HIGH SHENMUE III IS A REAL VIDEOGAME AND I PLAYED IT.
LOW Will be seen as as laughably dated by newcomers.
WTF The 19 different ways western voice actors say the name “Ryo”.
One of the things I’ve tried to tone down in my writing is hyperbole, so I do not say the following statement lightly — the original Shenmue is the single most influential game of the last twenty years. When looking at how big-budget projects have evolved with cinematic storytelling, giant open worlds, meticulous attention to detail, and huge levels of variety in gameplay, all of those draw a direct line to Yu Suzuki’s Dreamcast opus. That groundbreaking work can be felt in so much of what we play today.
Yes, if it wasn’t already clear, I’m one of those Shenmue people.
I grew up a Sega kid, and I sang Shenmue’s virtues on the playground to uninterested pre-teens. I bought an original Xbox specifically so I could play Shenmue II. As the years dragged on, I scoured the internet to find slivers of information on a potential third entry in the franchise. Every single E3, I would cling to a diminishing level of hope that somehow, someday, Sega and Yu Suzuki would work something out and I would get to continue the quest yo extract revenge from the nefarious Lan Di.
When it was finally announced that Yu Suzuki would be continuing the franchise during Sony’s E3 2015 press conference, I disturbed my roommate with happy squealing and jumped on the kickstarter website, helping to make it the largest publicly-crowdfunded game ever at that point.
All of these facts make me, in reality, probably the worst possible person to review Shenmue III.
Besides openly wearing my Shenmue heart on my sleeve, this review is patently useless because Shenmue is a love-it-or-hate-it franchise. The people that hate it won’t want to touch III with a 39-and-a-half foot pole, and fans either kickstarted it four years ago or bought it day one.
So who am I writing this for? People who are unconvinced and curious about playing Shenmue?
Well, those people are gonna be totally bewildered if they jump in with Shenmue III, so I recommend newcomers try the Shenmue I & II HD remaster from last year, but those games have aged terribly. Suzuki’s Shenmue was such product of its time and place that I find it hard to believe anyone coming to it now will find the same spark I felt nineteen years ago when it was new and groundbreaking.
None of that matters to Yu Suzuki, who has said repeatedly that Shenmue III was a game made for the fans, and after completing it I can confidently say that’s exactly what it is. In taking this tack, he has also become a pioneer in the inevitable wave of early aughts nostalgia because he’s either ignored every innovation from the last three console generations, or he simply hasn’t played a game since Shenmue II. Shenmue III is a Dreamcast game to its very core.
For those who didn’t play those first two Shenmue titles, they’re essentially third-person old-school adventures set in small-scale open worlds where players hunt down the man who murdered protagonist Ryo Hazuki’s father while uncovering the secrets of the Dragon & Phoenix mirrors. This is accomplished by talking to various NPCs, discovering clues, solving puzzles, and occasionally beating down anyone standing in Ryo’s way. Shenmue III begins exactly where the previous installment ended, and the near-orgasmic joy and nostalgia I felt told me that Shenmue III was going to be exactly what I wanted it to be.
From the moment we hear Corey Marshall delivering Ryo’s dialogue with the same stilted cadence he did for the first two games, I was on board. Then I got to control Ryo, and saw that the menus and button layout haven’t changed a bit. The music is filled with ’90s synth that sounds straight from that era. There are still minigames, capsule toys, side jobs for earning money, an arcade, forklifts (!!!), and an abundance of little nods and returning characters that fans will be thrilled to see. It all made me so damn happy. Also, as a current resident of China, I doubly appreciated the setting as someone who has backpacked through places that look just like Shenmue III.
While I personally didn’t have issues with the core design, there are some legitimate problems that not even a true Shenmue believer can overlook.
For example, while I absolutely love the visual design and attention to detail in the environments, the graphics are incredibly dated. The facial expressions are near-nonexistent, lip syncing is quite bad, I’ve seen better skyboxes on PS2, and overall, it looks like what one would’ve expected from a low-end launch PS4 title rather than one coming six years into the console’s life cycle. This dated look makes the frequent drops in framerate all the more alarming, and there are also terrible issues with pop-in — Ryo may run to a new location that’s supposed to be a lively market, only to see some tables while the rest of the bustling street is struggling to load.
However, most of the biggest problems stem from new RPG mechanics.
Essentially, every big fight in the adventure starts with the player getting their ass kicked, being told by the bad guy to go practice in the dojo, and then doing practice fights and braindead minigames to build up their stats so they can return the favor. I love the series’ kooky minigames, but I don’t love being forced to play them as frequently as Shenmue III makes me. It’s not a particularly enjoyable loop.
Also, the combat has taken a significant step back from previous entries and lacks the right feel. Punches and kicks don’t have much oomph to them, and situations where Ryo has to fight multiple people at once can be incredibly frustrating. Virtua Fighter this ain’t.
Furthermore, Shenmue III now has a stamina system where running around slowly eats away at Ryo’s health, and he must buy and consume food to regain it. This leads to another unpleasant loop where the player must chop wood to earn money so they can buy food to keep going.
Also, since Ryo’s health bar doesn’t fill before a fight, this structure led to multiple situations where I got a quick beatdown because I was surprised by a scuffle with only part of my health bar and no healing items. Also, while sparring increases the level of the player, story-based fights don’t. How come I don’t gain experience from the fights that actually matter?
Now that I’m in the closing paragraphs, I can say that his was, without question, one of the difficult reviews i’ve ever had to write. I had an absolutely amazing time playing Shenmue III, but I also see it as a supremely problematic game making a multitude of bad choices. People with no nostalgia for the series will be struck by its archaic design, bizarre dialogue, weird character models, dated graphics, frequent bugs, and occasionally infuriating mechanics — and while I recognize all these things, I really don’t care. I adored my time with Shenmue III, and if Yu Suzuki wants to finish his saga with the same sensibilities that he had in 1996, I’ll be there every step of the way.
Shenmue III is not the best game of the year and it’s not even my favorite game of the year, but no title in 2019 brought me as much sheer joy and jubilation, and I can’t possibly imagine any fan of the franchise walking away disappointed. For that reason alone, I can only see it as a tremendous success.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Neilo and Ys Net and was published by Deep Silver. It is currently available on PS4 and the Epic Games Store. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on a PS4 Pro. Approximately 37 hours of play were devoted to playing the game, and the main story was completed. There are no multiplayer modes. The author of this review is also a Kickstarter backer of the product.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and features Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, and Violence. Despite the large amount of disclaimers Shenmue III is rather tame, with the mild language only reaching the level of an occasional “damn”, and there is no blood. Parents who may have a serious aversion to exposing their child to gambling should be aware that the gambling mechanics feature heavily and are a requirement for completing multiple objectives.
Colorblind Modes: The game features no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game features subtitle options and presents them in large, clear font but with no way to resize them. The font will be different colors depending on the character speaking, so players that have issues with colorblindness may find some dialogue difficult to follow. The game features no necessary audio cues, and should be able to be completed by anyone without sound.
Remappable Controls: This game’s controls are not remappable. Players can find a controller layout in the in-game menus, and camera controls can be inverted in the main menu.