Shenmue III. Need I say more? But on a serious note, Shenmue 3 is the crowdfunded sequel 17 years in the making to bring honor to a cult classic franchise born on the final Sega console, the Dreamcast. Shenmue in its original incarnation was one of the most expensive games ever made. It brought several advances to the industry as a whole and it’s ambition while not entirely realized, certainly inspired many more game designers to push the envelope of what was possible. So how does the latest iteration hold up? Well..check out our Shenmue III review to find out!
Show Me Your Moves!
First things first, graphically this game is actually quite beautiful. The environments are breathtaking, reflections on the water always catch the eye, walking down the path to the local village is one of those sights that makes me wish more games could be set in this location. Weather effects change the scenery and standing in the rain is just as enjoyable as watching the sunrise/set, what I’m saying is. It’s a pretty game.
Unfortunately, this tranquil pleasure is shattered the second a character opens their mouth. While the environment may look amazing and the character models themselves are ok, the animation for said characters is atrocious. Rather than attempt any kind of lip-syncing or motion capture, this game has returned to the glory of yesteryear with lips moving up and down as characters speak with no discernible or appropriate facial expression accompanying it. Luckily though, this goes hand in hand with the stilted voice acting and strange dialogue that you will be hearing throughout this game.
I don’t just mean that the VA work is bad either, some of it is actually good but well… ok, so the first problem is that there is a lack of consistent tone between the voices. Some of them take it seriously and deliver the lines how you would expect them too, others, on the other hand, lean into the Shenmue history and deliver the script in what can only be described as odd. This coupled with dialogue not making any sense will very quickly drive you mad. One of the earliest examples of this that I honestly thought I’d somehow done something wrong went like this“I’m looking for someone named Yaun” said Ryo, “No I haven’t” replies the man I’m talking too. Now I don’t know about you but it feels like there was supposed to be a couple of lines of dialogue between those sentences to me! This isn’t an isolated incident either, trying to talk to the characters in this game is tedious, awkward and at times maddening. This wouldn’t be such a problem except, that is half of the gameplay. That said though if you are a fan of hearing Ryo say “I see” as a response to literally everything that is said to him, you’ll be pleased to know that has not changed.
Your Kung Fu Is No Good!
So yes, gameplay. As I said a large portion of this game sees you walking around going between random people asking them questions. Over and over, and over again. To the point, you’ll start to notice that those beautiful environments are struggling at times to load their texture files or keep a consistent frame rate. At the beginning of the game, you find yourself in Bailu village and this is where a decent chunk of the game takes place. It is during a visit to the local martial arts hall that you will then encounter the other half of the gameplay. Fight Club. Though in this game everyone does talk about it, in fact, they flat out taunt you that your kung fu is no good. For you see combat isn’t as simple as simply learning when to strike, how to strike, when to block and when to dodge. Combat requires you to level up your kung fu ability by practicing button prompts in the dojo and via exercise machines such as a wooden man where you must rapidly tap a button to keep your body correctly aligned in a position that allows a bar to fill. These combined level up endurance and attack power and both these stats combined level up your overall kung fu.
You could be the best fighting game player out there, but unless you take the time to level yourself up enemies will only need two hits to defeat you while you’ll be nothing more than a fleabite to them. The fighting itself once you get to grips with it is actually rather fun, remembering the various button combination reminded me of a style of combat that existed before the Arkham games came to town and while I personally didn’t think the leveling up of Kung Fu was a necessary feature I did appreciate from a narrative perspective the idea that we train. Apart from the fact, Ryo has already been through two Shenmue games as a competent fighter taking on dozens of opponents at once but I’ll let that one slide.
There is also a new feature to the series, you have to eat! Yes, those of you who love your survival games will feel right at home here. Not only do you have to keep an eye on your stamina as it depletes by running around, training and fighting but it also doubles as your overall health when you are fighting. Yes, you read that correctly, health and stamina are the same stat. This leads to an annoying feedback loop. You train up for a fight, you need to eat, you run to where the fight is, you need to eat more, you have the fight, win or lose you need to eat more, you run to the next objective, you need to eat more. Eventually, you’ll run out of food so then you’ll need to buy more and that brings us to money. Yes, you need to make sure you don’t run out of that so of course, there are jobs in the game just like in past entries. Becoming a forklift driver once again is an option later in the game but at first, you’ll have to chop wood for the local villages to try and have enough cash for food.
Now a quick side note here, there are several mini-games you can play to break up the monotony however I’ll be entirely honest, after trying each one a couple of times I never touched them again. They didn’t help advance the story and considering how much effort is put into immersion I felt stopping every five minutes to play a game with the local bookie seemed a tad odd when we are trying to find Shenhua’s missing father.
You Killed My Father!
Speaking of the story, this is where I find myself conflicted. There is, in my opinion, a good story buried under the weight of the awful dialogue. It just comes down to if you find the clunky delivery charming or irritating, I thought I’d find it charming like I did oh so many years ago but I think after all this time it’s extremely hard to go back. I don’t want to spoil anything in the story for those who still plan to this and yes I think the story is the main reason to play this game but what I will say is when it does decide to deliver you story elements that’s when it really grabs your attention and you get invested. However, the way in which this game chooses to feed you exposition really does highlight the main problem with this game. That said, to all those people who’ve been nearly two decades for the next chapter in this story. You may want to brace yourselves.
When the game decides you’ve earned exposition you will know, because the game will fade to black, display the word ‘loading’ fade back in and play a cutscene. This happens all the time, far more than it should for a game published in 2019. At the very beginning I was essentially playing one-handed as there was no need for me to interact in any way with the game, take ten steps in any direction and the game would trigger a cutscene and do everything for me. I wish I was exaggerating. There is a hill that leads from Shenhua’s house to the village, in any other game these days you would walk/run via the path and during the said journey if exposition was needed Ryo and Shenhua would converse as you played right? Well, unfortunately, that is not the case. The game insists on wretching control from you as soon as it wants to tell you something, you are then greeted to a cutscene of the walk and they converse (all the cutscenes and spoken dialogue are unskippable in case you were wondering). This, not to sound like a broken record, would not be so irritating were it not for the fact that every time the camera needs to change the angle on-screen it first needs to fade to black, pausing the dialogue and breaking the flow of the conversation. When the first walk down the hill has 8 camera changes and two cutscenes and that’s considerably less than future cutscenes, you can see why this might a tad maddening.
All in all, this brings me to my main issue with the game. A culmination of all of the above. This game feels like it was made in 2003 and has simply been remastered to vastly improve the graphics. In fact, I’m going to be honest, I think the original Shenmue games are better than this one. Which is hardly surprising, they had a budget of millions, this game was made by a considerably smaller team on a fraction of the original duos budget. Even the way you control Ryo feels dated. His momentum lacks a sense of realism and weight and he just stops dead if you expect him to do anything challenging like walk between two benches. For the record though, this game did still keep me coming back too it. There is a story I want to explore, characters that occasionally make me want to learn more about them and sometimes the dialogue was hilarious. Spending 25 minutes asking everyone with a heartbeat if they knew where I could find some thugs took me right back to the original Shenmue looking for that place where sailors hang out. In fact, the opening of Shenmue 1 and Shenmue 3 are scarily similar when you stop and think about it, to the point I wonder why they didn’t try to innovate more.
The game feels like it goes on for far too long, every mission is just that one link in a chain too much. It feels like padding and after a while, you really begin to feel it. Every quest always requires you to do 4 or 5 things more than you first expect, dialogue repeats but is unskippable and those cutscenes make sure that you never got too tired in gameplay. This game could shave several hours off its playtime with a few simple changes to the quest objective and tighter, smoother dialogue delivery.