Having waited 18 years for the story to continue, fans are undoubtedly going to want to take their time to savour every moment of Shenmue 3.
Crowdfunded back to life with a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, series creator Yu Suzuki deserves credit for not taking this rare opportunity to rush a conclusion to the epic saga, which saw its story tragically cut short nearly 20 years ago.
Instead, the designer simply continues where he left off on Sega Dreamcast, with teenage martial artist Ryo Hazuki and the mysterious Shenhua Ling emerging out of a cave where the series had been frozen in time since 2001.
But while game budgets have soared and open worlds have gotten more complex and sophisticated in the intervening decades, Shenmue 3 largely ignores these trends and delights in remaining in its own anachronistic bubble of game design.
True to its past iterations, this game is about walking around and gathering clues through conversation, before moving on with new evidence that compels you to explore a little further. As such, the game’s two principal China-set locations – the remote rural Bailu Village and the sprawling port city Niaowu – also take their time opening up.
On reflection, the glacial pace of the story is almost ludicrous, arguably even slower than past chapters. Even the simple task of finding a gang hiding out in a village – an environment you can walk across in mere minutes – can take an in-game week of sleuthing. In anyone else’s hands, the same plot could be told in a fraction of the time.
Yet it’s also hard to complain as you’re enjoying taking in the sights and intimate details in the same way the original Dreamcast classics enraptured its fans. Despite initial scepticism and given its meagre budget, Shenmue 3 doesn’t just look serviceable – as you make the daily trek to the village past serene fields of colourful flowers with the morning sunlight shimmering off the river, it’s even breathtaking. The audio helps add to the atmosphere, whether it’s chattering locals, cows mooing, or the excellent music, mostly reusing themes that still manage to stir up nostalgic emotions.
It’s not without some rough edges, as lighting transitions during sunset can be abrupt, while running too fast to a shop might mean the NPCs behind the counter takes a second to pop up. But without the intrusion of checklists and UI clutter, it’s a joy to just wander around and exist in this world.
“Despite initial scepticism and given its meagre budget, Shenmue 3 doesn’t just look serviceable… it’s even breathtaking.”
Despite remaining resolutely old-school, there are nonetheless some modern touches, from a rotatable camera to more puzzling additions like a dwindling HP meter that can be restored by eating, or embracing the modern open world obsession of gathering herbs, though this also turns out to be a surprisingly lucrative activity.
Elsewhere, distractions are plentiful as they are simple and charming, where even the menial labour of chopping logs can sound as exciting as a game of Out Run. Even without the Sega licence, arcade cabinets are inventive, more inspired by electro-mechanical machines, which seem fitting for 1980s China. They also serve more purpose than just a way of killing time as doing well yields tokens that can be spent on consumable items. Even capsule toys are no longer just for the sake of collecting as they, as well as other seemingly useless clutter you’re rewarded with, can be sold for cash or better still exchanged for rare skill books if you have a complete set.
The most significant change however is in the combat system, built from scratch and jettisoning the original’s Virtua Fighter-based inputs for something more simple. Moves are now tied to specific button sequences but advanced techniques can be assigned to shortcuts toggled with shoulder buttons and executed with R2. It actually works very well, making combat more akin to a menu-based RPG. Indeed, the game feels more like an role-playing game as a whole, as daily sparring and training mini-games go toward building up your attack and health levels respectively.
Combat is almost a moot point however, because even compared to Shenmue 1’s occasional scraps, if you ignore the optional street fights there are only a handful of moments where Ryo will be using his fists to advance Shenmue 3’s story. This might make you wonder what the point is of grinding away to buy and master dozens of exorbitant fighting techniques you’ll barely get to use. Yet that feels like precisely the point, just like real martial arts is about long arduous practice and discipline rather than rashly getting into scraps.
Shenmue 3 was always about delivering a sequel its diehard fans wanted, the most generous of those supporters also appearing in-game through mostly tasteful means in the game’s second half, such as via a hotel guestbook. On that basis alone, it’s a miraculous success, and Shenmue fans will have no problem spending hours having the same awkward conversations or repeating the same small tasks just so they can be immersed in a world that has been brought back into existence against the odds. We can only hope that the wait for Shenmue 4 won’t take as long.
Light in story yet heavy on atmosphere, basic in function yet more cohesive than previous entries, Shenmue 3 is a worthy sequel and exactly what fans have been waiting for.
- As atmospheric and detailed as the original Dreamcast classics
- Side activities and rewards feel more cohesive
- Simplified combat system and levelling up with training feels more like an RPG
- Slow pace won’t be to everyone’s taste
- Little character development