I’ve backed three games so far via the popular crowd-funding website, Kickstarter; Yogventures, Summer in Mara and Shenmue III. The first game never came out, with speculation that the Yogscast kept a large sum of the money and the lead ‘developer’ ran away with the rest, Summer in Mara is by the talented team behind Deiland and is due out in the next few weeks, and Shenmue III finally came out last November to mixed reviews and divided opinions. The fact the game actually came out and delivered what it promised is a great achievement, but was it worth the wait of eighteen years?
Before launch, Shenmue III was the subject of a few controversial situations, the main one being it’s timed exclusivity upon the Epic Games Store. This was only announced a few months before release, upsetting a large number of PC gamers who backed the project and was expecting a Steam code – a decision supposedly made by their publisher, Deep Silver. To try and rectify this, backers were allowed to claim a full refund before launch or accept the EGS code with the promise of receiving a Steam code once the one-year exclusivity has lifted. So, initial impressions and experiences weren’t the greatest – even before the game had officially released!
I personally backed the PlayStation 4 version as I wanted to see what all the fuss was about – I was a Shenmue virgin at this point back in 2015. However, since then I’ve played, completed and reviewed both Shenmue I and Shenmue II via the remasters in 2018, two games I wasn’t very impressed with due to dated and boring gameplay. Because of this, I went into Shenmue III with very low expectations as I was honestly expecting more of the same rather than a drastic change into something much more action-orientated, like Yakuza.
So, did it live up to my low expectations or did it end up surprising me in the end? Let’s find out…
Shenmue III picks up right after the initial two games in the series. Ryo Hazuki is still on the trail of the man who killed his father, Lan Di, a trail which has brought him to the small village of Bailu in the mountains of Guilin, China. Accompanied by his new friend, Ling Shenhua, he has to temporarily put his urge for revenge to one side as he investigates the disappearance of Shenhua’s father and the reason why a bunch of thugs have been attacking the village.
After your time comes to an end in this quaint village, surrounded by fields, wildlife and flowers, you head off to the city of Niaowu, a bustling city that houses a number of interesting buildings and chatty NPCs (I can’t get over the Ice Cream sellers squeaky voice). Here, you continue your search for not only Shenhua’s father but also further information on the infamous Phoenix Mirror which you found within your father’s dojo, a mirror which some people will do anything to get their hands on. With the help of allies, both old and new, you must improve your skills as a young martial artist in order to fend off those who wish you harm and uncover the truth behind everything which is going on around you.
If you’ve not played the previous two games, obviously it would be beneficial for you to do so before playing this third instalment. The collection of the two ‘remasters’ is usually quite cheap and you can even play it for free if you’re subscribed to Xbox GamePass on either the Xbox console or PC. However, if you don’t want to play them (due to them being the original 20-year-old mechanics with a new coat of paint) or you’ve played them previously but you’ve forgotten the story, Shenmue III has you covered. Just like most Yakuza games (other than the latest remasters, for some reason), there’s a ‘catch up’ in the Main Menu. This shows and tells you the major plot points of the first two games so that you know all the key information before you play.
Shenmue III is like a remaster of a game from the early 2000s which was never released. In an effort to appease the hardcore fans and cult following of the Shenmue IP, the developers have done their best to almost recreate the feeling of playing the original Shenmue games in the modern era. The overall experience isn’t as clunky or frustrating as the original games (sometimes), but the game certainly doesn’t feel as smooth or responsive as the Yakuza series (something I’ll most likely compare this game to a lot within this review).
One thing you need to understand, if you’ve not played the original games, is that Shenmue III isn’t your typical Openworld Action-RPG, it’s more like a life simulator with a realistic setting and atmosphere, rather than fantastical overly exaggerated actions and events. As such, things are much slower than you may expect and you’ll often have our protagonist tell you he doesn’t want to do something if he feels it’s too late in the day or if he’s too hungry to participate in it. Thankfully though, you no longer have to wait literally hours for a bus due to the in-game realistic clock; if an event is happening at a later time, you can opt to skip to that moment within seconds – huzzah!
Shenmue III is best played slowly, exploring the various locations, looking for herbs, participating in all of the street and video games, talking to people about mundane things, and going window shopping, all at your own pace. Unlike Yakuza, you won’t bump into thugs or delinquents on the streets as you run around, but you can spend time in the various dojos as you spar with other fighters in order to learn new moves and enhance the ones already within your repertoire. However, due to the absence of random encounters and spontaneous events occurring, the game can feel a bit dull and boring if you’re not in the right mindset as you play.
As mentioned above, Ryo is a martial artist who is trying to gain as much experience as he can in order to take on the one who killed his father. Also, within Shenmue III, there are certain people who you literally can’t beat until you’ve perfected a new move taught to you by a Grand Master, so practice and experience are essential. But, as the fights are pretty much all scripted and few and far between, your main experience will come from sparring with allies and wooden dummies.
At first, I had no idea what I was doing during the sparring sessions as the game doesn’t really explain it very well. Basically, combat itself is performed in a way that is very reminiscent of the old Virtua Fighter games – you’re on a 3D arena and must pay just as much attention to your opponent’s stance and actions as you do your own if you wish to find an opening as to when you can attack unguarded. The skill scrolls you own are displayed within this mode and you can flick between them on the fly, having each hit you make gradually increase that moves’ experience. The game will also throw up a QTE of the combo’s button sequence which, if successful, will boost the experience even more.
But, what’s the point? Well, you can place your skill scrolls into your own collections of special moves, moves which you can automatically pull off by pushing R2 during real fights. So, the more you level up a move, the more powerful these insta-attacks become during actual battles. Similarly, the dummies I mentioned above are QTE events that raise your general attack, endurance and overall combat skill levels.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the combat in Shenmue III, I didn’t like it in the first two games either. It’s far too slow and heavy and it really did feel like I was playing a fighting game of yesteryear rather than a game that came out in 2019. However, fans of the original games and the mechanics within will most likely appreciate and enjoy the similarities this game has to the original titles. If you’ve read my previous reviews (specifically those for games with souls-like combat) then you’ll know I don’t really like slower-based fighting styles as I prefer faster and more arcade-like combat as we see in games like Yakuza and modern action titles. But, I can’t argue that Shenmue III does a great job of slightly modernising the original mechanics.
QTE (Quick Time, Everywhere!)
One mechanic I wish hadn’t made its way into Shenmue III is the abundance of Quick Time Events. A number of scripted combat segments will have you perform QTEs either before or after the fight, a few of the mini-games are QTE, some mandatory story segments are QTE, and learning new moves also involves QTE segments. Seriously, get rid of the bloody QTEs!
I usually don’t have an issue with games that utilise QTEs in them, Yakuza has many instances where you have to follow along – with my recent memories being learning new moves in Yakuza 4. However, Shenmue III gives you about a third of a second to react once the prompt appears. If you’re too late, the segment repeats from the last checkpoint or the beginning. If the game would have let the sequence continue, but you see Ryo stumble, or it allowed you to increase the time to react, then that would be fine, but it doesn’t.
The cutscene QTEs aren’t too bad, there’s a checkpoint every three or so, and the fail reset is almost instantaneous, so it’s a case of failing and then spamming the button which you now know it’s going to be until you get to the next one, rinse and repeat. However, the god damn chicken and duck mandatory segments are a pain in the arse. There are a few instances where you have to run around and catch these fowl creatures, each one having a random QTE button prompt as you grab it from behind with your big hands. Press the wrong button or fail to respond within the very short window and you’ll drop the bird as it runs away. I never had to repeat these segments, as I think the time limits were increased due to the complaints the game got over them, but they still frustrated me.
The world of Shenmue
I’m burnt out on Openworld games, they’ve begun to bore me to the point that I don’t really want to play them, never mind complete them. The latest game within this style has to be Death Stranding – I’ll keep my thoughts for another day but I played it for sixty hours straight, saw the ending and now have no intentions of ever playing it again. I’ve not even had the urge to play Assassin’s Creed Origins or Odyssey, even though I’ve played and completed every single game prior to them, simply because the Openworld looks boring, scarce, big for the sake of it, and too overwhelming. So, I’m actually thankful that Shenmue III isn’t fully Openworld, it’s comprised of two smaller semi-Openworld locations instead.
Both the village and the city were fun to play in, even though the village segment felt like it was too long. There are a bunch of hidden side missions for you to find by talking to people, there are mini-games such as fishing, gambling and the video game arcade, you can go shopping in a number of unique and franchised shops, and there’s even an underground fighting tournament for you to participate within. So, even though there are no random combat encounters within the game, there’s still a fair amount of other events for you to seek out and look at.
One of the upsetting aspects is the arcade centre. Seeing as this game isn’t affiliated with SEGA in any way, there are no ‘real’ arcade machines within the game – unlike Yakuza which usually has emulated copies of arcade classics such as Virtua Fighter and Puyo-Puyo. Instead, Shenmue III has its own-branded recreations of classic street games, whack-a-mole, and a Virtua Fighter clone where you play as a cute egg-like creature instead of an actual fighter.
There are a number of ‘cloned’ games that are all variants of the same thing. One such example is the tossing game – this requires you to throw something within a basket or bucket as it moves. There must be about three or four variants of this scattered across both locations.
The people of Shenmue
I love the characters within Shenmue III. Each person, including the many non-important NPCs, all seem to have their own personality and charm, even if it doesn’t always match the way they look. The sheer amount of recorded lines for the game is crazy as every single piece of dialogue is recorded, unlike Yakuza which usually only voices the key conversations. For example, if your next step in the story is to find someone or a place, you can ask any NPC you want and they’ll give you their own response. As a lot of the characters are voiced differently (I don’t recall hearing the same voice style for multiple people), this means all lines were recorded independently.
Speaking of, well, speaking… Shenmue III lost one of the best mechanics I saw within Shenmue II, your free guides. In Shenmue II, if you got lost or couldn’t be bothered looking for a place or person, you could talk to any NPC and they would guide you by literally walking with Ryo to where his destination is. At this point, you could put down the controller and go get a drink – especially if it’s an old man walking with you as they were very slow. However, Shenmue III is comprised of knowledgeable people who don’t like to move, instead, they’ll point directly at the location and give you brief directions. This isn’t bad but they will literally point at the destination, ignoring the fact you can’t walk through walls or fly over the buildings which may be in the way!
Although the people are lively and fun to interact with, the characters themselves have no life within them. Sure, some people will appear and disappear when the time of day changes (as there is still a day/night cycle) but they don’t actually leave their post and get on with their lives. The only people who wander are meaningless NPCs who don’t talk to you and the odd talking NPC who has been programmed to move to another spot after a period of time or an event has occurred. It’s not a big deal that the world doesn’t feel as lively as it should do, as Yakuza is similar only with a lot more people on the street, but I would have liked a bit of life and randomness added to the experience.
Although I have issues with some core mechanics of Shenmue III, I can’t help but appreciate them as a love letter to the fans of the original games. This is further emphasised by the amount of dedication to the fans placed within the game itself. Sure, all of the dedications and included content has been paid for by backers of the original campaign (some people paying over ten thousand dollars for the privilege), but it’s nice seeing all the love and devotion people have to this series.
Unlike most Kickstarter campaigns, which will place all the names of the backers in the unskippable credits once you complete the game, Shenmue III has a variety of displays that aren’t intrusive, including a fourth-wall-breaking venue full of various Shenmue goodies. You’ll see pictures of backers at the harbour, excerpts in the hotel guestbook, and a bunch of backers names in Chinese in various locations. The cool thing is, those who backed the game over a certain amount will have been given a code. Once they’ve redeemed their unique code, if they find their name within the game then they get given a bonus item. I, sadly, never paid enough for this option but it sounds cool.
For me, there was only one part of the game which stood out as being strange due to the Kickstarter rewards, the $10,000 tier ones. There are five enemies which you’ll encounter towards the final part of the game, five characters that don’t look Chinese, Japanese or Asian. After checking over the rewards and tiers, if you paid ten grand, you got to be digitally created within the game as an NPC you get to beat up as Ryo – that explains the reason they don’t look like they belong there! Again, this is a cool reward and I imagine those who paid that amount will love the fact they can show everyone that they’re part of the game, but it looked a little odd.
Shenmue III is a game that is very stylised. It’s created to look and feel like the original games, only visually enhance all locations and designs through the technical abilities of the Unreal Engine. As such, although some of the character models and assets look simplified and less-detailed when placed side-by-side with Yakuza 6, or even the recently remastered Yakuza 4, the design itself is intentional and has its own charm and beauty about it. I’ve been playing the game on my PS4 Pro and other than the fact it makes the fan very noisy, the game ran without any technical issues which I noticed – although I believe it is only running at 1080p.
Just like the visuals, I believe the voice acting is also intentionally delivered in a certain way. I could poke fun at the voice acting, saying Ryo has no personality, most NPCs put on a strange and odd accent, and some voices don’t match the character models, but after a few hours, I was really enjoying it. Regarding Ryo’s personality, my theory is that he’s Japanese yet exploring China, so he probably doesn’t understand the language very much. Sure, we hear it all in English, but he’s obviously speaking Chinese to them, so the simple “Yeah”, “Is that so?”, and “Okay…” responses he gives is probably down to the language barrier we don’t hear as gamers. At least I hope it’s this, if not then he’s a very boring individual!
Two notable voices, which I clocked onto immediately, were Greg Chun and Brianna Knickerbocker – two very prolific voice actors in Japanese video games. Just imagine titles such as Judgment, Catherine: Full Body, AI: The Somnium Files, Crystar, and Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures without either of these actors – you just can’t do it! The entire cast did a great job with the voices as well as the return of iconic musical scores and new music to fit the various situations you find yourself within. Overall, I loved every bit of dialogue and music within the game – I wonder if you can pick up the soundtrack… *I’ve found it on Spotify but it’s ‘backers only’, so I can’t listen to it there.*
Shenmue III is exactly what I would have expected to see fifteen years ago, only with much prettier graphics. Newcomers to the series may find the controls, mechanics, and dreadful QTE segments a little frustrating and not at all what you’d expect from this type of game in 2019, but those who have played and loved the originals will feel right at home. I feel the developers have delivered everything they promised within the Kickstarter campaign, offering a new and exciting chapter into the life of Ryo in the search for the man who killed his father. If you go into the game knowing that it’s much slower than titles such as Yakuza, then you’re going to enjoy it a lot more – I honestly had fun despite the abundance of QTE and fund-raising moments.
Is Shenmue III a game for everyone? No, no game is. However, if you have played and liked the previous games then this is an essential purchase. My one big disappointment, other than the QTE parts (I really didn’t like them), is the fact that Yu Suzuki has once again left the game open-ended. Without spoiling anything, Shenmue III is merely a stepping-stone to the next title, a title we may never get if this one doesn’t sell well. I’m not a fan of cliffhangers and setting up a sequel before it’s been approved for creation, it made the overall experience feel less fulfilling than it would have been had we got a definitive ending.
- - Very loyal to the original games, with a few modernised features and mechanics
- - Graphically very pretty with a simplistic visual style in places which keeps the game in-line with the first two games
- - The voice acting is great and the music is very nostalgic and well-suited
- - Lots of mini-games and side activities to take part in
- - If you were a backer for a certain amount, you should be able to find your name or picture within the game
- - QTEs all over the place which require the reaction speed of the Flash
- - The first area was a bit boring and frustrating as I kept getting lost (could just be me though)
- - No fast travel or literal hand-holding guidance unless waiting for an event to start
- - Combat is very (purposefully) clunky, just like old Virtua Fighter games with combos and timing your attacks to avoid being blocked and parried
- - The ending is left open with the intention of another sequel - hopefully we aren't left hanging for too long...