Review – Shenmue III
Oh how I screamed, how I shouted, how I celebrated. I remember that Sony conference at E3 2015 like if it had happened yesterday. From out of nowhere, Yu Suzuki and that classic Shenmue theme song appeared onstage, confirming the existence of Shenmue III…. as a Kickstarter campaign. I didn’t care. Nobody cared. Everyone who had played those games back in the day quickly threw money onto their computer screens, begging for Yu Suzuki to deliver the follow-up to a story they had been waiting for since 2001. It took his team four more years to deliver that game. After countless delays, periods of radio silence, and small controversies related to the game’s Epic Games Store exclusivity on PC. But that’s all in the past. Shenmue III is finally here. I’m finally playing Shenmue III. And those are my thoughts about it.
Shenmue III is a game made for fans. It’s a game made for those who have been salivating for a continuation of Shenmue II‘s cliffhanger ending ever since 2001. The game starts off the second the other game ended, with Ryo and Shenhua inside that same cavern, followed by them looking for her father in the village of Bailu, just like Shenmue II had set up. In a way, that is very commendable. Yu Suzuki is basically delivering the same story he has been craving to tell ever since the release of the previous Shenmue games. It respects its target audience like very few games out there when it comes to its storytelling. Which is still, by far, the best thing about this game, just like its predecessors.
The village of Bailu, as well as other towns surrounding it, is where you’ll spend most of your time. When compared to Shenmue‘s Yokosuka or Shenmue II‘s Hong Kong, the village is smaller, and the scopes are also smaller. Size wasn’t exactly my biggest concern, though. What bummed me about Bailu and its neighboring villages was that they didn’t feel “alive” as previous Shenmue locales. Yokosuka is iconic, Bailu just isn’t.
While the storytelling is fine, I’m not going to dive deep into it. Shenmue III is all about the plot, and talking about it here would make me the biggest douche on Earth. What I need to talk about is how this game operates on a technical level, and honestly, this is where everything crumbles down to a nearly disastrous degree.
Shenmue III, for all intents are purposes, plays like Shenmue. That’s good, right? Yu Suzuki kept his promise of delivering exactly what fans have been waiting for. I need to praise him and his team for doing so, but at the same time, I feel like he hasn’t paid attention to the evolution of gaming ever since the release of Shenmue II.
When I say “plays like Shenmue“, I mean that the game’s controls are as terrible as the ones featured in Shenmue. Ryo still controls like a 1940’s Jeep with a flat tire. There is still a dedicated button to running, and Ryo depletes his health meter by doing so as if he was suffering from a severe case of munchies. The man can’t run for half a mile without basically running out of health in its entirety. He would have been a terrible deliveryman in Death Stranding. The game’s collision detection is as bad as it was back in 1999, with Ryo stopping instantly if he dares to scrape by a solid object on the ground.
Next, there’s the combat. While there is a bit of variety in here, the combat can be best described as “keep pressing buttons and see stuff happen onscreen”. In fact, the game more or less tells you the same thing at the beginning. You don’t have a lot of moves and pulling off special combos is hard, as there is a noticeable input lag. Thankfully, you can bind certain special attacks to the R2 button, which turns the combat into a simple game of evading attacks and mashing R2 until all the bodies hit the floor.
Both the combat and the overworld controls frustrated me. I understand Shenmue being clunky back in the day. The game was way ahead of its time, the hardware was limited, and the Dreamcast controller, although extremely comfortable, lacked a lot of buttons. If you’re willing to make a retro-inspired adventure, you can still adapt your gameplay to modern standards. Shovel Knight did so. Yooka-Laylee, as flawed as some consider it, did so. Bloodstained did so. Shenmue III didn’t. It’s clunky as hell for the sake of making the game feel like it could have been released in 2003, and that I certainly did not enjoy.
Shenmue III‘s main gameplay loop still revolves around talking to people, asking for directions, and finding the next person you need to talk to. All while playing a few minigames, doing menial tasks in order to get money, training at a dojo, and occasionally fighting against thugs. It hasn’t changed at all, and to those who are fans of the franchise, they’ll love it. The game even had the decency of finally adding a time skip function, so you can instantly skip to nighttime if that’s what you need in order to find a character to proceed with the plot. It’s a major quality of life improvement, but sadly, it is the ONLY quality of life improvement. Shenmue III is still ridiculously slow-paced, with its combination of menial tasks, hunger meter, short day cycle, and lethargic controls resulting in a gameplay loop that may feel nearly disrespectful to a player’s time.
Finally, let’s talk about the game’s artistic department. This is a somewhat a controversial point to talk about, because I’m aware this is a crowdfunded title. With that being said, Shenmue III did not raise a small amount of money. It also managed to acquire additional funding from Sony, Deep Silver, and other separate donation websites, meaning that it had a somewhat larger budget than most (pseudo) independent titles. All of this resulted in a game that looks like something that could have been released in 2005.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some positives within the graphical department. Every single post-processing effect featured in the Unreal Engine development kit is used in here, such as volumetric lighting. The environments are pretty and rich in detail. The problem lies in the character models. While Ryo, Lan Di, and Shenhua feature somewhat detailed and well-animated models, everyone else can best be described as a whole gang filled with nightmare-inducing monsters. They look absolutely hideous and inhuman.
The combination of terrible character models, cheap UI, inconsistent (and unlocked) framerate, within actually decent environments, makes you feel like you’re playing a Shenmue fan mod made on Unreal, and not a proper sequel made by Yu Suzuki. I understand the limitations caused by a somewhat smaller budget, but then again, we’ve seen gorgeous games being developed with small teams and small budgets. If you need examples, just take a look at GreedFall and Hellblade.
Shenmue III‘s sound department is easily its highlight. The franchise’s iconic main theme is featured in here, and I can’t help but feel goosebumps whenever I listen to that masterpiece. There are other great tunes in here, all of them featuring nods to classic Chinese music. There is a TON of voice acting in here, so I’m sure that’s where most of the game’s budget has been invested. The voice actors do a solid job, especially if you decide to toggle the dialogue setting to Japanese. Ryo still says a lot of “so desu ka”, which can be translated to “oh, I see”, to a point it becomes hilariously corny.
Don’t get me wrong. I love that Shenmue III exists. I really do. I’m still flabbergasted that I’m playing a brand new Shenmue game in 2019 and I will forever cherish that E3 reveal as one of my favorite moments in gaming history. If you are a die-hard fan of Shenmue, this game is everything you could have asked for, and you can safely ignore this review. But I’m here to judge if the game is technically competent, and sadly, it isn’t. Shenmue III looks like something that should have come out in 2005 and plays like something from 2001. It did not pay attention to the evolution of gaming and the titles that drew inspiration from it, like Yakuza. Shenmue III is a relic that got stuck in time. It will be the favorite game of 2019 to small percentage of gamers out there, but it won’t manage to convince more people to become fans of Ryo’s epic journey.
The environments are gorgeous and the post-processing effects are well-implemented in here, but the character models are downright atrocious, as well as the cheap-looking UI. Shenmue III looks like a fan mod made on the Unreal Engine.
Shenmue III‘s gameplay is pretty much identical to the gameplay from previous iterations, including the clunky controls and unnecessary hindrances. While those issues were a product of hardware limitations back in the day, there’s no excuse for the controls to be so bad this time around.
The soundtrack is beautiful, with lots of nods to classical Chinese music, but it’s a bit repetitive after a while. There is a lot of voice acting, and while it isn’t that bad, especially if you decide to play the game in Japanese, there’s just so much you can stand Ryo saying “oh, I see” before it becomes meme levels of ridiculous.
A few quality of life improvements aside, Shenmue III looks like something that should have come out in 2005 and plays like something from 2001. If you’re a fan of the series, it is EXACTLY what you’ve been waiting for, but if you’re not, what you’ll get is a clunky game that doesn’t respect your time nor paid attention to the evolution of gaming as a whole.
Final Verdict: 5.5
Shenmue III is available now on PS4 and PC.
Reviewed on PS4.
A copy of Shenmue III was provided by the publisher.