|System: PS4, PC|
|Dev: YS Net, Neilo|
|Pub: Deep Silver|
|Release: November 19, 2019|
|Players: 1 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence|
by Keri Honea
The Shenmue series is 20 years old this year, which seems fitting for the release of Shenmue III. The cult series from the Dreamcast era has been in development hell for a decade, and the only reason why it saw the light of day was because Yu Sukuki’s team enlisted crowdfunding. Even then, the game saw continual release delays, making fans and crowdfunding supporters wonder if their investment would pan out. But now that it is here, Shenmue III should put all of those fears to rest, revitalize the series’ fanbase, and bring in new fans to the fold. The truth is, it would have if it released during the PlayStation 3 generation.
It's sadly very plain to see that the developers started working on this game almost immediately after wrapping up Shenmue II. Shenmue III starts literally after the closing cutscene in the second game, with very little fanfare. (For those who never played the game, fortunately, there is a recap video you can access from the title screen.) Then Ryo and Shenhua go back to doing what they were originally: trying to locate her father. Oh and of course, they’re supposed to hunt down Ryo’s father’s killer, but that rarely comes into play for a few dozen hours.
The plot isn’t the only sign that the dev team started working on Shenmue III right after shipping the previous title. The core gameplay mechanics haven’t changed much either, and the mechanics that have changed were novel ideas back in 2004. In 2019, these gameplay features are what we call a “pain in the ass” or “annoying.”
For example, new to Shenmue III is the need to consume food to fill Ryo’s HP spheres. It’s not as simple as eating 30 cheese wheels to heal after a fight. Everything Ryo does consumes HP, like walking, running, playing minigames, training, chopping wood, fishing, and of course, fighting. Obviously, training, running, and fighting consume HP far more rapidly than the others. As Ryo trains and builds up his endurance and HP spheres, the everyday activities don’t take that much of a toll.
Early on in the game, however, your game life revolves around food. Run down the street? You need to eat, son. Accidentally kick off a cutscene followed by a boss fight? Well, take your losses and try again after you eat. In addition to always needing food, Ryo also always needs money to buy said food. Most of the tasks NPCs have you do in order to get basic information from them require money, meaning you have less for food. But doing their tasks consumes HP, thus requiring you to eat more food and possibly buy more food. But do you have enough money after spending it on getting that one rare capsule to complete a villager’s quest? Rinse and repeat. Until Ryo gets his Endurance level up to seven or eight, food will always be on your mind like your own private eating disorder.
Another new feature is the ability to open drawers. While this is an old idea for modern gamers, it’s a little huge for the world of Shenmue. Unfortunately, the mechanic for opening drawers is just as antiquated as the feature itself. First the player has to activate a look/zoom mode, then find the drawer/door to open. Then the player has to tap “Look,” and then “Open” becomes available. After shutting the drawer, the view zooms back out requiring players to do the last two steps over and over and over ad infinitum. This look mode has to be activated when picking up herbs or other items in the open world. Ten years ago, this would have been part of the norm or maybe even groundbreaking. Now, it’s just outdated.
The writing and voice acting are also just as antiquated. It is like the writers took the script they originally wrote in 2001/2002 and used it without updating anything. Some of the conversations veer way out into left field, some are a bit cringeworthy, and others are incredibly repetitive. The dialogue interactions with shopkeepers are guilty of the latter the most, and it’s not completely the writing’s fault. The game does not allow you to buy and sell in the same interaction. So, you must do your selling and then start the conversation over. When Ryo says, “I’m sorry to bother you,” I feel it on the inside. I’m so sorry to start this conversation the same way right after selling my herb collections.
Perhaps the most disappointing facet of Shenmue III is that there is a good game somewhere in here. Once you get past the food obsession early on and develop a routine to get Ryo through each day to progress the story, you can’t help but see how endearing it could be. Sure, it’s doing what it always has done, but if Shenmue wants to grow beyond a niche, cult fanbase, it has to adapt. Now we expect good voice acting, good writing, and game mechanics that are intuitive. It’s incredibly sad that this latest installment has none of those things, because it muddies up the game’s potential.
Case in point, Shenmue III still requires multiple game triggers in order for you to progress. You may know that Sunset Hill is just up the road from reading the road sign, but you can’t go there until you ask for directions. You may know that you need to ask Grandmaster Feng for something, but he won’t be at his home unless you talk to villagers in a certain order. Even worse, Ryo always acts so surprised when a villager tells him an incredibly obvious answer. Add on another level to the annoyance of the player who was expecting an updated Shenmue. At times, it’s so annoying that it nearly glosses over big reveals in the plot.
Make no mistake; there is a heavy mystery to solve here, and unlocking those pieces of the puzzle is delightful. Not to mention, learning new skills, leveling them up, and creating move-sets for battle is as fun as it was 20 years ago. It’s satisfying to get some closure in Ryo’s story and learn exactly how Ryo and Shenhua are fated together. But this story didn’t deserve this package, this presentation.
With as much fanfare as Ys Net put on the grand stage at E3 to “save Shenmue” and raise money for crowdfunding, Shenmue III deserved something better. The developers should have found a way to meld what makes Shenmue distinctly Shenmue with bringing the game mechanics into 2019. I’m all for remasters of old games and keeping those same clunky mechanics with those old games, including the punishing difficulty. However, I want my sequels to old games to adapt and grow with the times. If Shenmue III had done that, it not only would have been a better game overall, it would have appealed to a bigger audience outside its cult following.