"Shenmue III plays and feels almost exactly the same as the first two games did back on the Dreamcast. I'm impressed, but in a weird way."
After 18 years, the miracle that is Shenmue III is here. In the time since Shenmue II was released, nothing has really come close to replicating this series. The first two games broke records and have gained many fans over the years for their ability to capture a slice-of-life Japan and Hong Kong in the late 1980s. I always knew Shenmue III was going to be a game specifically for the fans, but I don't think it sunk in until I sat down and actually started playing it. Its slow pace and sleepy settings full of minigames, side activities, and jobs were all intensely familiar. Shenmue III plays and feels almost exactly the same as the first two games did back on the Dreamcast. I'm impressed, but in a weird way. It's not a bad thing if you loved what the first two games did, but if you didn't and expected Shenmue III to change things up a bit, this isn't the game for you.
Picking up right where the second game left off, Shenmue III sees Ryo Hazuki and his new friend Shenhua Ling travelling throughout China in to uncover the mysteries of the Phoenix Mirror, and to chase down the murderer of Ryo's father. Because of this, you need to have played the first two games to fully understand what's going on. The game is split into two halves: the first half is in the village of Bailu, Shenhua's hometown; the second, the action takes place largely at the harbour town of Niaowu.
There's lots to do in both locations, from practising martial arts to taking on jobs or playing games at the arcade and gambling. Most of the time, you need to talk to the residents to figure out where to go next or who to talk to in order to progress through the game, and for the first few hours, I found this quite endearing. Getting to know the residents of Yokosuka was my favourite thing, and within a few hours of the game I could remember the names and locations of many of Bailu's inhabitants. Yet by the second half, the countless back and forth and repetitive dialogue got on my nerves. Perhaps more than the Dreamcast originals, Shenmue III feels generously padded. As Ryo, you're walking around, talking to people or carrying out requests, but nothing of significance is achieved and things are often gated by money or combat experience. There's one section where you have to carry out a number of fetch quests just to get a martial arts teacher to teach you a new skill that you can use in combat. This involves catching chickens on two separate occasions, and buying an extremely expensive bottle of liquor, and it can take a long time to raise enough money to buy.
Luckily, one of the benefits of the series as a whole is that it's never trying to rush you. In fact, my favourite parts of Shenmue III were the moments where I could stop and take in the sights. It's not the most beautiful looking game in the world, but there are some pretty stunning sights. Walking out of Shenhua's house every morning and running down the hill to get to the village square as the sunlight cracks through the morning clouds or walking along the fishing wharf at Niaowu and looking across the river does not get old. Accompanied by returning composer Ryuji Iuchi's soothing score, these moments are some of the most peaceful I've ever experienced in a video game.
As you explore, Ryo now has a shared health and stamina meter which decreases over time outside of combat. This can be incredibly annoying when starting out, but the further along you get, the more superfluous it feels. As long as you have food and money on hand, you have nothing to worry about. This does mean that sometimes you can accidentally move the story on and enter combat when your health is lower than you'd like, but the game lets you retry these sections. Quicktime events are back, but these feel more difficult compared to the first two games, as the reaction time for pressing each button is very slight. Fortunately, if you do fail a single prompt, the QTE will restart, but each button prompt remains the same. As long as you remember what button to press, you'll get through them; you just might have to retry a number of times.
The character models don't fare as well as the landscapes, and while they do look great, their slightly-more cartoonish look clashes with the more realistic and vibrant backdrops. What's more, in cutscenes, all of the characters move incredibly awkwardly. And because most cutscenes involve the camera focusing on the characters faces or portraits, it's easy to get distracted by the awkward lip syncing. This is probably due to budget constraints, but it was difficult for me to ignore at times. Fans will no doubt find the charm in this though, because these awkward dialogue exchanges — both in the way the characters move and the way they speak to each other — feel just like Shenmue I and II did.
Combat is another thing that's fared worse over time. You can now level up your Kung-Fu, Stamina, and Attack by playing various minigames and sparring at the local dojo or training hall. This increases your health, stamina, or the attack power of your skills/basic attacks. There are times where the game forces you into these activities, so doing them can feel grindy and slow things to a crawl. And this game has stepped away from the Virtua Fighter-inspired combat and has gone with something much more simplified. Combos will only be executed if you complete the correct input combination, and attacks don't flow as well as I remembered in the first two games. I wasn't the biggest fan of the combat in I or II, but I thought it needed a bit more refining, not a complete overhaul.
A lot of this is stuff I don't think some fans will necessarily care about, though. There were times I enjoyed running around and just soaking in the world, playing arcade games or collecting figures. It felt like a warm nostalgia trip. But what I really wanted was answers to some of the mysteries, or some introspection on Ryo's part. Sadly, Shenmue III's story doesn't really deliver either of these. For the 25-30 hour campaign, barely anything of note actually happens. The game feels more like a filler, a nostalgia trip and a teaser for the future. I did enjoy getting reacquainted with Shenmue's version of China and the characters, but it made me feel like that 18-year wait wasn't necessarily worth it.
As the sequel to two beloved, revolutionary games, Shenmue III had a lot to live up to. Has time been kind to Yu Suzuki's flagship series? Not necessarily. But more importantly, does Shenmue III care about the time that's passed? Not really. And I think that's the key thing about this game. Fans are here for more Shenmue, and that's exactly what they're going to get, for better or worse. It's at times charming, and at times frustrating because it clings on to the past. Yet it's an impressive feat that Yu Suzuki has managed to create a game that feels so faithful
to the Dreamcast originals in 2019. Let's hope the wait for the fourth game isn't nearly as long, because one thing I think we deserve is a bit more progress, and many more answers in Ryo's story for revenge.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.