As dedicated Shenmue fans are well aware, the translated version of Shenmue was released on December 1, 2000, after quite the wait on the part of players based in the west. With its release, the game essentially created a new genre. Despite the fact that it used aspects from various pre-existing genres (such as fighting and point-and-click), Shenmue was the first game ambitious enough to combine it all into a life simulator or "Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment" as Yu Suzuki somewhat arrogantly described the new genre. Not too long after its release, however, the Dreamcast as a format was struggling and two months later Sega announced that it would focus on third-party development instead.
Despite this, and despite the fact that the Dreamcast was discontinued in 2001, Shenmue 2 was released for the console in the end of that same year, at least in Europe.
And for a long time, that was the end.
Yu Suzuki stayed at Sega for a few years and helped make Virtua Fighter 4 and Outrun 2 a reality before officially leaving in 2011 in order to focus on his own studio, Ys Net. After a few failed attempts to revive Shenmue, a silence enveloped the franchise and dedicated fans across the globe started to realise that the probability of Ryo ever seeing the light of day by getting out of that cave was slim.
Shenmue as a series was a bit niche when it first launched and this was one of the reasons that it couldn't keep the Dreamcast afloat singlehandedly. When players had gone through the very first moments and noted the phenomenal graphics and the amount of detail it offered, Shenmue was essentially a game that had you running around, asking the same questions over and over again until you'd happened to come across a clue, prompting Ryo to start the cycle over again.
The combat, while being well-presented, was based on Virtua Fighter principles and considering the fact that Virtua Fighter wasn't a best-seller either, this was problematic as well. However, despite, or maybe thanks to, the fact that the players got to follow Ryo through both monotonous daily tasks and intense moments, his adventures were incredibly engaging.
And this is why returning to that dank cave with Ryo and Shenhua standing in front of two cryptic reliefs picturing a dragon and a phoenix, and then getting to follow them out of the cave is such a surreal experience. We only caught glimpses of our final surroundings during the long walk at the end of Shenmue 2, but as we quickly learn at the beginning of Shenmue 3, Shenhua's house is located in the outskirts of the small village of Bailu, in the middle of the Chinese countryside. Get ready to make yourself at home, because you'll linger here for quite some time.
As if nothing happened since 2001, Shenmue 3 continues where its predecessor left off. The immediate objective is to find Shenhua's father Yuan who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. You quickly find out that some foreign crooks have been spotted nearby and without any other leads, Ryo and Shenhua are on the case.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for sailors" has become quite a well-used meme when talking about Shenmue's repetitive question-heavy gameplay and not much has changed on that front other than the attire of those you're looking for. The Shenmue games are very dialogue-focused and almost every person you talk to can give you a promising clue. The conversations are, however, essentially standard phrases patched together, so don't expect special dialogue for specific scenarios.
The day-to-day life of Ryo is where the grandeur of Shenmue lies. If Yu Suzuki hadn't ended up in the games industry (and we say this with the utmost respect) he could have built a career creating soap operas. We can't think of any other game that portrays people in the way that Shenmue does. We're not talking a cast of archetypes here, we're talking a vast array of personalities. The characters might be young or old, smart or demented, welcoming or reserved, or a mix of them all. They essentially feel like ordinary people. Technically they're probably the weakest link, but when Shenmue was released, the characters were incredibly realistic.
With Shenmue 3, Yu Suzuki has chosen a simpler style and ditched the photorealism focus to bring back memories of what once was and, of course, to keep costs down. This means that the game isn't a graphical masterpiece comparable to the best of this generation; it has an almost caricature-like vibe and some of the characters you meet, such as the massive character practising tai chi in the village, feel like they're taken straight out of a comic book. However, as we stated earlier, they still make for sympathetic and interesting acquaintances.
The small details in the day-to-day activities make a world of difference, like when we get tasked with asking a young martial artist if she's interested in a romantic relationship by a character only to learn she's interested in Ryo, or when we purchase a bunch of gachapon collectables to give to a child so he can collect a full set to sell and in turn get enough money saved up to buy medicine for his grandfather.
What Shenmue 3 lacks in terms of facial modelling and animations it makes up for in its environmental detail. Bailu is absolutely beautiful even though it's basically just a collection of old buildings in a countryside region, and even though you're relatively confined to a specific area as you go through the story, the map opens up more and more as you progress in the story as to not overwhelm you when you start off. You'll come across more markets, more regions and more magnificent temples.
However, Bailu pales in comparison to Niaowu, the location you'll explore in the game's second act. Shenmue 3 has a semi-open, ever-expanding world and Niaowu is packed with fun details. Sure, it's no Grand Theft Auto, but the game still offers much more than we anticipated, especially considering the fact that it was crowdfunded. Shenmue 3 certainly doesn't feel limited by its budget, rather it's lifted by the developer's will to keep to the ambition of its predecessors.
One thing that's received a complete revamp in terms of gameplay is the combat system, which used to offer less strict Virtua Fighter-esque mechanics with combinations and special attacks. Shenmue 3 uses a slightly odd combat system, mixing real-time fighting with more tactical elements. Ryo has a vast array of techniques that have been carried over from the previous games as well as plenty more to learn throughout this third adventure.
Instead of pressing an array of buttons at once or pressing buttons in natural succession, you press the buttons in a specific sequence, with the technique following on-screen a second later. It doesn't feel very intuitive, though. For example, 'Cross, Triangle, Triangle' becomes an elbow attack with a moderate range while 'Cross Triangle' becomes a high kick. You then have to move around to get out of harm's way (blocking an attack still does damage to Ryo) and time your dodges. It feels stiff and odd, which results in combat sequences that should be the highlight of the game quickly becoming isolated moments of frustration. The combat isn't very recurrent either, and you'll spend more time training in the game's dojos or challenging your friends to a sparring match than actually using what you've learned in battle. The old QTEs (or quick-time event) are scaled-down as well, however, we're not too upset about that since the ones that do exist in the game require lightning-fast reflexes.
Despite its '80s kung fu movie-like setting, Shenmue is a game that's not really fighting focused but rather centres on Ryo and his journey, and how he's no longer alone in his pursuit of answers and revenge. Shenhua never really had the chance to become a character at all in Shenmue 2, but in Shenmue 3 she plays a big part in the story and essentially acts as a constant companion. Throughout the game, both the player and Ryo get to know her, not through the main narrative but rather through the conversations that take place as Ryo comes home at night after a day of questioning townsfolk and collecting various gadgets. Ryo having to go home at sundown sounds like a repetitive, frustrating mechanic, but it's really a way to add some realism to the mix.
Shenmue 3 certainly isn't a game for everyone, but we doubt anyone thought it would be. Its predecessors were odd, niche games as well and got somewhat overshadowed by titles such as Goldeneye, Unreal and Halo. Shenmue 3 was crowdfunded by and created for fans of the series, and those fans are certainly getting what they've paid for, and even those who haven't been waiting for over a decade get to experience video game history by playing this one.
We'd compare it to Kojima Productions' Death Stranding, which is also extremely unconventional and non-compromising. However, whereas many will take issue with Kojima's eccentric leanings, they'll have an easier time getting to grips with Suzuki's creation, and we sincerely hope he gets to conclude this series in the future. To summarise, Shenmue 3 is a game that's unique in the sense that it has paved its own path. The path may be somewhat confined and the controls may be somewhat clunky, but the game is still a joy to play.
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