A throwback to be appreciated.
There were two ways that Yu Suzuki and Ys Net could have gone with the development of Shenmue 3. They could have made a modern-playing game that continued the story of Shenmue, or actually create a new Shenmue game in the year of our lord 2019. For better or worse, they wound up doing the latter.
The Kickstarter-backed title is a total anomaly as it essentially ignores nearly two decades of development progress and feels as if it is an HD remaster of a newly unearthed 2003 title. Despite feeling dated in nearly every regard, that’s ultimately one of the greatest compliments that the game can receive as Shenmue 3 truly feels as though it’s the product fans would have received had Sega immediately gone forward with a sequel to the iconic 2001 release. Many faults can be found in this piece of art, but it is defiantly true to Suzuki’s original vision for the series.
For some, this might be a tough pill to swallow. After all, Shenmue was so important when it released on the Dreamcast because of how innovative it was. Players had unprecedented amounts of freedom to explore Yokosuka, Japan, could spend days playing classic Sega titles at the arcade, and even had to find a day job in order to fund Ryo Hazuki’s quest for revenge. However, in the past 20 years, nearly everything that Shenmue innovated has become commonplace. There’s nothing interesting about a day-night cycle or characters actually moving around the world as the day goes on. It’s odd to say, but the only way for Shenmue 3 to feel truly unique in a modern context is by not changing and that’s largely what has happened here. It’s a relic of a bygone era and plays nothing like the narrative-driven action-adventure titles that get pushed by console makers.
Shenmue 3 picks up exactly where its predecessor ended as Ryo has traveled to a remote Chinese town called Guilin and has met up with Shenhua, the literal girl of his dreams. The plot quickly kicks into motion as the duo tries to find the whereabouts of Shenhua’s missing father and learn more about the dragon and phoenix mirrors. From a gameplay perspective, nothing has changed from past titles. It’s a lot of walking around, asking the same set of questions to a dozen people in order to gain some new information and then do it all again in a different location. It’s undoubtedly antiquated, and it could even be argued as a waste of the player’s time, but it’s also 100 percent Shenmue.
It’s actually uncanny how little Shenmue 3 has changed from its predecessors. Beyond a few small additions like needing to eat food regularly to keep up your energy, being able to fish, and there being herbs to collect, it plays, looks, and feels identical to its predecessors. The combat still feels like a slightly sloppy version of Virtua Fighter (although it’s much easier to battle multiple foes now), the visual quality still looks like a PS2 title in spots (which used to be a compliment that it was ahead of its time), and the dialogue is still incredibly awkward as the voice actors deliver every line as if they never read any prior sentences in the exchange. Everything about Shenmue 3 is easy to pick apart if one wants to do so, but it all adds up to being oddly charming. This is a time capsule that shouldn’t exist and only does due to the extreme generosity of its fans and the perseverance of its creator.
Due to its small-town setting, Shenmue 3 feels much less ambitious than the last game in the series at first (which took place in the cities of Hong Kong and Kowloon). However, that sort of scope and size returns once Ryo heads off to the fictional harbor town of Niaowu, which is filled with dozens of different shops and entertainment options. It winds up delivering quite the digital form of culture shock as it is easy to get lost in its strange layout. However, players eventually learn every part of the city, and it is just as memorable as any location in the first two titles.
There are times when Shenmue 3 can start to feel like a chore to play, and it’s typically when the in-game story requires Ryo to make a lot of money in order to progress. This can either be done in an honest way as there are plenty of menial tasks to do to make money like splitting wood and catching ducks. There’s also the degenerate way to go about things, which led me to betting on interactive turtle races, save scumming in-between games of dice, and becoming the most successful gambler in all of China. These roadblocks are annoying when they pop up, but in retrospect, they really serve a point to demonstrate just how much freedom players have. Plus, this is a game for fans to savor rather than rush through as they have waited over 15 years for it to finally exist.
Many of the most enjoyable moments come from Shenmue 3‘s story as we see a few returning characters and the birth of some beloved new ones. Players also get the chance to have telephone conversations with a few of the most iconic characters from the first two games, which is an amazing way to present fan service rather than trying to shoehorn a bunch of characters randomly being in China. Once the story really starts to get into high-gear, I could barely contain my giddiness as Ryo finally gets to confront Lan Di over the death of his father. The final couple hours are filled with fun fights, awesome cutscenes, a few twists, and a major reminder that Ryo’s journey is far from finished.
Anyone expecting any sort of finality and closure with Shenmue 3 will be greatly disappointed. However, it had to be known that a series that was supposed to span 11 chapters wasn’t going to be finished here. In fact, Ryo’s adventure feels further away from the finish line than ever before due to the events of the ending. Whether or not we’ll ever see the story continued remains to be seen, but this feels like what was originally planned to be the third entry and fans should be glad that they got exactly what they crowdfunded.
Shenmue 3 is filled with antiquated design choices, a whole lot of charm, and is ultimately a promise fulfilled. Fans got a legitimate Shenmue title in every way possible, warts and all. Nobody else is making 2019 games in the (hilariously named) “full reactive eyes entertainment” genre, but Yu Suzuki is. That’s a beautiful testament to the stubbornness that made this unlikely revival possible.