Shenmue 3 Review: 80s Nostalgia in HD

It’s been 18 years, but Shenmue III has finally arrived, thanks to the magic of the modern economy, Kickstarter backers, and the Unreal engine. The campaign was fronted by a statement from legendary SEGA auteur Yu Suzuki: “Shenmue 3 will be by the fans, for the fans.” That’s quite a promise; while not financially successful at the time, Shenmue has a cult following.

However, while the game was ground-breaking in its day (see our article here), like any pioneer it had some missteps, which if repeated today could disappoint even the most nostalgic of fans. And what of newcomers to the series? Is Shenmue III a worthy successor for the fans, and does it do enough to entice newbies into its narrative world?

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Beautiful…if you’d just let me stand here a moment to enjoy it…

Shenmue 3 Review: 80s Nostalgia in HD


Genre: Action-Adventure
Developed by: Ys Net
Published by: Deep Silver
Release date: November 19th 2019
Platforms: Windows, PS4 (reviewed)
Price at time of review: 60 USD

Time at home at the Stonemason’s

Time at home at the Stonemason’s

Story and Setting

Considering one of the reasons Shenmue is so beloved by fans is the story-world Suzuki and his team created, in retrospect the overarching plot as revealed in the first two games is fairly light-touch. Following his father’s murder at the start, Ryo learned that his father had trained in China, killed a man, brought back to Japan 2 mirrors, and that the man responsible for his father’s murder, Lan Di, had gone to Hong Kong and then on to China. That’s important, but not a detailed mythology of the kind you find written in the tomes of, say, Pillars of Eternity.

 

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Bailu has a village phone booth, with no phone. Well, it is communist China circa 1987.

It was the detailed life of the world Ryo then explored that drew players in. He set out without anything other than a name and some determination (and no police assistance, as wryly reflected in the recent remaster’s Appropriate Response trophy if you try to call the cops), and the player is gently introduced to ever more complex and larger locations, from Yamanose, to Sakuragaoka, then Dobuita.

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It’s not my place to judge, Shiren, but does your wife know about the cow?

Shenmue III in contrast is rather unforgiving in its opening, and, for the newbie, perhaps overwhelming. There is an option before starting to view a catch-up movie, but even for this reviewer who played both games, this was surprisingly brief as an aide-memoire. While I understand this is, as Suzuki put it in the Kickstarter pitch, “by the fans, for the fans,” I would think that attracting new fans would also be an aim. As it is, it begins in great detail from the end of Shenmue II, and unless you’ve played that recently, it is quite a lot to take in.

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Heeeeeeeeeeere’s Hazuki!

This is a shame, as once you settle in, from a gameworld perspective this is a great place to be. The game largely takes place in Bailu village, which Ryo reached at the end of Shenmue II¸ and Niaowu, a riverside city in Guilin, China (I don’t think this is a spoiler as more than half the game occurs here). Both are wonderful to look at, and each visually distinct. Once the player is past that initial hurdle, we are back in traditional Shenmue territory as the player learns more by living in these places and interacting with the people who also live there.

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Fire extinguishers are a collectable set? Really?

There is some considerable history to learn in both locations as Ryo and Shenhua, his companion in this episode encountered at the end of Shenmue II, pursue the origin and truth behind both the Dragon and Phoenix Mirrors. Again, trying not to introduce spoilers, the reason Lan Di is pursuing these mirrors seems to have changed since the first game, but that doesn’t impinge on the story of their origin or purpose as revealed in this game.

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Each search requires the player to initiate the action from the beginning. With this many areas to search, this becomes an irritant, as does trying to talk to NPCs about more than one thing.

Bailu as a setting is very pretty, well rendered in the Unreal engine. However, it is with the move to Niaowu the game really excels. Bailu looks attractive because of its backdrops and distant scenery; Niaowu is a large and beautifully realised city, with multiple sections each with a different character, and it’s a pleasure to explore.

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Nope, not going with this joke. It’s not approved by Fextralife management. We didn’t even get to how big Huang might be.

Bar a slightly busy beginning, this is a game with a great backstory, from both earlier games and newly described mythos, which for the story-orientated player is very enjoyable to pursue.

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Oh, come on, you’re killing me here

Gameplay

As with the story, Shenmue III inexplicably does itself no favours at the start in terms of gameplay. Once the introduction in the Bailu stonemasons’ quarry is complete, Ryo accompanies Shenhua down to Bailu Village. No explanation of controls is provided, including how to effectively pause the game, and any attempt to stop and figure things out, or even just enjoy the scenery, are quashed as Ryo is put on forced-run to the village with Shenhua. You should read our Getting Started Guide to save yourself some confusion.

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Oh! This is…not due to be released until 1995. Isn’t this 1987?

Once off this forced track, the player is informed they can skip to evening for the next key event (called the “Jump” function), but this is optional. Not taking this “jump” option makes things even more confusing, as it is not till the next day the game attempts any form of explanation of mechanics through a forced guided tour by Shenhua.

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Get used to seeing this.

Again, as with story, once through this unfortunate start, things get better. However, it still must be noted that the gameplay structure is deliberately an evolution of the originals’ mechanics, which have been much diversified and improved upon by game developers in general in other games during the last decade and a half.

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Get used to seeing this, too, if you’re trying to complete a set. You’ll get 50 of these

It’s not enough to warrant a gamepad-down, but this will be easier to accept for an aficionado of the originals than a newbie, the latter of whom will be wondering: “Why no fast travel? Why is the map so hard to access? Why do I have to start every dialogue option from the beginning, and why can’t I skip dialogue I’ve already heard 20 times?”

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One of the Minigames is Charades! Hey, let’s join in. Is Ryo doing: a) driving an Oldsmobile to church on Sunday; b) the Horse Stance; or c) reading the newspaper while taking a massive poo?

Other than walking around talking to people to advance the main plot and sub-quests, Ryo will find himself undertaking Kung Fu training, sparring fights, having real fights, undertaking jobs to earn money, and gambling. These are all inherited from the original games, although with some newer aspects in some areas.

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This young, strong, trained martial artist is no match for this rickety wooden gate! No way he will pass…until story reasons.

Fighting no longer has directional inputs; all moves are some combination of button presses. There’s also more control over blocking than in the originals. In combination, this makes fighting much better, although of course modern games have more evolved systems.

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Various Balls? No, Ryo, I disagree; the capsule game system is Absolute Balls

Sparring is the same as fighting, only without danger of loss, and the addition of button prompts to improve speed of learning. Kung Fu training is usually some minimal form of timed button pressing. Gambling involves a number of different games, the majority of which are pure luck and the player has zero ability to influence their ability to win through skill of their own, although later on fortune tellers will help. This is another area where fans of the originals will find a welcome evolution and smoothing of access, but to a newbie, will seem perhaps oddly simplistic. Finally, we would note that for the game franchise that invented the QTE, they don’t show up for the first few hours of the game, and when they do, are less extensive than the originals, which is a blessing.

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Oh. Fishing. Yay. There’s not enough of that in games.

For the most part, fans will enjoy the smoother controls, and an open-minded newcomer may enjoy the journey even with what seem today like odd controls. We only need to talk about two things: capsule toy series, and a non-optional part of the Bailu story.

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There are plenty of comedy caricature characters.

In the originals, capsule machines and collecting capsule toys was a harmless diversion, a reflection of how a young Japanese like Ryo in the mid-1980s spent time and money. Even in the recent remasters, only a reasonable proportion of any given capsule toy series was needed for the single capsule toy-related trophy. Here, they impede both the acquisition of new skills, and for Platinum hunters, are an unnecessarily aggravating requirement.

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Five Americans! From the original Shenmue. Except Tom is missing, who I am sure is American. Then they would have had Tom, Dick, and Harry. And James, Mark, and Robert, who are far more desirable.

Ryo needs to acquire new skill books in order to learn new combat skills. These can be obtained by getting a complete set of a capsule toy series (for example, a heavy machinery series, or a Chinese opera mask series). There is also a trophy for completing all of these series, which of course is required for the Platinum hunter. Except, the capsule machines just will not complete the series. I personally sat in Bailu and tried more than 50 times each on a single occasion into two individual machines, with no result. This is simultaneously boring and annoying.

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That is a big Guan Yu

The second issue is towards the end of Ryo’s time in Bailu, where he needs to learn something from a particular character, and this is just dragged out beyond what is reasonable. We’re all used to the “Rule of Three” in videogames, but this character not only asks for the usual hard to find item, the ridiculously expensive item, and the very hard battle, even after all this the same pointless QTE is required for days on end. Clearly from the narrative, this character is messing with Ryo. But this unfortunately also means messing with the player. This is unnecessary and quite infuriating, and I’m surprised it got past design, never mind playtesting.

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Dim sum…now we’re talking

Inevitably, gameplay takes a large part of this review just because of what this game is and where it came from; get past the infuriating end of Bailu, and this is generally fun, if not especially innovative in 2019.

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Considering this is Guilin in 1987, that’s a mighty fancy hotel…

Audio and Visual

Shenmue III is gorgeous to look at. While the originals had less polygon-count, the character models generally looked proportionally human. Here, with more technical grunt to inform design, there is a slightly cartoonish aspect to the representation of characters.

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Niaowu looks beautiful and is a joy to explore

As noted above, Bailu is attractive because of its backdrops for the most part, whereas Niaowu is visually arresting and a very enjoyable place to explore. For sound, once more Shenmue III betrays its origins in the past. We don’t expect constant background music in games anymore. Music is not just used for dramatic effect, it is constant. It’s not super-intrustive, but on days it rained in Bailu I wished it would shut up so I could stand on the mountain and enjoy. Of course, sound can be adjusted in the options menus.

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The Niaowu Waterfront at night

Replayability & Game Length

For those who love this world, playing it through to enjoy and understand the story, and then returning to wander around this beautiful world and hoover up trophies may appeal. That said, simply maintaining one save late in Bailu and the same for Niaowu would achieve the same ends. Not really one for multiple playthroughs.

The game itself is packed full of activities and is not short, so you won’t feel like you were cheated out of entertainment hours even if you play it once.

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And this is my final impression of Shenmue III; simply a stunning world that rewards exploration and attention

Final Thoughts

Shenmue III does not get off to a great start narratively, or in terms of introducing any player to its mechanics. It’s also not got the most advanced control scheme or ideas. But perseverance will reap rewards, and it’s a solid action adventure title with a great sense of place. However, the capsule game mechanic is an unnecessarily frustrating requirement completely different from the original, where there was charm in its setting of place. As this blocks both acquisition of moves and the Platinum, points are being docked accordingly. If you’re a Shenmue fan, this is a 7.5. If you’re new to this, it’s a solid and well-presented adventure, with a dated underlying design, and so a 7.

7.1
Summary: Beautiful to look at and live in, particularly in its second half, its charm and story mostly overcome its dated roots, except for the capsule game mechanism which spoils the overall experience.
Story & Setting (8)
Gameplay (7)
Audio & Visual (7.5)
Replayability & Gametime (6)
Pricepoint (7)

Lawence has lived and worked throughout North America, Europe and Asia over the last two decades. He has seen a great deal of corruption, and the occasional monster, although those have been human (to the best of his knowledge). A great fan of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, Lanzen has published two full-length novels: A Door in Thorston and The Dam at Hiramatsu. Lawrence is at work on his third novel.

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One comment on “Shenmue 3 Review: 80s Nostalgia in HD”

  1. ckmishn says:

    I never felt all that much interest in playing this game, but it at least seemed like a heartwarming story that an old game director abandoned by his original publisher finally managed to complete his game series with the help of dedicated fans.

    Then it turned out Shenmue 3 didn’t actually finish the story, and now it’s not so heartwarming after all.


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