The original Shenmue holds an important place in video game history. Once the most expensive game ever developed, the 1999 classic had a strong influence on the open-world games that followed, pioneering NPCs with daily schedules, quick-time events, and blending RPG elements with the mundanities of everyday life. A sequel quickly followed but, despite warm critical reception, the title did not sell well enough for the series to continue. A strong cult following for the games remained, however, and in 2015 a Kickstarter campaign brought Shenmue III back to life. After countless delays, publisher negotiations, and an unpopular Epic exclusivity deal, the game has finally been released. After 18 years of waiting for the resolution of Shenmue II‘s enormous cliffhanger, this painfully faithful sequel is sure to please die-hard fans of the series, but the dated gameplay mechanics and stiff performances are unlikely to bring any new fans to the franchise.
Shenmue III follows the continuing adventures of Ryo Hazuki, a Japanese teenager trying to avenge his father’s murder. Throughout his adventures through Japan and Hong Kong, he discovers a deeper mystery involving the Phoenix and Dragon mirrors, enigmatic objects that seem to be connected to his father’s death. Phoenix Mirror in hand, Ryo heads to Guilin, looking for more clues about his father’s killer. There, he meets Shenhua, a young woman fated to help him with his journey. Her own father has mysteriously disappeared, and since he was the original creator of the mirrors, she fears the worst. Together, Ryo and Shenhua travel through China to find Shenhua’s father and unravel the true nature of the mirrors.
Broadly, Shenmue III can be described as an open-world RPG, although the style is quite different to contemporary games in the same genre. The events of a Shenmue game summarised sound complex and exciting, but when one is actually playing through the story, the plot moves at a glacial pace. The first task assigned in Shenmue III is to ask around town about the disappearance of Shenhua’s father. This task lasts for nearly 15 hours of play, with the slow questioning of villagers taking up the bulk of the time. Nearly every NPC in the game can be spoken to, but many are obtuse with their directions, often sending Ryo to someone who might have a better idea, or simply be a dead end. Once a hint or clue is found, such as the fact that stonemasons appear to be targeted by thugs, another round of talking to everyone to see if they have any ideas begins again.
The game is a never-ending fetch quest, with Ryo constantly checking in with different characters for tiny parcels of information. Even very simple connections need to be made by other characters: at one point, Ryo finds a list of stonemasons with half of the names crossed out. He needs to be told by someone else that perhaps he should check on the remaining people on the list, rather than reaching that obvious conclusion himself.
This pattern continues throughout the whole game. The issue is already bad in the small rural village of Bailu, with the whole population of the town being constantly questioned, but is even worse in the large port town of Niaowu. Rather than a pool of 20 or so characters to interact with, the number explodes to nearly 100, each of whom chide Ryo for not buying anything before helping him out. Asking for directions becomes every second interaction, with the town hard to navigate and the map near-unreadable. This chattiness cannot be sped up either, as text cannot be skipped the vast majority of the time, even in conversations that are near identical to those had on previous days.
Earning money is always a pressing concern in Shenmue III, with the need to buy a very expensive item gating story progress early on. The villagers are happy to throw Ryo a few yuan for helping them with their daily chores, with chopping wood, fishing, duck catching, and forklift driving all earning him a decent amount of money. Gambling mini-games also make a return, with the pachinko-like Lucky Hit, rolling dice, racing turtles, and pail toss. Visiting the fortune-teller will help improve Ryo’s luck, but even with this advantage maintaining a healthy bank account is an arduous task. Later in the game, he needs to pay a daily accommodation fee at a hotel, a token amount that can quickly add up over days of unsuccessful searching. Failing to pay will result in Ryo doing chores for the hotel keeper instead, so thankfully the game is not ended by poor money management, but the requirements are generally too high. The early large purchase is for a 2000 yuan bottle of booze, which takes a long time to accumulate when most mini-games net Ryo 30–70 yuan an attempt. A more appropriate amount of 1000 yuan would have still had the intended effect of teaching the player how to earn money without requiring an entire forest to be chopped down.
Should Ryo have a yuan or two left over, he can continue his capsule toy obsession from the previous games, with the machines popping up everywhere from the dusty streets of Bailu to the crowded markets of Niaowu. Along with the toys, Ryo can also collect herbs, which can be combined into medicines for greater resale value. Collections of toys or herbs can be traded in for skill scrolls, which allow Ryo to learn a new fighting move.
Ryo is a keen martial artist, and finds plenty of opportunities to hone his skills in various dojos and street fights. Where the previous titles took inspiration from the Virtua Fighter series with complex movement sets, the combat in Shenmue III is much simpler, removing the ability to dodge and throw from Ryo’s arsenal. No finesse is expected, with the tutorial literally instructing the player to ‘Just hit the A/B/X/Y buttons’. Careful stamina management has been replaced with scarfing down food between battles. Button mashing works well enough to get through the game, but when Ryo’s dedication to martial arts is such a big part of his character, the lack of a more refined system is a disappointment. The tough fighting of the first two games was a divisive element within the community, but since Shenmue III offers different difficulty levels, a better compromise could have been struck than neutering the whole system.
While Shenmue did not invent the quick time event (that dubious honour belongs to Dragon’s Lair), the title did popularise the concept, leading to many games spicing up cutscenes with quick button presses. While the industry has by and large moved on from QTEs, the reaction-testing button combos are alive and well in Shenmue III. Action cutscenes are littered with them, a sharp contrast to the otherwise languid pace of the game. The window for entering a button input is extremely brief, and strangely unaffected by the difficulty options. Failing a quick time event will just reset to the start of the cutscene, leading to no major roadblocks for those with slow reflexes, but would present a major accessibility issue for certain players. Adjustable speed for QTEs, and the option to omit them entirely, would be highly beneficial. Alternate controls for certain mini-games would also be a plus: the stick spinning in the fishing minigame is bad for both controllers and wrists, and the mad button-mashing of the turtle racing feels out of place.
Following up some of the most expensive games in history with a crowdfunded budget was always going to be difficult, and visually some corners have clearly been cut. The texture work is nice, with highly detailed faces and cloth patterns, and the environments are really impressive, detailing rolling green hills through the rural village of Bailu and masses of cramped market stalls through Niaowu. The animations, on the other hand, are extremely limited, with no facial expressions and terrible lip synching. This stiffness is matched by the wooden acting, with Ryo sounding robotic for the majority of the journey. The tale of Shenmue is about Ryo’s burning desire for revenge and how such hate might destroy him, but the performance suggests Ryo has been mildly inconvenienced at best. This issue is aggravated by how certain lines have been stitched together, leading to some utterly nonsensical dialogue. His responses often do not match what he is asked: ‘Do you have a brother?’ is responded to with ‘It is?’, and when he is asked ‘Are you here to become my apprentice?’, he answers ‘Oh, nothing’. Pronunciation mistakes are commonplace: Ryo’s name is mispronounced throughout the backstory video, Shenhua is pronounced either Shen-hah, shen-wah, or shen-hoo-ah depending on who is speaking, and the character name Yuan should be pronounced Yun, but gets mixed up with the currency yu-ahn constantly. The voice work feels sloppy, and constantly pulls one out of the moment. The Japanese voice track is far less grating on the ears, but the odd responses to questions remain.
Shenmue III runs about 20–30 hours long, depending on how deep one dives into the mini-games, and does not provide a conclusion to the series. If the title had been released on the Dreamcast 18ish years ago, as was originally intended, it would have probably looked much like it does now. Similar to how Ryo is eternally stuck in 1987, Shenmue III is trapped in 2001, when having an open world with many NPCs was more important than filling that world with anything interesting. The game tells a high-stakes plot at a snail’s pace, with terrible writing and acting. The clever combat system of the previous games has devolved into a button-mashing mess. The title does have moments of brightness: the actual story beats are great, the setting is fascinating, and it features the best forklift simulation on the market. However, with such incredibly dated gameplay, only the most ardent fans will enjoy Shenmue III. Even then, it is easily the weakest link in the franchise.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4.