Cheese, wine, a perfect dry-aged steak – some things get better with time, but can the same be said for Shenmue III? Fans have waited nearly two decades for the continuation of Ryo’s story, and after a record-breaking Kickstarter, it’s finally here. Does it live up to nearly 20 years of expectations?
Shenmue III Review
Shenmue III’s story begins as Ryo and Shenhua arrive in Baihu after discovering more information on the Phoenix and Dragon Mirrors in the exact same cave seen at the end of Shenmue II. It was so refreshing to have the continuation of a story so connected, so blatant, without the smoke and mirrors of missing time and events seen more commonly in today’s gaming sequels. You could play through the entirety of the series and not miss a moment, or a single beat of Ryo’s story. That would be awesome…if the story wasn’t so damn jarring to follow.
The original Shenmue games captured hearts because they immersed players into a narrative through innovative design. You weren’t simply being told a story or developing the story as a single character; you were immersed and emotionally invested in the people you encountered. Watching them as the hours ticked by, following routines, going to work, shutting up shop – these are all elements common in many of today’s bigger open-world games, but at the time these were years ahead of the norm. Yu Suzuki was a visionary, a fortune-teller of things to come, predicting nearly every aspect of the modern day open-world RPG years before they became the next big thing.
That is what earned Shenmue its cult following, its critical acclaim, but it’s also what hinders much of the efforts in Shenmue III. Those same qualities that made the original games so intriguing have stagnated, instead throwing players into a world of dated mechanics, lackluster design, and an embarrassingly poor foundation.
Shenmue III’s ability to deliver a worthwhile narrative is completely destroyed by some of the worst dialogue ever seen in a modern video game. Ryo can ask a question but receive an answer to an entirely unrelated subject, and dialogue lines are repeated throughout the entire game, even during the same conversation. I asked a martial arts expert if they knew of any martial arts experts, but he’d never heard of one. It’s a mess. Half of the dialogue doesn’t even form a coherent structure worthy of an actual conversation, but somehow went unhindered into the final phases of production. I can only assume the heart, the passion, the story of Shenmue III has been lost somewhere in the translation, as the English dialogue is appalling and does nothing to bring its creative vision to life.
The entire game is fully voiced, for better or for worse. While Ryo still maintains as much character as a paving slab, the performance of characters is not entirely without merit. Shenhua is so soft-spoken it’s adorable, it’s like being tickled with silk every time she speaks. In addition, some of the random NPCs you encounter are full of personality and quirky behaviors. All of this is immediately lost as soon as Ryo enters the conversation with his monotone approach, repeated lines, and complete lack of character.
Shenmue III’s gameplay is another area that has not aged well, especially considering there was nearly no effort whatsoever to change, modernize, or otherwise improve anything. Throughout much of the game, you will be running around a village or town looking for answers, but that’s it. You’ll approach random characters hoping one of them unlocks a dialogue option to help you progress toward the next objective. When this works, it’s great – players can ask an elderly villager about the history of the town or a vendor can point you in the right direction of someone that can help. Despite this, it rarely works and when it doesn’t, it’s boring, repetitive, and incredibly frustrating.
While not a focal point of the game, Shenmue III’s combat is one of its few redeeming features. You don’t battle much, with the vast majority of combat sequences being for training purposes, but the few times you do get into a scrap can be a blast. It’s still very rigid, lacking the responsiveness of today’s fighting-centered experiences, but it maintains a level of charm and reward Shenmue’s other past features have lost. Stringing together combination attacks to send an opponent flying is satisfying and victory in combat is no easy feat; even on the simpler difficulties, the combat can be challenging.
Unfortunately due to the title’s lack of combat-centered activities, I never really felt I had the time to truly master the combat sequences, and I quickly lost interest in improving my kung fu abilities when most of the story fights are scripted to make you lose, even if you win. This is yet another area of repetition that’s lacking creativity; the same story loops are played throughout the game.
The first area you explore, Baihu Village, is an ancient site of martial arts, with it being home to many martial arts experts, trainers, and even a grand-master. Which makes the story even more confusing as a tiny group of thugs manages to ransack half the town, kidnap a young man, and hold the people at ransom with no challenge whatsoever. Ryo is tasked with solving the problem, but quickly finds he’s lacking the strength to beat his opponent – cue montage.
I used the word montage but that’s not really accurate, there’s nothing fast about it. Imagine a montage played in real-time. You have to spend hours completing Karate Kid-style objectives, which includes chasing chickens, punching dummies, wax on wax off, all that stuff. All of this is done before learning a seemingly basic ability that you can use to finally defeat your opponent. Parts of this are painstakingly boring and frustrating, but there’s at least a little payoff when you finally get the ability and the game lets you beat the thugs out of town. If it wasn’t for the myriad of problems appearing between the start and end of these events, they would almost be enjoyable.
The more successful parts of Shenmue’s past return, most notably the Quick Time Events (QTEs) and mini games, but again, nothing has changed. QTE segments add nothing to the game. They are annoyingly quick but if you miss, you just repeat a brief part of the cutscene and try again. If failure has no consequence, it would have been more impactful and rewarding to slow them down. Sometimes the buttons don’t appear to register at all, even when pressed correctly. There’s no correlation between the environment and the buttons you’re pressing, meaning you’ll be using triangle to jump one obstacle and then up to dodge the next. What could have been thrilling sequences quickly becomes dull, repetitive, and often tedious. I loved them in the original games, but they add absolutely nothing to Shenmue III.
Mini games are more of the same. Shenmue’s background game loop of earning money to pay for food and a place to stay is incredibly mundane, with everything from fighting to walking costing health, resulting in hours of boring mini games just to pay the bills. I spent two hours struggling to find the correct NPC to reveal the next objective, so I had to spend 20 minutes chopping wood to pay for some garlic to refill my health. This repeats throughout the game and is never satisfying.
Technically Shenmue III is fine. I didn’t suffer a single crash, hardly any frame issues, and some of the environments are beautifully peaceful. The latter being the only thing that remotely feeds modernized in the entire experience.
As a fan of the previous games, I enjoyed some of my time with Shenmue III. However, as a modern game that was aiming to encourage new players to get into the franchise, I cannot urge caution more strongly. For hardcore fans of Shenmue, this is an easy choice. It’s the continuation of a story nearly 20 years in the making, with the beloved characters, mechanics, and design that made the original games so popular within that niche. Unfortunately, for everyone else, Shenmue III is archaic in design, limited in content, and flawed throughout.
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