An old dream willed into existence by its fans, is Shenmue 3 worth your time?
Ever heard of the Coelacanth? Long thought to be extinct for more than 60 million years, the fish was discovered again in 1938, prompting new debate about the nature of evolution. How could such an archaic creature have survived for so long, more or less unchanged since its first conception? Shenmue 3 is a petit peu like the Coelacanth of videogaming, a game that’s so out of touch with current developments that it shouldn’t exist.But yet here it is, brought to life in 2019 after a wildy succesful Kickstarter campaign. Eighteen long years after the second Shenmue it holds the promise of providing answers to the many questions that were raised in the ending of the second game. Is Shenmue 3 everything fans like me deserve? Or should the franchise never have been revived in the first place?
In order for an outsider to understand the momentous support for Shenmue 3’s crowdfunding one needs to travel back to 1999. Being released early in the lifecycle of Sega’s Dreamcast console, the first Shenmue stood out as a groundbreaking technical marvel, introducing many tropes of open-world gaming that GTA3 would popularize two years later. Yet whereas GTA3 trumped freedom as its defining calling card, in Shenmue it was immersion. The simple but gripping story plays in 1987, in which protagonist Ryo Hazuki vows to take revenge on the mysterious murderer of his father. In order to do so he searches for clues in his hometown Yokosuka only to continue his quest in Hongkong in the second game. One reason that made Ryo’s journey so endearing to fans was the unparalleled amount of detail that went into Shenmue’s environment, under the guidance of legendary developer Yu Suzuki.
Welcome to Japan
With hundred’s of NPC’s having their own unique homes, walking patterns and -often hilariously wooden- dialogue, Shenmue offered something that truly felt like a living little society, complete with a day and night cycle and changes in weather. It’s also the first game where your chronicly worrisome foster-mother scolds you after arriving late at home. I expected many things of Shenmue but notthat it would make me feel guilty. It offered you a world that was Japanese through and through, from the faces of the people you’d encounter to the distinctive architecture, food and music. You can question if the astonishing amount of details were necessary, but in Yu Suzuki’s nostalgic vision they were. To a Westerner like me Shenmue was the closest i could get to Japan without having to book an airplane ticket. It really cranked up my desire to go to Japan.
What made the world of Shenmue even more special was the pace you had to explore it in. Instead of pumping up adrenaline it asked you to take it slow, to explore and talk to people, spend optional time collecting capsule toys, rummaging through drawers, (You might find a Sega Saturn there) and to just immerse yourself in its atmosphere. The slow pace made the impact of the occasional fights and peaks in narrative tension all the more powerful. ‘So Jelger, if the original Shenmue’s were so great, then why did the third Shenmue took 18 years to come to fruition? ‘
Well, by being ambitious to a fault, development of the original Shenmue was hampered by delays early, such as having to be transitioned from Sega’s Saturn to its successor Dreamcast. Additonal delays and unforseen costs made Shenmue 1 and 2 expensive to make. Slow in pace, low on quick thrills and peculiar in style, it didn’t precisely cater to casual gamers and thus the odds seemed stacked against it from its release. Consequently, though certainly not a bad selling game, it didn’t became the financial succes it desperately needed to be. It didn’t help that the Dreamcast’s short lifecycle was doomed by Sega’s financial perils at the time.
Shenmue 3 has certainly received mixed reviews. More than any other game Shenmue 3 is made for and by its fans. If you are not one of those it’s doubtful you will enjoy the game. As an outsider you might not be so forgiving to its flaws. It even rubbed an ardent fan like me the wrong way. Stiff and limited animations, rigid invisible borders and telling a story that is as lineair and slow as can be: Shenmue 3 feels utterly dated from the start, and reeks of a game that should have been released in 2003. It stubbornly ignores two decades of innovations in open world-gaming and bluntly asks you to put up with it. For a moment at the start i seriously doubted if i could muster up the patience to push through. For a while I even refrained from doing so. Had I arrived at the uncomfortable truth that Shenmue 3 was not worthy of any of my time? Should I, Yu Suzuki and millions of other fans just have let the past be the past? Maybe, but I had waited too long to give up now. Hesitantly and out of sheer loyalty I resumed playing.
Shenmue 3 picks right up where its predecessor left. Ryo has arrived in rural China and is still looking for the murderer of his father. He is aided by a mysterious girl called Shenhua. Shenmue’s revenge story has a mystical undertone, revolving around two magical mirrors. Just like the original games you talk to hundreds of people in search for clues, fight with cartoonishly looking thugs and do the occasional odd job for money. Ryo uses the house of Shenhua as a hideout to explore the rural environment of Bailu, a fictive village situated in the photogenic Guilin region. From this house on the hill you begin every morning in the first half of the game, with a day in the game taking about a hour in real life. After a few ‘days’ of play a rhythm starts to settle in and a simple life unfolds: run down from the hill to the village, talk to the villagers, work on your martial art skills and chop some wood for money.
Gratitude and flowery fields
The fact that it feels like the Shenmue of old gave me really fuzzy feelings as my journey progressed. As if at first I wasn’t sure yet. In flashes it dawned on me how it is a small miracle this game even exists. It’s a labour of love made for fans like me. On one such moment I just stopped walking to enjoy the sight of flowery fields and to let the music seep in. Silently I expressed my gratitude to Yu Suzuki and all the fans that made Shenmue 3 possible. Just like in its predecessors and the first game in particular, the world of Shenmue 3 can be a cozy place. No person in the village of Bailu feels like a random character. They all have their names, homes and their daily cycle of doing things. Admittedly this sometimes doesn’t entail more than a daily walk to the gambling spot, but it’s a feature that adds character to the characters nonetheless.
The setting itself has its own distinctive character too. It’s a bit of a rarity to have a Chinese village portrayed in a video game and Shenmue 3 does it pretty well. The romanticized take on Chinese village life feels authentic enough to convince. On its best moments Shenmue 3 is an unique and charming experience. There’s a humor to it that reveals itself in seemingly mundane conversations, such as when the villages’ housewives try to hit on Ryo or start to gossip about his relation with Shenhua, much to Ryo’s unease. His stilted and akward replies add to the fun. Another quirk that made me laugh is when you hit a combo during the wood chopping mini game and hysterical rock music suddenly starts to play. It does not fit the scenery at all but somehow Shenmue gets away with it.
Shenmue 3 might be a labour of love, but on its worst it is terribly tedious and hopelessly outdated. Repetitiveness quickly rears its ugly head. The game being a long grind is not always a bad thing persé. What is bad are the parts where you have to conjure a large sum of money in order to advance through the story. I was cursing out loudly when I first encountered this. There a few of these inexcusible moments and they feel like a really cheap excuse to lengthen the duration of play. New in Shenmue are the health bar and the levelling up system. The health bar doesn’t really add much unless you want to marvel over how someone can exist on a diet of black garlic alone. It becomes a downside when you start a fight and you discover that your health is not full. Maddeningly, you can’t replenish the health bar during the fight. In the voice of James Rolfe: What were they thinking?
The levelling up system is linked to Shenmue 3’s combat. You fight, spar and perform dull workouts in order to become stronger. It’s a rudimentary system that would’ve appealed more if the combat would’ve been good. Sadly this is not the case at all. The combat in the first Shenmue’s felt sluggish but solid. There was a weight to the animations that made Iron Palming your foes feel really gratifying. This sense of gravity is gone in Shenmue 3. Instead Ryo’s physics feels much more floaty. Explanation of the combat is vague and I quickly found myself avoiding it until some baddies forced me to level up. The game also insults your intelligence by literally asking you to press random buttons in the tutorial. What were they thinking?
Shenmue-isms and epic symphonies
Next to talking, fighting and exploring some more minor Shenmue-isms also make their return: such as gambling, the collectable capsule toys and of course the Arcade hall. Later you unlock a simple fishing game that’ll keep you busy for a few hours. There are also a few fetch-quests, some of which ask you to spend wads of cash on capsule toys. In general these activities add some more than welcome spice to the monotony of the game. Speaking about monotonous, the drowzy overworld music in the Bailu area really wears out its welcome after hearing it over and over. This detracts a bit from how good the soundtrack is. Some old tunes make their return but this is no annoyance since the music is so well produced. Themes range from epic orchestrated pieces to more subdued themes for houses and markets, typified by Japanese percussion that you won’t hear in many other games. It’s a special selling point for a music enthusiast like me.
Graphically Shenmue 3 is a mixed bag. It looks like driven by an old engine that received a massive overhaul. Foliage can look beautiful, and the patented attention to detail still impresses. Less impressive is the dynamic lightning, which is…not so dynamic. It’s a clear step back from the benchmark that The Witcher 3 has set. I also need to mention the weird glaze that lies over the world, with bright colors reminiscent of games like Crazy Taxi and Sonic Adventure on the Sega Dreamcast. Some of Shenmue 3’s graphical downsides can be excused by knowing that the game had less than a tenth of the budget of Red Dead Redemption 2. Others cannot, such as the faces. Much has been said about them and how some look cartoonish and other realistic, resulting in a stylistic mishmash. People’s faces often fail to really emote, aside from their texturing. This is depressingly similar to the faces in the original Shenmue’s.
With all due respect to those games, you’d expect that in 18 years Yu Suzuki’s team would have made some strides in this department. It makes you wonder if this stems from laziness or perhaps time constraints, or that it was a deliberate choice. ‘Let’s make the villagers look real wooden! That’ll add to the immersion!’ Either way, the result is disappointing. The wooden faces become glaring in the numerous conversations between Ryo and Shenhua. They basically both look like dolls, which creates somewhat of a unsettling and surreal viewing. On the flipside there is a lot of optional dialogue between them and for me as a fan this was an unexpected surprise. After getting used to Ryo and Shenhua having about 5 facial animations I was treated to some interesting bits about Ryo’s past and his emotional state. Deeper in the game they even start to show some affection to each other. It’s no ‘Titanical‘ lovestory but i’ll take what I can get.
I still don’t really know what to make of Shenmue 3. It’s outdated, charming, annoying and weirdly alluring all at once. It’s unlike anything else and this will appeal to people like me who love obscurities. If you love Shenmue you should play it simply because it is made for you. This is not to say that you will like it. On the contrary: you might even hate it. The reception of the latest Star Wars iterations have learned us that often the biggest disappointment comes for those who love something the most. So maybe you shouldn’t play it? If you haven’t but still intend to do so then it’s wise to lower your expectations. Shenmue 3 does not by any means amaze like its predecessors did, but if you can accept that time has passed Shenmue by then its charms and quirks are reason enough to play it.
Shenmue 3 review – a polarizing link to the past.
Shenmue 3 is a curious relic that will continue to polarize its fans. It's a simultaneously unique and deeply flawed game. If you can accept that time has passed Shenmue by you might be able to still enjoy its charms and quirks. Let's hope a fourth installment will push things forward instead of staying stuck in the past.
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