Shenmue 3 feels like a game that was made more than a decade ago, put into a capsule, then buried.
But now, in the year 2019, 18 years after the launch of Shenmue 2, it has been exhumed. For those who have been seeking a continuation of Ryo Hazuki’s tale it’s no doubt a cause for celebration. Everyone else, however, will probably just be wondering what the fuss is all about.
Picking up directly from where Shenmue 2 left off, Shenmue 3 finds Ryo in rural China. Alongside his friend Shenhua, he’s still on the trail of his father’s killer, although by the end of this latest entry in the series you still won’t feel much closer to a conclusion. Shenmue 3, like its predecessors, is all about the journey, not the destination. It’s a game that wants you to take your time and relax, but also chop logs for cash and get dangerously close to developing a gambling addiction.
By day you follow leads, which generally means heading into a local town and talking to people. That wouldn’t be so bad if the dialogue wasn’t so horrible. Years ago it got away with it because we didn’t know better. Now, however, Ryo talking like a robot brings the experience down somewhat. Conversations go by; sometimes they make sense and sometimes they don’t. I found it endearing at times, but others aren’t likely to feel the same way.
Every once in a while a lead follows through, rewarding you with a nice bit of exposition. You might also get into a fight, too. Combat in Shenmue 3 isn’t all that enjoyable though, really. It feels clumsy. I would say that it’s a good job that there isn’t a great deal of it, but to get through the mandatory fights that are thrown up throughout the game you’re going to have to regularly train and spar to increase your skills, and also acquire new skill scrolls. Unless of course you put the game’s difficulty down to easy, which makes combat much more of a cakewalk.
Shenmue 3 is shockingly tiresome at times. Left alone to find evidence, it’s a game in which you’ll arduously open drawers to see what’s inside only to discover nothing, then do it a dozen more times until you stumble upon the bit of evidence that’s required to proceed. You’ll also fight with its occasionally clunky controls, and rue the fact that your health and stamina is shared. Shenmue 3 wants you to walk everywhere; get a run on and you’ll burn through your health in no time, requiring you to consume some food to top it back up.
Everything’s a balance, really. When you wake up in the morning, you’ll leave for the day with a choice to be made: continue the story, have some fun, train, or earn some dough. You can try to do all four in one day if you want but it might not be possible, and Ryo has to be back home for some sleep at 9pm because he’s good like that. And while you might want to just plough through the story, you’ll need to make time to at least train and earn some money otherwise you’ll find yourself in trouble. Without training you’re not going to win fights, and without money you’re not going to be able to afford the food that keeps you ticking over.
Playing through Shenmue 3, I’ve spent more time picking herbs than I care to remember. It’s not that arduous, and it’s sure as hell more profitable than chopping logs or carrying out other mundane tasks. And every time I’ve passed a dojo I’ve nipped in for a sparring session or two, then made use of the training poles outside to practice my one inch punch and horse stance. Like in real life, you take the opportunities as they come along and fit them around your schedule.
Despite his robotic nature, Shenmue 3 makes it easy to emphasise with Ryo. Having just left Japan he’s like a fish out of water, and you’re likely to feel the same way. You both find your feet in this new environment together, and with some stunning scenery on offer you’ll be eager to explore. While Shenmue 3‘s character models aren’t anything to write home about, its locations are lush. They’re vibrant, detailed and full of life. Many of them are gated until you’ve progressed further into the story, but every time a new area opens up you’ll be eager to see what it has to offer.
It’s pretty obvious, but it has to be said that Shenmue 3 is primarily for those who have played and adored Shenmue 1 & 2. It doesn’t stray far from the template outlined by those classics, which is a double-edged sword. One the one hand, fans of the series are going to slip right into it like it’s a pair of well-worn slippers. It’ll make them feel warm and fuzzy inside. They’ll feel like they’re at home. Those who expected Shenmue 3 to be a little bit progressive, however, for it to move with the times, will be disappointed.
Needless to say, Shenmue 3 will have a hard time attracting new fans to the series. Thanks to providing a recap of the story so far, players can jump straight into Shenmue 3 if they wish, but its archaic gameplay, dialogue and interface will put many off before they’ve made much progress. There is something about Shenmue 3 that will grab some of those willing to try it out though. Its mix of laid-back adventuring, combat and minigames can be engrossing at times. Players have just got to put up with some tedium to really enjoy them.
I’m glad that Shenmue 3 exists, and I hope the series continues so fans get the conclusion they deserve. It’s just a shame that it has rooted itself in the past. What’s been delivered is sure to delight those who were eager for Ryo Hazuki’s story to continue, but more could have been done to make the series relevant to gamers who haven’t played the 20 year old originals. Shenmue 3 is both a miracle and a missed opportunity. It’s no doubt a masterpiece for a minority, but most will find it simply mediocre.