November 19, 2019
Deep Silver, Shibuya Productions
Shenmue 3 is finally here. There was a time when Shenmue was the big hope for Sega, in the run up to the Sega Dreamcast’s launch in 1999 it was the game getting all the magazine covers, the articles and the attention. At the time it was the most expensive game ever made costing about $70 million dollars and it promised a truly unique experience, featuring a level of graphical detail and realism unheard of at that point. It was to be a multi game series and it was clear that the Shenmue series was the showpiece of the Dreamcast. It’s main character Ryo Hazuki, not Sonic, was their guy for that generation and it was going to take Sega back to the top of the Videogame market.
I was lucky enough to be there at the time, I got to read the magazines, get into the hype and then actually sit down to play that monster of a game. It truly was unlike anything that had come before it (and to be fair there hasn’t really been anything like it since) and it delivered on almost every front, except sales. I actually got my copy for free when Sega decided not to roll out their online network to New Zealand.
Although the Sega Dreamcast roared out of the gate at launch, it didn’t make enough ground and was absolutely destroyed by the PlayStation 2. The first Shenmue managed to shift about a million copies, which is decent but nowhere near enough to make its budget back. By 2001 Shenmue II was ready for release but the battle was already over and Sega was leaving the console market. On Dreamcast it didn’t even make it to the USA, it then appeared as an Xbox exclusive at a time when the other companies moved in to pick the IP bones of a once great company. Director Yu Suzuki left Sega and the great hope that was Ryo Hazuki was literally left in a cave in rural China. But thanks to the fans and backers, 18 years later Ryo Hazuki has made it out of the cave and is back on the case to finally understand why his father was murdered and avenge his death.
I must say it was a great feeling to jump into the Shenmue world again and get back in touch with Ryo Hazuki. In a lot of ways it looks and feels like it is a ground up remake of the sequel we should have had back in the early 2000’s, warts and all. Shenmue-style gameplay is something that is hard to explain to someone who has never played any of the games, as it is something of a slow burn to say the least. If you are looking for Michael Bay level action and excitement you will need to look elsewhere. This is a game where you will get the best experience by not rushing it, taking your time and taking each day as it comes.
In fact I don’t recommend trying to rush it because the game will push back with various barriers. All of the things you skipped doing that you didn’t feel were important, whether it be training, herb collecting or working, the game will catch you out and you will need to put the time in before progressing. Life in Shenmue 3 for the most part is a quiet and thoughtful one, for some gamers the pacing of the game may be an issue. It really does crawl along and there are times where it feels like very little progress is being made. It is hard to fault it too much though because it is intentional and it is one of the things that make the Shenmue series so unique to play.
Shenmue 3 revolves around time; you will be up at 7am and back home by 9pm each day for the most part. The other characters will be going about their daily routines and you will find your own routine as well. You will soon find yourself splitting your day up into talking to other characters to further your investigation, completing some tasks along the way but you will also need to fit in some time for work (so you can make money) and find time to train your martial arts as well. If you spend some time wandering around, the day will just fly by and by about 7pm it will be time to head home (in Bailu Village it’s a bit of a walk) to debrief Shenhua about your day.
Thankfully Shenmue 3 does allow you to skip time in certain circumstances if you just don’t feel like killing time or don’t feel like walking home but I would recommend making the best of your downtime to collect herbs (which is a great way to make money) train, check out the arcades or the gambling spots. The key to the game is balance and taking each day as it comes. I really enjoyed the nightly chats and learning more about Ryo and Shenhua as characters, I hadn’t realised how little we had actually found out about him over the first two games.
Outside of progressing the story there are lots of little bits and pieces to do. This time around there is no Hang On, Outrun or Space Harrier unfortunately. In their place is a throwback mechanical arcade racer and the QTE games make a return so you can practise your reaction times. You can collect capsule toys of different types to complete collections and trade them for money or move scrolls. You can go fishing and compete in competitions to win items such as clothing and a bonus is that the fish you catch will be exchanged for cash once you have finished your session. There are also an assortment of gambling games to play such as Turtle or Frog racing and one shot to earn tokens that you can exchange for prizes. Martial Arts training mini games such as horse stance and one-inch punch are mini games that will directly reward you with endurance and Kung Fu levelling.
Combat wise it is relevant to note that Shenmue was originally conceived as a Virtua Fighter RPG and was to feature Akira as the main character. There is a wide range of special moves and combos to learn and a decent bunch still resemble Akira’s moves. However, despite its heritage the combat isn’t as balanced or nuanced as Virtua Fighter. Even though combat moments with an enemy are few and far between you need to be ready. To put this in perspective, not counting levelling at the Dojo, I counted three story related fights in my first 10 hours of gameplay. If you skipped your training, if you skipped collecting your move scrolls and didn’t master them through sparring, when you do need to fight you will be in real trouble.
Although there are plenty of side quests and mini games to occupy your time none of them are there as just padding. There are points that you will need a certain amount of money to progress for example. You will only be able to level your attack stats so far without finding new move scrolls to use and learn, then you will need to spar to master them and increase your attack. So if you want to be as strong as you can you will need to spend time collecting capsule toys, herbs and tokens. The mini games and activities are pretty much essential and the game is designed in a way that to get the best out of it, you will need to take some time to enjoy most if not all of them and you will be rewarded for that.
As far as graphics go it is worth noting that Yu Suzuki, aside from being a director/producer/programmer was also a hardware architect at Sega. He designed their arcade boards and he designed the architecture for the Sega Dreamcast itself. This may be the first game he has worked on that is not running on hardware he designed or using a custom engine that he has not built himself. Although initial screenshots were a little concerning, Shenmue 3 has turned out to be a gorgeous looking game. It is full of lush colours and landscapes, it still has that familiar Sega AM2 blue sky feel, which is obviously a result of Yu Suzuki being so integral to the success of that company in the past.
Although this isn’t a AAA game it certainly looks like one most of the time and there are moments where you just want to soak in the vista. It is full of large assets and the interiors of some of the buildings are on par with games that had far higher production costs than this one. The attention to detail is unreal but not surprising. Even in the original Shenmue you could open any drawer in a house and find fully rendered items that really exist for no reason other than to demonstrate this attention to detail, and that detail is still present here.
Overall, I genuinely enjoyed playing Shenmue 3. It won’t be a blockbuster, and will probably appeal only to the people that played the original games either on their Dreamcast or the sequel on their Xbox. Just like the originals it will have divided reactions, some will like it some will not. I think it’s a shame that this game won’t receive mainstream attention because it is a genuinely fun game to play. It delivers an experience and style of gameplay that is unique, which is rare in this day and age. It could never replicate the impact of the original. If it wasn’t for all the fans of the series that provided over $6 Million of backing this game would never have happened. I adored this game and I have the backers to thank for it. Thank you for getting Ryo out of the cave.
- Provides a truly unique gameplay experience
- Lush graphics and detail make this one immersive game
- Lots of fan service and little Easter eggs are a real treat
- Plenty of things to do with tangible rewards
- Only likely to appeal to the fans
- Pacing was a common complaint 20 years ago and is likely to still be a sore point today
- Plays like it could have been released two generations ago
I think Shenmue 3 is the best in the series so far, its big and long but not overwhelming or pretentious. The gameplay is streamlined from previous entries, it feels more balanced and it benefits from the additional grunt of the PS4. The different elements of gameplay whether it be combat, exploration or mini games work together nicely. For some gamers, spending a decent chunk of time wandering around talking to other characters may feel like a bit of a grind; the action sequences are few and far between in this one and the majority of the game is a subdued experience. I wouldn’t go as far to say this is a problem because ultimately that style is what makes Shenmue unique. It just it may not be everybody’s cup of tea.