Back in 1999, Shenmue blew the doors off what a video game could really be when it released on Dreamcast, offering players the chance to experience an action RPG that also doubled as a slice-of-life simulator in a combination that was completely fresh at the time. The story about Ryo's quest to avenge his father's death at the hands of Lan Di continued in 2001's Shenmue II, but since then, the franchise has gone quiet. That all changed when Shenmue III became a reality in 2018, and now the long-awaited sequel is in our hands. So, the question is, was it worth the wait? Unfortunately, the answer is no, it wasn't.
For those who don't remember, Shenmue was produced and directed by Yu Suzuki and featured open-world gameplay before that was a common occurrence in games. While you tried to figure out who killed your father and why you would wander the world and interact with the citizens of the city, taking on jobs to earn money, and rank up your martial arts to make yourself more efficient in combat, leading to a game that became beloved for how different and unique it was at the time.
Some of the issues with the game have to do with a concept no company or studio can control, and that's the passage of time. Video games and what we expect of them have changed quite a bit since those first two games, so it stands to reason that some mechanics and designs would need an overhaul. The visuals answer that call quite nicely, as the character designs take on the same overall style and aesthetic but with a modern coat of paint, and the environments are whimsical and bright, especially the town settings that make you feel like you're in a bustling area, with oddball characters around every corner.
That said, the animations are lacking. The facial expressions feel more like you're watching an animatronic than an actual human, and that rigidness carries over into the voice acting, especially when you're not in a cutscene. Talking with someone in this game is a jumble of "ugh," "errs," and "hmmms," making it feel like Animal Crossing, even though there's full dialogue in the game. It all feels stilted and the characters constantly reiterate the most basic of points, even though they just addressed it in the text line before.
There's one sequence early on where it takes three mini cutscenes to express a point that could have taken one, and the back and forth between Ryo and Shenhua is not only boring to listen to but is also relaying the obvious, so it doesn't add anything to the overall narrative. Ryo is especially grating at times, repeating obvious points constantly and lacking any real personality.
These are things that nostalgia can obscure a bit, but in 2019 they are more than noticeable. The same can be said for the overall narrative, which moves at a snail's pace, and the pace gets in the way of otherwise shining moments. Several times I found myself immersed in what happens next with Ryo and his allies, but every time I would get in a rhythm, the game would throw some arbitrary requirement at me that would take me immediately out of the story. Many games can struggle with this, but when you do it so early on, it makes you wonder whether this start and stop is worth it in the long term.
When Shenmue is focused on battles, it gets much better, but you will need to spend some time grinding to keep pace with your opponents. Battles in this game are often difficult affairs, and you'll need to work up your endurance, attack, and kung-fu stats to avoid getting pulverized. That said, there are several ways to do this and the flexibility is welcome, as you can spar with a number of characters you meet along the way, head to the dojo, or interact with training dummies spread throughout the world. Pretty much anywhere you are you have access to some sort of training, so even if you lose a battle, you can quickly get up to speed somewhere close.
The mini-game portions of Shenmue III were by far the most enjoyable. Whether it's chopping wood for a paycheck, playing the arcade games, or training, these experiences were the most fun, and they do actually help you get lost in the world of Shenmue. That world and its quirky characters are delightful in their own way, but design and dialogue shortcomings are just too much for those elements to overcome. You'll enjoy the thought of Shenmue III more than actually playing it, and, unfortunately, the nostalgia won't be enough to keep you hooked.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Published By: Deep Silver
Shenmue III is available now.