In 1999, if you couldn’t find me slammin’ some mad POGS, you would find me curled up on the couch playing one of the most niche games of the decade. Shenmue at its heart was a Japan simulator with ahead-of-its-time mechanics on the Dreamcast, a revolutionary console that never got its due. I bought a bootleg version of the Japanese version of Shenmue 2 at a flea market in 2001, but the lack of an English dub made me hold off for the Xbox port in 2002. The wait was worth it, and Ryo’s awkward voice blessed my existence once more. I couldn’t get enough of the world of Shenmue and when Shenmue 2 ended on a cliffhanger in a mysterious cave, I eagerly awaited the resolution to the story. And after 18 years of waiting – Shenmue 3 in hand – I still don’t have that resolution.
Stuck in the Past
Since 2002, all of the mechanics that made the Shenmue series so unique have found themselves commonplace elsewhere in gaming. The whole Japanese simulator angle has been masterfully fulfilled by the Yakuza series. In-game time management found its way into Animal Crossing. Quick time events became a household nuisance. Pretty much everything that made the game series stand out has not only been replicated, but they have been done much better in the 18 years since the series conception. In those 18 years, the Shenmue series has stubbornly refused to change, for better or worse – but mostly worse.
All things considered, Shenmue 3 shouldn’t exist. The first two titles were commercial failures for SEGA. The fact we can play it today thanks to a crowdfunding effort is nothing short of a miracle. As a result, we have what is the very essence of a Dreamcast title released on modern consoles. Shenmue 3 picks up the exact moment Shenmue 2 ended where protagonist Ryo Hazuki and his partner Shenhua Ling were both in a cave, discovering they were mysteriously linked to magical artifacts called the mirrors of the phoenix and the dragon. Ryo is still a teenager seeking vengeance for his murdered father, but now he is also helping Shenhua find her father. Their daddy issues will take them to new regions in the mountains of China.
Let’s Play a Game of Lucky Hit
Gameplay mostly focuses on wandering around town and asking people the same question until someone gives you an answer worthy of progressing the plot. This can get tedious as there are a lot of characters in each area and drudging through their dialogue can become a chore. This is especially bothersome due to the localization feeling rushed. Plenty of responses to a simple question are met with skewed results, often completely illogical and not matching with what was asked. In addition, Ryo humorously responds with the same “I see” to damn near everything said to him, regardless of the level of intensity. You could explain to him the concepts of electrodynamics and he would still respond with “I see.” The aggressive usage of a single phrase throughout the campaign might seem like a minor issue, but it implies that other aspects of the game took priority.
Bluntly, it’s not hard to locate where the money went. It’s easy to come off as being authentic to a decades-old game series when you refuse to adapt to the times. Lifeless faces and tank-like animations plague the game. What would have been the most gorgeous game on the Dreamcast boils down to an average at best title on modern platforms. However, that’s not to say there isn’t beauty to be found in the architecture and landscape. The regions of Guilin in the game are gorgeous. From the quaint rural town to the sprawling riverside village, the locations are a stark contrast of those seen in previous titles.
Barely Anybody was Kung-Fu Fighting
Occasionally, you’ll have to talk with your fists. In previous titles, the combat system was essentially a copy and paste of Virtua Fighter. This made sense due to developer Yu Suzuki’s history with the franchise. Now, the combat system has been rebuilt from the ground up for Shenmue 3, but it’s hard to tell without directly transitioning from Shenmue 2 into Shenmue 3. Even so, it’s clunky and extremely basic with light, heavy, and kick attacks. There are combos to be pulled off and plenty to discover, but their execution in-game feels lagged and sluggish, often requiring you to finish an accidental combo before you can start the combo you actually intended to land. You can block and dodge too, although it’s entirely possible to power through most encounters with blunt force since the AI is mostly nonresponsive.
There are various stances to level up by performing basic minigames such as pressing a single button over and over at the right time to maintain your composure. To add variety, another stance requires you to press that same button slightly differently to punch a training dummy. From combat stance training to the act of earning an honest wage, the minigames are extremely similar in nature. There is still forklift driving and gambling machines, which are arguably the more enjoyable of the bunch, but forklifts become available much later in the game and the amount of money thrown away on gambling is rarely worth what you could walk away with.
As a faux simulator, Shenmue 3 is all about micromanagement. You have to manage your time as some stores don’t open until specific hours, which is something I enjoy as it forces the player to explore their surroundings in ways they wouldn’t otherwise consider. Unfortunately, the micromanagement leaks over into the combat in wretched ways. In Shenmue 3 stamina, health, and hunger all share a single meter. Running depletes it, so if you try to play the game a little faster you are punished by being required to eat sooner. If you find yourself in a fight with a low meter due to hunger or excessive running, you’ll enter combat at a considerable disadvantage.
Shenmue 3 Review | Final Thoughts
I am not the same person I was 18 years ago. In fact, no one is. At least I hope not. For that reason alone it was impossible for Shenmue 3 to live up to the 18 years of anticipation. I knew this going into the game, but that doesn’t make the heartbreak hurt any less. Shenmue 3 doesn’t tarnish the memory of the series, but it doesn’t exactly move it forward either. It plays like a Dreamcast title discovered in a basement that had some visual polish slapped on it before rushing it out the door. I’m sure that for some people a nostalgic trip through the early 2002s is exactly what the doctor ordered.
TechRaptor reviewed Shenmue 3 on Playstation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.