Perhaps the strangest thing about Shenmue III
, released 18 years after the second game left the story of Ryo in an incomplete state, is how designer Yu Suzuki just about ignores any and all videogame design that we’ve seen between then and now. Stuff that has become the norm, iterated on, or played a role in shaping the modern-day open world action-adventure.
Outside of the new widescreen presentation and support for high-def 4K visuals, Shenmue III could have just as easily been released as is
in 2002 – with no one wondering in the slightest if this game had somehow arrived from the distant future. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, and in a weird way it’s as commendable and bold as it is disappointing.
In its day, the year 1999, Shenmue was a technical marvel that showcased the 3D capabilities of the Sega Dreamcast
and the potential of a 3D-graphics filled new millennium. A carefully realised 1980s Japanese town to explore seemingly at will, where citizens went about their day according to a schedule. Peaceful, meditative, and compelling. An experience where once protagonist Ryo needed to raise enough money to buy a ticket to Hong Kong, he went to the local docks to get a job as a forklift driver. Which players had to carry out as dutiful employees for several in-game days.
"Shenmue III could have just as easily been released as is in 2002.”
This focus on realism, which extended to spending money to play classic Sega
games in an arcade, and visiting travel agencies and bars, added to the originality. Which was backed up by impressive interactivity.
Opening each drawer and cupboard in a kitchen for instance and you would find bowls, towels, cutlery, books, and magazines. An element that added nothing to the overall story being told but was something many hadn’t seen or experienced before. If nothing else, it added to the immersion of life as Ryo. Partly because finding real-world items didn’t really factor into the story. The core mechanics involved Ryo playing the part of detective, talking his way through Yokosuka to track down his father’s killer.
Shenmue III keeps up this focus on the mundane, albeit to an almost unbearable degree. For those who have grown impatient over the years since the original games made their debut, well, you’ll need the patience of a monk to make it through the drawn-out and oddly boring story found here.
One area where Shenmue III adds something new is by tying Ryo’s endurance or health to eating. Where running around drains health and you need to eat to restore it. Simple, but the way you go about acquiring food outside of buying what you need from a store happens with the same interactive elements from the original Shenmue. Where digging through drawers is the same, switching to a first-person viewpoint, highlighting the drawer in question, pressing a button to watch Ryo’s hand reach out to open the drawer, listen to his comment, and then watch as he closes the drawer before moving onto the next.
"You’ll need the patience of a monk to make it through the drawn-out and oddly boring story found here.”
It’s a process that takes several steps to carry out and is as long and drawn out as that sentence.
See a banana or apple on a table in either your hotel room or whilst staying at Shenhua’s house and the process is identical – taking several seconds messing about with viewpoints and watching Ryo’s hand reach out to grab a single item, holt it up, and then waiting for the prompt allowing you to put it away. This is only a slight and minor annoyance in Shenmue III, the biggest being the inability to skip dialogue you’ve heard several times before, but it’s indicative of The Shenmue Way that drives the design. Even the new stuff like having to eat or train regularly to upgrade your combat abilities feels like Shenmue circa the year 2000.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the overall story had a sense of momentum or was as engaging as the first two outings. It isn’t. For the most part you’re simply tagging along with Shenhua to find her missing father, pulling out the same photograph a dozen times and watching the slow dialogue sequences play out as Ryo asks the same question over and over. “Have you seen this man?” Ultimately responding with, “I see”. The Ryo-as-detective stuff isn’t all mundane and lifeless, but it makes up the core of Shenmue III as it did in the first two outings – and feels less engaging.
With a story that meanders along and one that doesn’t really come to any sort of major conclusion, apparently there are still a few more Shenmue titles planned, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed. Shenmue III is a game that for better or worse is out of step with modern times, and on that front an experience wholly beneficial to those who played the first two.
This is a sentiment that extends to the presentation, which is on par with the work seen in the first two games. But in 2019 questionable voice acting and so-so dialogue is a lot more noticeable than it once was. Shenmue III, outside of a handful of genuinely fascinating characters and locations, can’t simply coast on the concept of having each character be voiced with several lines of dialogue. It’s a feature that loses its charm once the you realise most of the interactions are stilted and a little clumsy. Doubly so when it’s unskippable to boot.
"Shenmue III is a game that for better or worse is out of step with modern times, and on that front an experience wholly beneficial to those who played the first two.”
That said Shenmue III is still surprisingly charming, and an earnestly emotional journey for fans of the series. Ryo’s lack of interest in the opposite sex and his unwavering need to go to bed early and practise his martial arts training diligently each day, make him pure in a way we rarely see. It doesn’t leave much room for excitement, but it ensures that Shenmue III is every bit the sequel it set out to be.