Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC
As I sat in front of my PS4 and booted up Shenmue III for the first time, I couldn’t help but lean back and let the absolute surrealness of the situation wash over me. Here I was, a 31-year-old gamer who was finally continuing a series he had first fallen in love with roughly 20 years prior. The two previous Shenmue games were a big part of my childhood back during the early aughts, and like many other fans at the time I had spent countless hours desperately waiting for the announcement of a third game after 2001’s Shenmue II ended on a somewhat abrupt cliffhanger.
Having now played Shenmue III as an older and one might argue wiser gamer, I am painfully aware of the cringe-worthy quirks that have shaped and ultimately defined all three games in the Shenmue saga. Much like its two predecessors, Shenmue III drops players into a gorgeous and meticulously crafted world, one that’s filled with wooden characters, oddly implemented fighting mechanics, numerous side distractions, and hints of eastern mythology and mysticism. Somehow, despite a 20-year gap, developer Ys Net has succeeded in recreating the exact Shenmue atmosphere that captivated so many fans to begin with, and that means Shenmue III is really only a game that dedicated fans of the series will be able to fully embrace.
From Across A Distant Land
Shenmue III picks up mere moments after the ending of Shenmue II. In fact, developer Ys Net event went ahead and recreated Shenmue II’s climactic finale in which protagonist Ryo Hazuki and his companion Shenhua discover a massive mural of the Dragon and Phoenix Mirrors (two artifacts that are key to Shenmue’s ongoing story) using the new Unreal Engine graphics engine that powers the third game.
Shenmue II ended in the Chinese region of Guilin, and so it is there that Shenmue III’s story kicks off. With Shenhua’s house acting as a home base of sorts, players venture over to the nearby village of Bailu where they must solve the mystery behind Shenhua’s father’s disappearance. This is done by following a breadcrumb trail of clues that slowly opens up additional parts of the surprisingly expansive village and reveals more about its history and people.
Despite being a rural village nestled in the mountains of Guilin, Bailu has a surprising number of modern conveniences including fully stocked shops with capsule toy machines outside, a phone booth from which Ryo can call his friends and family in Japan, and even an arcade stocked with several games (small gas-powered generators supply the village with electricity). The surprisingly modern and highly populated nature of Bailu might even be off-putting for those who completed Shenmue II since in the previous game Ryo and Shenhua spent several days trekking through the winding mountain paths of Guilin without ever encountering another human soul.
As they progress through Shenmue III’s story, players eventually travel to two additional regions, a portside village called Choubu and a region called Baisha. However, Bailu is where players will spend many of their early-game hours as they acclimate to the game’s unique exploration and combat systems.
Making the Most of Things
One of the biggest changes between the first two Shenmue games and Shenmue III is the inclusion of a survival game-esque health management system. Over time, Ryo’s health gauge (which is represented both by the classic circular blips as well as an actual number) slowly depletes. Running and taking damage during combat naturally depletes the gauge more rapidly, and the only way to replenish Ryo’s health aside from resting at Shenhua’s house each night is to consume food items and medicine.
Since eating and resting are the only ways players can prevent Ryo from keeling over in exhaustion, maintaining a constant stockpile of food items becomes essential, especially if players suspect they’ll soon find themselves in combat. As a result, it’s also important that players keep making money since, aside from grabbing a few pieces of fruit at Shenhua’s house each morning, buying food from shops and produce stands is the only way to get it. Thankfully, there are a few local jobs Ryo can work like chopping wood or catching and selling fish, and players who are feeling lucky can gamble for prizes which can then be pawned for big payouts.
Along with managing Ryo’s health and financial prospects, players must also improve his fighting skills through Shenmue III’s RPG-esque mastery system. At the start of the game, Ryo has a limited repertoire of martial arts attacks, but that repertoire can be expanded by finding skill books that unlock new moves. Certain attacks (like the iconic Elbow Assault or Tornado Kick) must also be mastered by using those moves during sparring sessions.
Ryo also has two combat stats, Attack and Endurance, which feed into a global ‘Kung Fu’ stat that represents his total combat potential. The Attack stat is increased by sparring and mastering new moves, whereas Endurance is increased by participating in QTE-based martial arts mini-games like Horse Stance and One Inch Punch. Leveling up both stats is important since, as their names imply, Attack and Endurance dictate how much damage Ryo deals and how much total health he has.
Before long, players will find themselves settling into a sort of routine for each new in-game day, much like how they did in the first two Shenmue games. Every day starts with Ryo departing from Shenhua’s house, and from there players have full control over how they spend their time. Sure, they could just rush through the main storyline, but that’s rarely the best approach. Rushing means that players won’t be able to adequately build up Ryo’s combat skills and stats, or get to know Bailu’s many colorful denizens, or participate in side quests and activities like herb picking or fishing.
If anything, it’s important that players dedicate some time to improving Ryo’s combat stats and expanding his moves repertoire, since even on the easiest of Shenmue III’s four difficulty levels early combat encounters can be tough to overcome. This is mainly because of the aforementioned health management mechanics (forgetting to top off Ryo’s health with some food before a fight can be disastrous), but also because of how majorly different Shenmue III’s combat mechanics are from those of its two predecessors.
The combat systems found in Shenmue and Shenmue II weren’t terribly sophisticated (especially by today’s standards), but they at least conveyed Ryo Hazuki’s martial arts mastery in a functional sense whether he was facing one opponent or several. With one face button dedicated to punches, one to kicks, one to evading, and one to executing grapples and throws, players could perform a variety of moves by mixing those four face button actions with different directional inputs.
In Shenmue III, however, much of what I described above is thrown out the window in favor of a system which I assume was meant to feel more streamlined but in practice just comes off as confusing and unintuitive. For starters, there are no throwing techniques in Shenmue III. All four face buttons on a controller (X, O, Square, and Triangle on PS4 for example) are instead devoted solely to strikes. Also, instead of combining a single face button press with directional inputs (as in Shenmue and Shenmue II), most moves in Shenmue III are executed by pressing a specific rapid sequence of face buttons.
The problem is that there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to which moves are assigned to which button sequences, it’s just a haphazard smorgasbord that the average player has no hope of remembering in the heat of battle. On PS4, pressing X and then Circle might lead Ryo to execute a kick, but X, Circle, and then Circle again is the command for executing an Elbow Assault.
At least in the first two Shenmue games I knew that if I pressed a specific button I’d execute a punch, and if I pressed another I’d execute a kick. The directional-based move inputs weren’t perfect, but they were leagues better than this confusing new system Ys Net dreamed up for Shenmue III. In the first two games, the precise button and directional presses needed to execute advanced moves and custom combos were ingrained into my muscle memory, but in Shenmue III I’m just a flailing mess who relies on button mashing and one or two cheap power moves to win most encounters.
There is admittedly some satisfaction in seeing the mastery gauge for certain moves slowly fill up as I use them during sparring sessions, but even that is a mostly hollow comfort. “Mastering” a move in Shenmue III doesn’t really do much other than improve its damage. At least in the original Shenmue mastering a move (which admittedly took a lot longer than it does in Shenmue III) altered the very way in which Ryo executed the move, often making it faster or cleaner or more flashy. I also miss being able to customize and tweak Ryo’s move repertoire like I could in Shenmue II, especially now that he’s apparently forgotten all about how to grapple and throw his opponents.
Time Capsule Toy
Looking at Shenmue III objectively, you’d be hard-pressed to believe Ys Net managed to raise over $7 million via crowdfunding (and received additional funding from publishers Sony and Deep Silver) for its development. In many ways, the long-awaited third entry in the Shenmue saga feels antiquated, dissonant, and laughably lacking in quality, but what you have to understand is that that’s entirely by design.
Being someone who would absolutely classify themselves as a Shenmue superfan, I just couldn’t be driven away from Shenmue III despite its many clear faults. I made peace with Bailu’s inconsistent presentation, I mastered (as best I could) the game’s weird new fighting and health management mechanics, and I even cackled with glee as I discovered the third game’s fully voiced dialogue is just as stilted and awkward as it was in the first two games. Seriously, I don’t know how Ys Net was able to so immaculacy recreate the nonsensical speaking cadence and flow of the first two games, but the first time Ryo said to an NPC “I’m looking for Yuan” and the NPC responded verbatim with “No I haven’t,” I knew a part of me had come home.
I also fully acknowledge that the Shenmue series is an acquired taste that, for many, can’t be acquired by playing Shenmue III on its own. I largely appreciate the game for purely nostalgic reasons, but I also couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already a longtime fan of the Shenmue series like I am.
Perhaps the most bizarre element of Shenmue III of all, though, is that despite the 20-year divide separating it from its predecessors, it’s not the end of the Shenmue saga. To his credit, Yu Suzuki has shown he’s fully committed to telling the Shenmue story in the way he feels it should be told, and that means making a minimum of four, if not five, games in total.
If a Shenmue IV and Shenmue V ever become a reality, I know I’ll play them because I want to see this journey through. Those who aren’t already fans of the Shenmue series shouldn’t fret, though, for Shenmue III is too much like its predecessors (and I mean that in both a good and bad way) to sway many newcomers to its cause.