Shenmue III | Principal Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC (version tested) | Developer: Ys Net | Publisher: Deep Silver | Genre: RPG | Year: 2019

Whilst at times charming and beautifully scenic, Shenmue III's nostalgia trip is rendered painfully inessential by its tedious design and non-committal storytelling.
Shenmue III Box Art

Shenmue III

Alright, let’s do this one last time.

Shenmue has a very special place in video game history. Released in 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast, this incredibly ambitious game had stunning graphics, an original setting, and it made a fascinating commitment to realism. Gamers loved it. Reviewers loved it. Even so, it didn’t sell very well, and I’m pretty sure you know the rest.

The amazing Shenmue II released just before the Dreamcast spun its final GD-ROM in 2001. Sega exited the console business and the Shenmue franchise – along with its big cliffhanger – vanished for well over a decade. Fans spent years begging for another sequel.

Prayers were answered in 2015 when Yu Suzuki announced a crowdfunding campaign for Shenmue III. People got very excited. Some fans openly wept with joy. Kickstarter buckled as nearly 70,000 backers (myself included) pledged a record-breaking $6,333,295 to see Ryo Hazuki continue his quest for vengeance. Later there was a big controversy concerning Epic Games exclusivity. We don’t really talk about this.

So after all of that drama, plus some long delays that most people were surprisingly cool with, Shenmue III has arrived. #ShenmueSaved and all that. But has this new game been worth the eighteen year wait?

Armed with only a modest budget this time – the original Shenmue was once the most expensive video game ever made – and shouldering the years of speculation and expectation, it’s a minor miracle that Ys Net has delivered on their promise at all.

Rest assured though, Shenmue III is a faithful threequel that has certainly recaptured the look and feel of the now venerable series. Once you get past the cheap-looking menus and catch up on prior events with the handy recap video, it’s amazing how quickly players can reacclimatise themselves to Yu Suzuki’s expertly crafted world.

Things pick up exactly where they left off when protagonist Ryo Hazuki and his companion Shenhua Ling continue their journey across rural China to locate Shenhua’s missing father. Naturally the Chi You Men cartel are involved, forcing Ryo to once again hone his skills in pursuit of his ultimate objective: revenge against his father’s murderer, the sinister Lan Di.

The gameplay is incredibly easy to relax into. Whether you’re new to the series or not, the aura of Shenmue is captured very well as players wander the picturesque Bailu Village, acquainting themselves with the locals, chasing up leads, and enjoying the usual distractions of toy collecting, wood cutting, and arcade games.

The new team at Ys Net have remained true to the series, even as they sacrifice pinches of realism to allow players a little more convenience when, say, teleporting to a key location or quickly purchasing items from a village shop. There are dozens of interactive stores this time around, with Ryo seemingly able to purchase things from nearly every vendor he lays his eyes on. Whether they sell anything that players actually need is another matter, but it does make the world feel a lot more interactive than it used to be otherwise.

Shenmue III Gameplay Screenshot

A convoluted gambling system (reputedly made to avoid Chinese censorship) has players converting their betting money into tokens, their tokens into prizes, and their prizes back into money. It’s just as fiddly and confusing as it sounds!

Shenmue III is a mixed bag when it comes to matters of presentation, but I must say that having a choice between the English and Japanese voice tracks is a superb option. Especially so for those who would rather avoid hearing the imitable – and you have to imagine somewhat now inevitable – English voice acting that continues the apparent series tradition of sounding completely ludicrous.

More bothersome is the fade to black that happens in between conversations. It sounds like a minor niggle, but these transitions feel weird compared to the uninterrupted fluidity you felt in the previous games. Even the simple action of Ryo putting on his shoes is broken up by a short loading screen — a little vagary no doubt brought on by the Unreal Engine, but again; another hiccup that damages that formerly strong sense of immersion. That’s not even close to being the only technical hiccup either, as during my own playthrough I witnessed many stuttering cutscenes as well as some rather wacky camera angles.

The character animation isn’t all that impressive either considering both the length of time that has passed since the second game came out and the modern standards under which Shenmue III will be judged, but the world design has most definitely improved. Locations are vast and impressive and feel seamless as players cross them without a dozen loading screens getting in the way.

The storyline is also well structured in the early going. At one point the search for a kidnapped stonemason leads players deeper into the village only for Ryo to end up playing hide and seek with the local children there. This short quest is a fun diversion in a series of many, and it elegantly deposits you at the exact place where the main story continues. That’s great design.

Ultimately players will come across opponents more serious than a few goading kids, and as always that means learning to fight. Realtime combat returns in force, although the system is simplified compared to how it used to be.

“Just hit the buttons” … says the first tutorial window, in what has to be one of the most inauspicious introductions to a core gameplay mechanic that I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, fighting still remains mostly enjoyable after players learn to block and cope with the attrition factor of fighting multiple opponents at once.

The ability to execute throws is sorely missed, and directional inputs have been eliminated in favour of more simplistic combo strings that are easy enough to learn. New difficulty modes keep the challenge at a reasonably well-balanced level, and the settings can be changed whenever players want a break from the rigorous training required to win some of the harder showdowns.

Training your moves was an optional, albeit encouraged feature of the original Shenmue, and the system returns here with a much firmer emphasis. Ryo’s overall ability is measured by simple meters for Attack and Endurance, with both gradually being raised as players spar with fellow martial artists and grind out repetitive mini games against training dummies.

This also ties into the new degenerating health system; a feature which is sure to have any reader bristling by mere mention alone. Training or undertaking other physical activities will accelerate the decay of Ryo’s health and whilst this can never prove fatal on its own, the returns you get from training, as well as the ability to run, will be temporarily curtailed until Ryo eats something.

Of course eating requires food and getting enough food will ultimately cost money. Players face the conundrum of balancing their training regime with their chequebook; making sure they can afford to pay for food in between costly training sessions and the other more enjoyable activities that also cost money. Sympathetic players will call this content, but it becomes a big annoyance, especially when you accidentally wander into an actual lopsided combat encounter after forgetting to eat beforehand.

Shenmue III Gameplay Screenshot

The two halves of the game feel remarkably similar as Ryo struggles to overcome some powerful (yet weakly developed) villains.

Improving your Attack rating also requires one of the many expensive move scrolls. Therefore again, it’s vital that players devote extra time to play the job mini games that earn a wage. In one sense this does work. Capping your training via skill books and health items creates a flavourful and relevant in-game economy, but the emphasis on generating money does hit a snag when players are presented with story related barriers asking them to fork over significant amounts of cash in order to continue.

This reeks of the worst kind of filler and it highlights the reduction in fun that occurs somewhere near the halfway point of the game. There is a lot to keep you occupied during the quieter moments. Mini games, collectibles, and no doubt an agonising achievement list for PlayStation 4 owners (the PC version on Epic lacks achievements at the time of writing), but the big picture isn’t all that exciting considering how far we’ve come.

Once Ryo moves to Niaowu Village in the second half of the game, it’s clear that Ys Net still has plenty of beautiful sights left to show us, albeit at the expense of anything particularly interesting to do. The gameplay devolves into a loop of asking NPCs for directions — a prospect that’s tiresome and excessive even by series standards, and the actual plot developments up to that point are neither terribly exciting nor original.

Accompanying the inclusion of quick time events (kept manageable here by infinite retries) are brand new side quests that actually feel unnecessary in a story-driven game like this. Lots of other small things have remained evocative of past glories, whether its searching old houses for clues or making it back home in time for your (now severely restrictive) curfew, but there’s still way too much time spent retracing your steps and save scumming the gamblers in an attempt to get the boring bits out of the way faster.

I must also mention the situation concerning Shenhua; the supporting character who accompanies Ryo on his journey. Shenhua was a somewhat mythical figure in the first Shenmue; showing her face from time to time as part of a vision or a vague sight reference. Ryo finally meets her at the end of Shenmue II in a charming final chapter free of quests and combat; a really good coda where the two get to know each other and come to understand that their fates from then on may be linked by portentous and maybe even supernatural forces.

Any mystique this coupling once had is quickly obliterated in Shenmue III, however, by a near complete lack of character substance. It’s not so bad at the beginning of the game because players can initiate optional conversations with Shenhua to learn who she is and why she is grateful to Ryo. However, the conversations here (much like the rest of Shenmue III, sadly) seem to lack that subtle charisma and energy that Shenmue II somehow achieved.

Shenhua and Ryo babble about irrelevant topics, that whilst occasionally backed by a nice cutaway of Shenhua waving Ryo goodbye from her kitchen window, are devoid of consequence. At this point the emotionally inert Ryo has been saddled with half a dozen different love interests over the course of the series, so it’s not like I’m trying to ‘ship’ another romantic couple here or anything, but something; anything pertaining to the deeper connection between these two would be nice to see. Honestly, I’ve had more fulfilling discussions with my pet Seaman than with Shenhua.

It’s made even worse later in the game when Shenhua’s relevance to the plot evaporates completely and she becomes just another NPC following a set routine about town. I guarantee players will be counting down the moments until she’s inevitably kidnapped, so that Ryo can launch an urgent rescue, but even that basic plot point is screwed up by the heroes taking a day off to plan! Compared to the original Shenmue where a similar scenario involved Ryo desperately stealing a motorcycle in the dead of night to reach the rendezvous before harm could be done to his kinda-sorta girlfiend, Shenmue III with its “are you sure you want to proceed?” style dialog, just looks totally insincere by comparison.

Shenmue III Gameplay Screenshot

Whilst the story lacks character for the most part, there are some pleasant nods to the previous games — especially in the optional phone conversations that Ryo can have with some of his old friends.

I also remain wholly unconvinced by the game’s finale. Barring some ill-advised comedy, a ridiculous last-minute fetch quest, and the laughable inclusion of a vegetable stall before the final battle (just so players can still address that stupid health bar), the final act is nippy enough, but it once again ends in a non-conclusive manner that is really tempting fate now considering the financial uncertainty that surrounds the franchise in general.

Considering the years spent waiting for this, and especially the oft-repeated message from Yu Suzuki that the whole story is not even halfway over, I can’t fathom why so much time has been spent on such pedestrian plotting. By the end of Shenmue III almost no truly gobsmacking event has happened and Ryo has arguably regressed his character too; getting blind-sided and beaten up by chumps that he could easily have knocked out by the close of the previous game.

If Shenmue IV does materialise one day, I’m confident that newbies could easily skip over the events of Shenmue III without missing anything vital (or at least anything particularly exciting) as it relates to the wider plot. For a series that has always prided itself on the bigger picture with regards to storytelling, it’s an incredibly disappointing revelation to come to terms with.

It’s a shame because Shenmue III does occasionally deliver some of the old magic and there is still a sense that we know and care about these characters. I argue that this wasn’t the time to set the table for what might be coming next, but in any event, I remain hopeful that no matter how many hits this series takes, it will always find a way to come back stronger.