It has been a long and agonizing wait for fans of Yu Suzuki’s unconventional video game series, but Shenmue III is finally here. I’m happy to say that the wait has been worth it for those aforementioned fans too, with Shenmue III offering the same kind of experience that made the series so endearing in the first place. However, that has also means it’s an incredibly niche experience too, and not necessarily one that I think will win over newbies to Ryo’s journey.
Shenmue III kicks off following on from the conclusion of Shenmue II, with series protagonist Ryo joining new companion Shenhua as he continues the pursuit of the man who murdered his father back in the first game. It’s been a very drawn out adventure for Ryo and one that you shouldn’t expect to see to its conclusion here, with the bits of progress that he makes still paving the way for subsequent entries in the series… if they ever happen.
For now, Shenmue III offers exactly what you’d expect: plenty of odd encounters with peculiar characters, the unravelling of more clues in finding the villainous Lan Di, and plenty of mini-game actions. Oh, and QTES, it wouldn’t be Shenmue without QTEs.
Much like players would have been used to, a lot of Shenmue III’s adventure boils down to exploring the environment to try and uncover the clues needed to progress. Sometimes this will be by speaking to an NPC, finding an item hidden away (you can still explore every nook and cranny of an area), or just by visiting an area and triggering an event. There’s an in-game clock that sees each day progress, and you decide how you want to approach it. It almost feels like a life-sim in a way, except the life you’re living is of someone who wants revenge (and loves capsule machines). It’s very cryptic in design and never holds your hand in telling you how to progress, but players’ patience is rewarded with a surprisingly satisfying experience.
There’ll be moments where you have to dish out some beatings too, with Shenmue III emphasising the mastery of combat. You’ll have to learn new moves and master them by grinding in the dojo, so there’s a bit of investment required from the player if they want to become tough enough to eventually take down Lan Di. However, whilst the emphasis on combat is there, the mechanics themselves are simple with the player able to string together their moves with ease and a bit of button-mashing. It’s not that it’s bad or anything, but rather that it just all feels a bit basic. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many combat sequences to be found throughout the story either, which is a bit peculiar given that a lot of the gameplay revolves around learning new moves and practicing them.
Shenmue has never been about just progressing through the story, so you can expect to partake in plenty of side endeavours in Shenmue III. They’re all simple things that normally just require a bit of button mashing, with things like fishing, gathering herbs, chopping wood and playing in the arcade making for pretty straightforward tasks. There’s also the opportunity to gamble to earn an additional currency, whilst selling elusive items to shops can earn you a pretty penny too – your earnings can be spent on new combat moves too, so it’s worth toying around with. Then there are the capsule machines which encourage you to collect sets of toys (it gets really addictive) and, of course, PLENTY of QTEs to test your reaction time. Sure, QTEs are incredibly dated and typically avoided in modern games, but they’re pretty inoffensive here – more than anything though, I think it’d be weird if they weren’t included in Shenmue game.
Ultimately, everything in Shenmue III is very simple in design. You’ll never feel particularly tested in the game, with the biggest challenge coming from simply figuring out what you need to do to progress the story on. This actually made for one of the game’s flaws – the necessity to examine everything. Whilst being able to examine just about everything around you was heralded in the past, it felt like I was simply wasting time here. Of course, I can accept that it’s a ‘feature’ of the Shenmue series, but perhaps highlighting story-progressing points of interest would’ve been a bit more appropriate. Also, the fact that your stamina and health share one bar was a bit of a nuisance, especially since it can drain so quickly. It’s easy enough to recover by just having Ryo have a bite to eat, but it felt a little bit needless and broke up the gameplay a little too often for my liking.
Whilst I’m a fan of Shenmue III, I will be the first to admit that it’s a very antiquated experience that won’t be for everyone. This feels like it was made for fans of the first game, not those who didn’t enjoy it or those who are new to the series. It doesn’t fix a lot of the original games’ issues, but rather gives players more of the same – sure, there’s a better camera and the controls are a lot more intuitive, but this is an experience that feels like it could’ve come out at the same time as the original games. The appeal of that will vary from gamer to gamer, but for better or worse, Shenmue III FEELS just like a Shenmue game should.
Presentation-wise, Shenmue III is a very pretty game, with some impressively vibrant environments to be seen throughout. Early footage of the game could look a little janky, but I’m happy to report that the final game is pretty impressive, even if there are a few visual glitches here and there. The voice acting is surprisingly efficient too, which helps add to the game’s cinematic experience. It was a pleasant surprise, especially after hearing some of the shocking efforts made by voice actors in the previous games.
For better or worse, Shenmue III delivers exactly what you’d expect: a quirky yet enjoyable investigative adventure that emphasises exploration and embracing the oddities of its world. There’s plenty to see and do in the game and the gameplay mechanics are sound throughout, though those hoping to see a conclusion to the pursuit of Lan Di may be disappointed to find themselves having to wait a little longer (if it ever happens at all).
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Shenmue III will come down to your experience with the series. Returning fans will love adventuring with Ryo once more and will appreciate the game’s antiquated approach, but newcomers may find themselves wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place. Whatever way you look at it, it’s hard not to admire the fact that Shenmue III is finally here and that so many gamer’s dreams have become a reality.
Developer: Neilo, Ys Net
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC