The most unlikely video game sequel ever made is now a reality but will Shenmue appeal to anyone other than existing fans?
E3 2015 can be pinpointed as the exact moment that Sony won the current generation console war. The PlayStation 4 had already been selling well for a couple of years but at their E3 conference Sony announced The Last Guardian, Shenmue 3, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake – three games that nobody ever expected to see and yet all of which were revealed as PlayStation exclusives. But while Final Fantasy 7 does look very promising The Last Guardian was a mild disappointment and Shenmue 3, well… it’s Shenmue.
We don’t mean that facetiously, but as both an honest description and a warning. The original two games were released in the early 2000s on the Dreamcast and were true pioneers of a style of narrative based adventure that, while it bears some resemblance to modern walking sims and Telltale adventures, was unlike anything else at the time. Shenmue was open world almost before the term was invented, featured a combat system based on Virtua Fighter, and created the concept of QTEs (quick time events).
Shenmue was also the most expensive game ever made and excruciatingly slow-paced, which meant it didn’t sell at all well and Sega (who has nothing to do with this sequel) quickly abandoned both it and creator Yu Suzuki. Shenmue 1 and 2 were groundbreaking on several levels but they were also riddled with bad dialogue, worse voice-acting, and gameplay that seemed purposefully designed to be as dull as possible. Shenmue 3 is, more or less, exactly the same, and fans are going to love it.
Shenmue 3 picks up straight from the end of Shenmue 2, almost as if the last 18 years had never happened. There is an in-game primer on the story of the first two, but the basics are extremely simple: set in 1987, you play as Japanese teen Ryo Hazuki, who is seeking revenge against Chinese underworld figure Lan Di for killing his father. The previous games took him from Japan to Hong Kong to mainland China, where Ryo found Shenhua – the literal girl of his dreams.
We obviously can’t get into spoilers but, since Suzuki is already talking about making Shenmue 4, we should say that the plot moves forward surprisingly little from the last game and certainly offers no kind of resolution. Which is not a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to what Suzuki’s been saying lately but it does seem very brave, if not foolhardy, to once again avoid any sort of closure.
Shenmue is always difficult to describe to anyone that hasn’t played it, as the game purposefully has no focus and even its most gamey element – the 3D combat – is extremely simple and surprisingly easy. It now bears almost no resemblance to Virtua Fighter though and when the on-screen controls tell you to just press any button you get an inkling for what the game expects from its players. Which is odd really, given how obsessed it is with the minutiae of training and the philosophy of martial arts, only to end up making the execution entirely trivial and limiting the number of real fights to a mere handful.
Ryo controls more or less like a modern third person character, with proper camera controls, but there are still little touches, like him shuffling up to doors so that he’s exactly opposite them before opening them, which invoke the memory of the originals without negatively impacting the gameplay. Although Ryo’s constant need to eat if he exerts himself for more than a moment is irritating and unnecessary, as he piles raw ingredients into his maw like he’s shovelling coal.
Graphically, the game is a very strange case. The backdrops can be very impressive, and while the geometry lacks detail once you get up close most of the locations are easy on the eye and full of interactive elements. The characters though, all look (and act) like action figures, with very little facial animation and a bizarre range of art styles that goes from almost photorealistic to outright cartoonish.
Some of the weirdest characters – that look like something out of the Dick Tracy movie from the 90s – are relatively important so we can only assume it’s on purpose. Either that or there were half a dozen different people making the character models and they were all given completely different briefs.
In terms of dialogue the problem isn’t the quality of the translation but the deathless banality of what’s being said, which we suspect is very accurate to the original Japanese. Despite at least 50% of the gameplay involving nothing more than walking around talking to people the dialogue lacks any sort of energy and is not helped by a voice cast you’d swear were probably Kickstarter backers looking to be immortalised in their dream game (in actual fact some of the actors, including the one for Ryo, are the same as the original games).
The dialogue is so dull it’s almost comical, which is true for many of the other elements of the game, but what can’t be so easily forgiven is how little character development there is for anyone. Ryo still doesn’t have anything close to a personality and the few people that do tend to be cackling, one-dimensional bad guys.
But while the game gives the impression that it’s all about the storytelling, since that’s the thrust of the gameplay, it’s really not. The real appeal of Shenmue is found in everything you do in-between. The games have always been essentially life simulators and most of your time is spent simply earning money doing menial jobs. Officially the money is meant to be spent on more martial arts training, or other story sensitive purposes, but you can also choose to just waste it on a gashapon machine or a game of Lucky Strike (there are some fake arcade games but, due to Sega’s lack of involvement, no proper ones).
Shenmue 3, and the other games, are meant to be this slow and boring; it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Ryo is an honourable and determined guy and that’s how you have to play him, as he slowly (so slowly) makes his way towards his final vengeance. And it’s now very easy to make a connection between his slow, methodical journey and that of Yu Suzuki himself trying to complete the franchise. That thought alone makes Shenmue 3 even easier to love, even as it sits there adamantly refusing to entertain you in any traditional manner.
All of which leads us to the matter of the score, which in this case is almost irrelevant. If you’re a fan we suspect you’ll admit all the faults we’ve listed and gleefully accept them, because – lack of closure notwithstanding – this is exactly the game you’ve been wishing for all these years.
For anyone else though this is a very hard sell. Shenmue 3 is more enjoyable than it sounds but at the same time it is glacially slow about getting nowhere in particular. Its flaws are indefensible, except on the grounds of nostalgia, and yet there’s still a strange, wistful charm to the whole experience. Shenmue was deeply flawed but strangely fascinating back in 2000 and Shenmue 3 is exactly the same now, and we don’t think anyone would have it any other way.
Shenmue 3 review summary
In Short: A literal dream come true for fans and while most others will struggle to understand the appeal it’s impossible not to admire Yu Suzuki’s vision and tenacity in not only making the game but making it his way.
Pros: The open world environments are filled with detail and surprises. Surprisingly impressive visuals, given the low budget, and excellent music.
Cons: Incredibly slowly paced, even compared to the originals; with very little action, banal dialogue, poor characterisation, and surprisingly little plot progression. Annoying eating requirements.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Neilo and Ys Net
Release Date: 19th November 2019
Age Rating: 16
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