What Yu Suzuki and his teams at Ys Net and Neilo have endeavoured to do with Shenmue III is simple: create a new entry in the long-beloved series and stay faithful to the original games. Problem is, the original games are LONG-beloved. They’re 20 years old now, and staying too faithful to those old titles has resulted in Shenmue III feeling dated and subpar in most respects when compared to modern games of the same ilk.
The biggest thing Shenmue III has going for it, though, is that it induces such a nostalgia high that there were moments when I forgot modern gaming standards and got completely sucked into the game world. Shenmue III can be really good when experienced in a vacuum, free of comparison to modern games. The purity of Suzuki’s vision really helps the game feel idiosyncratic, unique and cohesive, which is great news for fans of the series worried that the long-awaited sequel would stray from the series’ roots.
It’s sort of beautiful that Suzuki and company have remained so faithful to what made the original games so good. Continuing Ryo Hazuki’s quest to avenge his father’s death feels just as it did back in the early noughties – exploring the nooks and crannies of the Chinese village of Bailu, playing mini-games and tapping buttons in time to hone your Kung Fu skills, and getting to know the various village folk by striking up conversations around town is all classic Shenmue fare.
Unfortunately, the old formula shows its age in several ways, which distracts from the overall experience pretty persistently. The dialogue, by far, is the game’s greatest drawback. It is unignorably stilted and incoherent almost all the time, with characters awkwardly asking questions twice, at times completely ignoring what they’re saying to one another, and almost always sounding unnatural and robotic. The actors’ performances are poor across the board as well. There’s a moment when Ryo is meant to innocently flirt with an elderly lady by saying “Excuse me, gorgeous.” But the actor delivers the line as if he has no clue of the context of the scene or the way real people speak. “Excuse me. Gorgeous!”
The dialogue is a serious issue, particularly because it’s in a narrative-driven game with tons and tons of unskippable dialogue scenes throughout. No matter how good the broad strokes of the overarching narrative are (and they are decent), listening to consistently bad dialogue undermines the story, period. There’s an argument to be made that the odd writing and acting is endearing in a B-movie sort of way, but I just can’t buy this as an excuse. I genuinely believe that if the dialogue and acting were done at a higher level, the game would benefit from it. And a lot of what makes me feel this way is the fact that most narrative-based games these days are just operating at a higher level than Shenmue III in this respect.
But just as often as the game’s dialogue threw me out of the experience, the game’s environments pulled me back in. I love how detailed and well designed the game’s three main areas are, and moreover, I couldn’t get enough of the mood they evoked. The quaint little houses and markets of Bailu are adorable, and the grassy hills they’re nestled into are so pretty it’s almost heart-warming (don’t get me started on the flowers—oh god, the flowers…). Later in the game, the environments really open up in scale, with large city streets that serve as a nice contrast to the intimate opening section. This isn’t the most technically impressive game you’ll see, but the tech meets the needs of the art design, at least when it comes to the environments.
The character models are another story entirely. Frankly, the animations are stiff at best, and disconcertingly broken at worst. For starters, Ryo walks like an action figure with less points of articulation than an off-brand G.I. Joe. The facial animations are slightly less crude, and the combat animations look fine, but it’s hard not to cringe at how awkwardly the characters move about. I understand that this isn’t a AAA title made by a studio with deep pockets, but the environmental design is so good that I wish the rest of the presentation reached the same heights.
Gameplay fares better than the hit-and-miss presentation, especially if you’re a fan of the series. Cycling through the litany of activities and mini-games as you make your way through the campaign is a joy once you fall into the groove of things. Each day, when Ryo wakes up in his friend Shenhua’s house, you’re given the freedom to venture out and do pretty much whatever suits your mood. You can level up your fighting skills by playing a training mini-game or by partaking in friendly sparring sessions with villagers. Or if you’re low on cash, you can chop wood for the local shop owner. Maybe you want to try your luck and gamble your earnings at the casino, or buy a new skill book, or dunk some change into a toy dispenser to add to your collection. Most days, I’d end up hunting for herbs I needed for a set that I could exchange at the pawnshop.
The wonderful thing about the gameplay loops is the sense of leisure that washes over you when you realize that the game can be played at any pace you like. It’s an almost zen-like feeling to just decide that, instead of tracking down the thugs that beat you up the other day, you’d rather go help a local boy find a ball so he can practice to be a footballer. Whatever your mood, the game’s got an activity that’ll suit your needs, even if all you want to do is tap one button over and over again for an hour.
Shenmue occupies an interesting space in gaming sphere. It’s an epic revenge saga that gives Ryo lots of reasons to kick ass, and yet most of the experience is defined by mundane things like finding linens in drawers, fishing, walking through a sunflower grove, asking people for directions, and buying mooncakes and steamed buns from street vendors. I feel inclined to play it in the same way I’m inclined to play mobile games when it’s a low-stress, soothing gaming experience I’m after. There are plenty of things that drive me nuts about Shenmue III, but there are also a lot of little things that make me smile.
Alas, while picking peonies is fine and dandy for awhile, the main story always beckons, and this is where the gameplay really suffers. The campaign is mostly comprised of you walking around endlessly, asking people for leads and gathering items for a litany of unremarkable reasons. Ping-ponging around town like this gets old quick. You get into fights every now and again, but the combat just isn’t engaging enough. As in the previous titles, the fighting is Virtua Fighter-esque, which is fine except for the fact that the controls feel sluggish and unresponsive. It’s really hard to find any sort of rhythm to the combat, and levelling up your skills via mini-games is actually more enjoyable than the fighting itself, which is obviously a very bad thing.
What’s so sad about Shenmue III is that, in staying faithful to its roots, it highlights how the series’ time has truly come and gone. Whereas in 1999, Shenmue felt like a revelation, in 2019, Shenmue III feels like an inferior product. Some of the core concepts still hold up, but most feel antiquated, like the nonsensical stamina/health/hunger bar and the oversimplified investigation mechanics. Games like Yakuza and The Witcher 3 offer similar open-world experiences but are so much richer and polished in almost every way. There are fans who will be happy with Shenmue III and its retro trappings, and I’m genuinely happy for them, and the fact that this unlikely sequel even got made is heartening. But the truth is, as much as I once loved this series, it feels like now is the time to move on.