Shenmue III is a difficult game to review, as it's one of the most boring and monotonous games of 2019, yet it's giving the fans exactly what they paid for. The Shenmue III Kickstarter promised to give fans the long-awaited third entry in the series and that's exactly what has been delivered, warts and all.
The original Shenmue told the story of Ryo Hazuki, a young martial artist who witnessed his father's murder at the hands of an assassin named Lan Di. Ryo is unable to stop Lan Di from stealing a mysterious relic known as the Dragon Mirror from the family dojo. Shenmue was the first chapter in Ryo's story of revenge, continuing in Shenmue II when Ryo travels to China. Shenmue II was released in 2001, but the demise of Sega left the series unfinished for a long time. In 2015, Shenmue creator Yu Suzuki began a Kickstarter project to bring Shenmue III to life, which resulted in the project bringing in over seven million dollars from different funding platforms. The wait is finally over and Shenmue III is here.
Shenmue III starts where the previous game ended. Ryo and his new companion Shenhua enter a cave with huge carvings of the Dragon Mirror and Phoenix Mirror. Ryo arrives in Bailu village in order to learn more about the mirrors, but his enemies, who are seeking the Phoenix Mirror, are not far behind.
Shenmue III Is... Shenmue III
Shenmue III feels like a game trapped in the past. Graphics aside, this feels like the exact version of Shenmue III that would have been released in 2004 instead of 2019. The conveniences of modern gaming have been cast aside for a game that has no respect for the player's time, as Ryo slowly blunders through the story in an orgy of asking for directions and performing menial tasks.
The gameplay loop of Shenmue III involves traveling between locations in order to ask the locals questions. These moments are occasionally broken up with fight scenes, exploring small areas in search of items, and solving basic puzzles, but 90% of Shenmue III is a lost tourist simulator, as Ryo keeps asking strangers for help. Shenmue III is a game that doesn't hold the player's hand in terms of keeping track of stores on the map and the general locations of NPCs, so it really helps to keep notes while playing in order to prevent from getting lost, as most of the game involves running between the same handful of locations. There are minigames to play, as Ryo now has stats relating to his physical prowess, which means he can train in order to improve his endurance and strength. There are also part-time jobs that can earn money and gambling games that can be played to earn prizes. There is a lot to do in the world of Shenmue III, but it's a shame that so much of it is boring and monotonous in practice.
Ryo's Quest For Revenge Against The Player's Free Time
There have been some improvements made to the flow of the game that speed things up, but even these have caveats. The Jump system allows Ryo to fast travel to story missions at the correct time that he needs to be there, but there is no general fast travel system and Ryo can only use the Jump system in instances when the game lets him. Shenmue III commits one of the cardinal sins of game design by not allowing players to skip dialogue scenes in order to enjoy the story at their own pace. It's possible to skip through some text, but only if the player has seen it before (such as when repeating a gameplay section that they failed to complete). The voice acting in Shenmue III is bad, but purposely so in order to match the earlier games. It fits the old martial arts movie vibe that the series is trying to emulate. The developers must have thought people would love to hear the bad voice acting because they have to experience every word of it in all of its slowly spoken/badly lip-synced glory.
The Shenmue series is rooted in martial arts and the need to improve one's physical abilities, which is why it's so surprising that the combat system in Shenmue III feels so half-baked. The fights in Shenmue III feel slow and Ryo feels unresponsive in his actions. The camera struggles to follow the action when Ryo faces multiple opponents, which is usually when the game reaches its peak in difficulty. Switching between enemies happens slowly and Ryo takes a long time to change his focus, leaving him open to being surrounded and unable to block from his blind angles. Shenmue III mercifully features an easy mode, and it's possible for Ryo to heal in battle by consuming drinks, but the battles still pose a challenge due to Ryo's immobility.
The Descent Into The Uncanny Valley
The soundtrack of Shenmue III is phenomenal and the world is gorgeous, but the same cannot be said for the character models. There is an uncanny valley aspect to the appearance of everyone except for the main characters. The children fare the worst in this regard, as they look like Sid from the original Toy Story wearing a different selection of wigs. It also becomes apparent during the Niaowu section of the game that many of the character models have been repurposed from the Bailu section of the game. The locations in Shenmue III are beautiful, but the quality of the character models makes it hard to believe that the game had seven million dollars put into it.
One of the biggest issues with Shenmue III is Ryo himself, as he hasn't developed as a character at all over the past three games. He is still the same dense and stoic character that he was in the original Shenmue. Ryo has spent a year traveling the world on a quest for revenge, yet he never managed to find a personality along the way. The one saving grace is Ryo's new companion Shenhua, as the quasi-husband and wife dynamic she has with Ryo throughout the story offers some of the few entertaining character moments in Shenmue III.
Shenmue Fans Will Still Love It
If you loved the original Shenmue and Shenmue II, then you'll likely love Shenmue III for how closely it adheres to the original games. If you enjoyed the HD remasters of Shenmue & Shenmue II, then you will likely enjoy Shenmue III as a faithful sequel. There isn't much to recommend for everyone else, as Shenmue III is a ponderous experience that exists more to waste player's time than tell a compelling story.
Shenmue III has been designed to please the fans of the original games and if that applies to you, then ignore the score below and imagine a 4.5 out of 5 in its place, as this game is made for you. The curious gamers who are attracted to Shenmue III due to the buzz surrounding its release should check out the HD remasters of the first two games first, so that they know what to expect going in.
A physical PlayStation 4 version of Shenmue III was purchased by TheGamer for this review. Shenmue III is available now for PC and PlayStation 4.