the announcement that we were finally getting a sequel. Now that it’s here, I’m shocked to say it is everything you would expect from a Shenmue game, for better and for worse.
Shenmue III was developed by Ys Net and published by Deep Silver. It was released on November 19, 2019 for PlayStation 4 and Windows PC. The PlayStation 4 version was played for this review.
It’s All Spoilers
What is the longest you have ever had to wait for a cliffhanger to be resolved? While it may not be the longest, Shenmue fans have waited 18 years to know what happened after the sudden ending of the last game. After such a long time, even I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from Shenmue III. Would Ys Net modernize the game to compete with contemporary games? If not, does that style of game still hold up? Am I coasting on nostalgia? Will Ryo ever find a new jacket? Most of these questions are answered and I was surprised, mostly pleasantly, by my experience. For spoiler reasons, I won’t talk much about the story itself and will try to keep my critique to the storytelling instead.
For starters, Shenmue III picks up exactly where its predecessor left off and doesn’t mess around with refreshing your memory. If you need a refresher and haven’t picked up the Shenmue and Shenmue II remasters, there is a short narrated video to get you up to speed from the main menu. Once it got going, it was pretty easy to fall back into the groove. The instinct to simply talk ( or try to, anyway) to everyone I could in order to get information. You will be happy to hear the NPC’s of Shenmue III are just as useless and rude as ever.
In fact, almost everything about this game is exactly what I thought it would be, and this is both good and bad. There is something refreshing about Ryo Hazuki’s story and its relatively low stakes. The world isn’t ending, there’s no alien menace, and if I need to take a day to chop some wood and make a few yuen and buy some rice wine than I can do that guilt free.
On the other hand, after more than a few hours, there is a dullness that sets in, and it’s a dullness I remember feeling playing the previous games as well. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. So many games today demand your constant attention and create a sort of disdain to ever play them again. Shenmue III defies any attempts to complete it quickly. The slowly depleting endurance meter ensures that you have to stop long enough to either eat or sleep, which gives you a chance to decide if you want to continue through another day. So, while I did start to feel bored after playing for more than two or three hours, I didn’t really hold that against it. After a break, I was more than happy to pick the game back up and continue.
Hit Me as Hard as You Can
The rest of the gameplay is pretty standard Shenmue fare. Outside of the standard roaming and questioning of citizens, there are also jobs for Ryo to complete for money, collectibles, and scavenger hunts to participate in, as well as other side activities to help both Ryo and the player improve various skills. Don’t worry, for you gamblers out there, there are still plenty of various street games for you to lose Ryo’s hard earned money, with Lucky Hit making a triumphant return.
One of the activities I appreciated was the ability to participate in a martial arts training school. While the school offers mini-games to improve Ryo’s endurance, the ability to spar with local martial artists helped me as a player learn moves as well as increase Ryo’s overall attack power. This was a nice addition that helped me feel a little more competent when forced to fight.
One place Shenmue III does stumble for me in comparison to the previous titles is the “floatiness” of the combat. One of my favorite parts of Shenmue I & II was the speed and relative brutality of the fights. While all three games are relatively bloodless, the fights felt like you were witnessing a true martial artist execute their abilities at the highest level. This time around I didn’t really feel like Ryo was a formidable threat to the various thugs and fighters he encounters. Attacks don’t seem like they land very hard and, unless you perform certain combos, enemies don’t really seem to react very much to getting hit. So, while I appreciated the training offered by side activities in the world that I feel made me better at the game, I didn’t really find the combat itself very satisfying. It’s not bad, it’s just disappointing.
Those Cherry Blossoms Though
Where Shenmue III did not disappoint was with its graphics. Character models and buildings don’t look particularly great, but the natural environment around Ryo is pretty breathtaking. With the first two games having you mostly walk around city streets with only a few excursions into nature, Shenmue III starts you off in a beautiful village that I truly enjoyed slowly walking through. Grass, rivers, trees, and blossoms all were beautifully saturated and gave a wonderful color to the world. Even once the game removes you from that area, I found I was still pretty impressed and entranced by the environments I was able to adventure through.
I can’t really say the same for the audio quality of the game, unfortunately. The music throughout the game is pretty basic with little complexity. I found myself getting incredibly irritated by the repetitive background music as I walked around Bailu Village. The music for that area is a 30 second loop that never ceases and I don’t think I will be able to get it out of my head for some time.
The voice over work is similarly disappointing. It is one of the occasions where Shenmue III’s similarity to its older titles is a real drag. It almost sounds like most of the dialogue was recorded back in the early 2000s. The line reading is stilted and dull with emotion being an afterthought. When the original titles were released this wasn’t a problem as most of us had never played a full-voiced game before. It was a revolution in game design at the time. With an 18 year gap, I was really disappointed by the lack of innovation in this area.
What I Wanted?
So what does all this mean for Shenmue? Well, I think fans are going to enjoy this one, but I don’t think this is going to introduce a new generation of gamers to the series.
I don’t think Ys Net should have compromised Shenmue’s integrity in order to cater to new fans, but I think there was an opportunity missed here to innovate and guarantee the franchise’s future. Instead, Shenmue III comes across as entirely fanservice that is unlikely to bring us more sequels and finish Ryo’s story. I enjoyed it and, if you’re already a Shenmue fan, I think you will enjoy it too. If you are curious about Shenmue, I would probably advise you pick up the aforementioned remasters and see if this is a series you can get into.
I still think Ys Net achieved something wonderful. It seemed an impossible task to come back after 18 years and make a game that doesn’t coast entirely on nostalgia. Shenmue III should have failed but, as a fan, I’m happy to say it’s the best I could hope for.
Review copy provided by Deep Silver for PS4. Screenshots provided by reviewer.