Shenmue and Shenmue 2 both find themselves in a peculiar camp. They were a commercial flop back in the day but have gained an almost golden status amongst fans and critics in retrospect. While we've not seen a full breakdown of lifetime sales, we can understand Sega's reluctance to jump straight into a sequel (they're a business, after all), but this left many loose narrative threads as the series was originally envisioned to unfold over several instalments. Hoping to finally wrap things up, the devs spearheaded a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to continue telling the story and it appeared as though this Dreamcast classic was still in the hearts of many as the project shattered expectations and became the highest-funded video game on the platform.
Shenmue 3 is said to follow on directly where its predecessor left off and at the start of the Gamescom demo we split off in search of a scar-faced man known as The Bookie to find more information about a group of bandits. After exploring the setting of Bailu Village and asking a few residents for details we were pointed in the direction of a lone figure who matched his description but who wouldn't let information slip until we beat him in a fight. We stormed in with inflated confidence as this was our first combat encounter (surely it was going to be easy, right?) but it wasn't the long before The Bookie wiped the floor with us. The Deep Silver rep did initially warn us that the difficulty had been adjusted but we weren't prepared for this foe to have almost double the amount of health compared to us.
We then cowardly retreated with our tail between our legs and took the advice of our opponent to practice at a nearby dojo and sharpen our kung-fu skills. After quizzing the residents yet again for a location we found the dojo on a hill at the end of the village and once there we discovered that there were practice dummies to train on as well as four different monks to spar with. These monks scaled in difficulty, allowing for a challenge that felt much fairer for newcomers, and the dummies let us practice two different moves known as the one-inch punch and horse stance. Having said all that, the combat lacked fluidity and felt especially clunky and we found ourselves trying to string together as many button combos as we could, hoping that our opponent would be knocked to the ground before we were. Simply put, we're not completely sold on the new fighting system.
Hungry for revenge and after receiving some much-needed practice we then returned back for another bite of the apple, but shortly after stepping into the ring we were defeated once again. After a few more failed attempts, a Deep Silver rep noticed our struggles and decide to intervene to prevent our embarrassment. He informed us that a potion could be purchased at a shop at the start of the village and we went off again searching for yet another solution. Thus we chopped some wood to earn some coin and then returned again with the potion, using it mid-battle to regain much of our health - it felt dirty but we won. After pummelling the no good bookmaker into the dust our demo was concluded and we started to explore some of the attractions on offer.
The side mission we touched upon earlier that gave us the funds for our magical healing potion saw us chop wood for the village merchant. It nailed the realism here as it felt just as tedious as we imagine chopping wood would feel as we stood over a log, axe in hand and waiting for our body to pivot to the right position for a well-coordinated chop. Luckily, the other distractions present within the village were much more entertaining and they gave the illusion that Bailu was a living, breathing environment. We could play Chinese street games such as 'Roll it on Top' and 'Lucky Hit' for a chance at earning some extra cash, and we could even partake in a spot of turtle racing, which was surprisingly not as slow as we imagined.
Looking at Shenmue 3 it was pretty hard to believe that its predecessors were two of the most expensive games ever to be produced at the time of their release. The character models appeared downright ugly and the lip-syncing was so far off that it became a constant distraction for us when conversing with NPCs. The script had its problems too and pretty much everything uttered by protagonist Ryo Hazuki felt stiff and unnatural, almost like he was an alien trying to blend in and replicate human behaviour for the first time. That said, it is admirable that members of the original cast lent their vocal talents here almost two decades later - a touch that we are certain that long-time fans will appreciate.
Our time with Shenmue 3 was only brief but it still highlighted some major concerns and didn't exactly represent a glorious return for the esteemed series. There was a distinctly budget feel with stiff character models and poor lip-syncing, and the combat felt frustratingly difficult. We were, however, impressed that the original cast had made a return nearly 20 years later and we thought that Bailu offered plenty to do with lots of NPCs to interact with and entertaining side distractions such as turtle racing to keep us occupied. Only time will tell whether our initial criticisms are justified, although we expect fans of the originals will find more to like here than those coming in cold. Either way, we won't have to wait too long to look back and reflect as Shenmue 3 releases on PC and PS4 on November 19.