The wait for Shenmue III has been agonizing. When fans thought all hope was lost, PlayStation surprised us by announcing a partnership with Ys Net and Kickstarter to bring the next game to fans during the company’s 2015 E3 press conference. And now, eighteen years after Shenmue II‘s Dreamcast release, Yu Suzuki’s game is finally here.
Which begs the question: How does the Shenmue universe hold up after all this time?
Oh Lan Di, Where Art Thou
Shenmue III picks up immediately where its predecessor ended. Ryo and Shenhua discover what her father has been doing all this time in the caves outside her village, which leads to even more questions. This brings us to Bailu, where we (slowly) learn more about our father’s past and the link between Iwao and his murderer, Lan Di.
The story moves at the familiar painstakingly slow pace for the series, which in this day and age is not exactly a good thing. Unfortunately, Shenmue III‘s script hasn’t improved, either; it retains a lot of the stunted, stilted dialogue the series featured almost two decades ago, as though they used the original script and chose not to polish it even the slightest little bit. This is most evident when Ryo is talking to folks in search of information. These conversations are awkward, with NPCs “forgetting” that they already spoke to Ryo and told them what they knew just the day before. Perhaps the most unappealing of these repetitive interactions are when Ryo returns to Shenhua’s home at the end of the day and the same information is shown more than once with variations on the same dialogue and cuts to black between each version.
And the voice direction leaves a lot to be desired. How is it that people who have lived in the same country town their entire lives all have different pronunciations for the same name? If Bailu was a larger city with people from many provinces and varying dialects present it would makes sense, but that is far from the case. This might just be my biggest pet peeve with the entire game.
Other irritants I have here are the ways in which certain dialogue exchanges differ. Most of the time Ryo and an NPC will each speak a line and then you are prompted to hit a button to continue. Other times they will just continue to auto-play through until everything has been said. The lack of consistency in how these scenes work irks me in ways that I would have forgiven fifteen years ago but find substandard now.
Ryo Works Hard for the Yuan
While Ryo struggles to push the story forward, there is plenty of downtime in which he can better himself, physically and financially. You want to make sure to take some time every day at the dojo. Training here, whether by practicing horse stance or one-inch punch on the dummies just outside the door or sparring with one of the monks, will boost Ryo’s kung fu level. These levels improve your attack power and endurance, which means gaining more stamina. And you actually have to pay more attention to Ryo’s stamina in this game. Keeping it high means you can earn more experience while you practice. It also means more health buffer when you just have to get into a street fight.
Sparring at the dojo or with some other martial arts practitioners also helps you with mastering any new scrolls you acquire. I’m not a fan of the QTE wheel that pops up after properly pulling off a move and doesn’t seem to actually do anything much. But it is a great way to work on learning the moves, kick up that attack power, and prepare yourself for those all-important story battles.
Food isn’t free. Shenhua lets us stay with her, nixing any need to pay rent. She even leaves a couple of pieces of fruit out for us, but it isn’t enough. Since we need to eat to keep Ryo’s stamina up, that means we need to make some cash. There are a few ways in which to do that. In Bailu, you can split wood for the old-timers or rent a fishing rod and bring in a large catch. Or you can hit the big time gambling at any of the fine establishments. There are plenty of games waiting (Lucky Hit, anyone?) to be won with prizes to turn into cash.
You can also collect sets of capsule toys and prizes which can be turned into a pawnshop for cash or martial arts scrolls, should that be an option. Same goes for herb sets. Herbs grow all over Bailu and Tao is always willing to purchase any sets you have collected. Licorice is the most common, with crow dipper seeming to be the rarest of the bunch. Always be on the lookout for them; even once you’ve cleared out an area, new herbs may spawn a few days later.
Among the glaringly apparent issues Shenmue III has is its lack of graphical improvement. In an age where gamers are spoiled with nearly realistic worlds, this one remains plastic and fairly flat. They are a few steps up from those we saw at the end of the Dreamcast age, for sure, but with all of the money and backing behind this game, I am disappointed. OK, I get it. Maybe they didn’t want to drastically change things for us just yet. Perhaps Ys Net thought that a sudden push to God of War or Horizon Zero Dawn graphics would be too jarring. That I can understand, however, it would be truly disheartening if Ys fails to move beyond this art direction going forward.
Look, I love the charm and am just as nostalgic as every other Shenmue die-hard. My husband and I jumped on getting our Kickstarter backing done as soon as the announcement was made. That Limited Run Games collector’s edition? Yeah, I bought that version, too. With so much hope placed in finally getting closure, I wanted nothing more than to support the developers working hard to see this come to fruition. So in spite of the minor graphical enhancements and the painful storytelling, I am so very glad that I was given the opportunity to spend more time on this journey with Ryo and Shenhua.
But sentimental value only goes so far. Shenmue III should have been the final game in this trilogy, all loose ends tied up and (re)vengeance served. Instead, Suzuki-sama hopes to continue Ryo’s story and with little improvement made over the past two decades and I fear that a fourth game will stick to this same stagnant formula. Disappointed as I am with this news, my real hope is that he can pull off a fourth and final game sooner than later. Because as much as I love this series, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling let down with this revival and worry about ever seeing the end of this tale.
Shenmue III Version 1.02 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4 console. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.