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?
Shenmue 3 Review: 80s Nostalgia in HD
Developed by: Ys Net
Published by: Deep Silver
Release date: November 19th 2019
Platforms: Windows, PS4 (reviewed)
Price at time of review: 60 USD
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.