Shenmue 3 is a game destined for middling reviews and public misunderstanding, but it deserves better.
Existing only by the grace of a record-setting 2015 Kickstarter campaign that saw passionate fans cover most of its development budget (by way of $7 million of pre-orders and merch sales), it's a game made for a very specific audience.
Normally, it's absolutely fair to criticize a game for being made solely for a niche with no concern for a broader market. I've done it right here a number of times. However, Shenmue is something of a special exception.
First, the game's raison d'être. If you'll allow me to quote myself from the ol' Twooper:
"... Fans don't want a "90s nostalgia trip," they want the story they're invested in completed in an appropriate and familiar narrative framework consistent w/ author's original vision"
It's helpful to think of Shenmue 3 more as an entry in a series of novels rather than a game; it's very much like the precarious final chapters of the Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones series. A story begun two decades ago, suffering seemingly interminable delays due to the vagaries of fortune in spite of strong and persistent fan demand.
That's what people are here for, and that's what the seven million dollars and the Kickstarter records were all about. The game was made so that the fans invested in the story can see things through; so long as it can do that while covering its costs and making investors at least a modest profit that they're happy with, mission accomplished. If that can be done on the back of the existing fanbase alone, drawing in new players honestly doesn't matter at all. Creator Yu Suzuki could have easily cut bait on this series over a decade ago and released a graphic novel or a much more modest Telltale-like episodic game series to get the remainder of the story out and make a little money in the process; the fact that he's still here tilting at one of the biggest of gaming's windmills as an independently wealthy man approaching retirement age should tell you that this is all about finishing the tale the way it was meant to be finished.
The issue there is that the "right way" means narrative and game design conventions established 20 years ago, some of which have become quite dated. However, messing with them too much could mess up the magic. That's a fine tightrope to walk.
The other thing that puts the game in exceptional territory is its utter refusal to pander. It asks for modest commitments from the player in return for what it offers. Just as there's a "right way" for the story to be told, there's a "right way" to experience it.
First and foremost, that means not rushing through it. Like the kung fu masters the game has protagonist Ryo seek out and train with, it will whap you on the head if you're moving too fast and being thoughtless.
And that makes it absolute anathema for most modern game reviewers. A low-paid, shiftless lot who want to blow through the games in their queue as quickly as possible while listening to podcasts, delivering a safe and bland final verdict that will neither earn them reams of hate mail nor piss off the paymasters. Most likely somewhere in their 20s, too young to have any emotional connection with or investment in the previous Shenmue games - no reason whatsoever to want to play this game, let alone make a good faith effort to engage with and understand it.
Aside from the dedicated fans, the only other group with an active interest in Shenmue 3 is the "journalism-adjacent" crop of gasbag NEET hot take artists that bumbled into a decent middle-class living by being OUTRRRAGEOUS about vidya on the internet; your Jim Sterlings, your Yahtzees, your kids with their mouths hanging open in the YouTube thumbnail preview images. These fine folks just want to exploit it, seeing it as nothing more as an easy layup to feed the Weekly Content Beast. Make fun of the dated elements, deposit its ravaged husk as yet another tribute to their utter refusal to ever learn an actual marketable grown person skill, and move on to next week's victim (don't forget to Like, Rate and Subscribe!)
And that's where we find Shenmue 3 and the people it was made for, enduring these various slings and arrows and hoping that they are not enough to push the series over the financial knife-edge on which it teeters and end all hope of ever finishing Ryo's journey.
That's not to say the game is beyond criticism, even cutting it considerable slack for its niche audience and unique need for a dated framework.
You might have noticed the 4/5 score on the way in. That's the same score I gave the first Shenmue, and it's a point below Shenmue 2. Shenmue 3 always had an uphill battle in this regard, given that it had the budget of a modest indie game while the first two were developed with the funding of the most lavish AAA titles of the time. Budget does appear to have quite a bit to do with the game's limitations, but it's also down to design choices.
The third installment is definitely more comparable to Shenmue 1 than Shenmue 2; it's about small, intimate environments, and it really focuses as much or more on the side distractions as it does on the game's story. I actually didn't care for the first Shenmue when I first played it (as part of a package deal with the first Dreamcast I ever bought way back in 2000). In fact, I quit at the forklift bit because I thought it was dumb and tedious. It took an out-of-nowhere impulse play of Shenmue 2 several years later to convert me; that game's excellent story, great cinematic direction and downright majestic soundtrack was what won me over, particularly the crescendo that builds from your arrival at Kowloon (Disc 3 in Dreamcast terms) through the beautiful meditative denoument that closes the game out and is still unlike anything else I've ever seen in gaming.
I came back to the first Shenmue and was able to appreciate it in this new light, but there's no getting around the fact that it was a bit of a plod with a story that meanders along and ultimately doesn't go much of anywhere. That's an equally apt description for Shenmue 3. Both games rely on you to want to be immersed in the environment, to chase up all the little details just for their own sake. To see what favorite NPCs of yours have to say after certain plot events, to find all the little hidden side quests and events and games and easter eggs, to enjoy the environmental changes made for a holiday. And to have faith that future installments will ultimately deliver the plot payoff; for now, just soak up the details and enjoy the virtual tourism of a lovingly-crafted environment.
Sailor Thug Chase
Shenmue 3 picks up right where the ending of Shenmue 2 left us, minus the inexplicable floating sword. Ryo has shacked up with series co-protagonist Shenhua at her little house in Bailu village. They're looking for her missing father, the crafter of the mysterious dragon and phoenix mirrors that started all this trouble. We soon learn a pair of outsider thugs have been spotted in the village shaking down various stonemasons, so that's the launching point for our new quest.
The game really captures the feel of Shenmue on the Dreamcast, down to the heavy movements and the way the conversation option menus are used. Some concessions to modernity have been made, though, and the biggest (and most immediately apparent) is the graphics. There was some serious worry about this aspect of the game when some truly terrible character models were released early in the development cycle, but all turned out to be well with lovely environments (that really look better than they have any business doing on this budget, especially some of the highly detailed interiors) and characters consistent enough with the art style of the previous games to pass muster for longtime fans.
The soundtrack also hits the right notes, though it does this with a lot of recycling. Series vets will notice some tracks re-used from the first two games; the game also liberally makes use of unused Shenmue 2 and Shenmue Online tracks that were leaked to the internet some years ago. There are a fair amount of original pieces (by Ryuji Iuchi, who was one of the younger composers on the team for the first two games) and these do hit the mark, but don't expect the sweeping orchestral moments produced by the lavish budget and massive sound team of the previous games.
The rhythm of gameplay is also immediately familiar; Ryo gets right to abruptly interrogating the villagers for the whereabouts of stonemasons and thugs, not even sparing the village's disturbingly big-headed children, and taking down key information in his trusty notebook. The one big change to this familiar pattern is that the health bar now doubles as a stamina bar, and it's one of the biggest points of controversy. Your stamina/health is constantly ticking down even when idle, and depletes much faster when running. You can't die from exhaustion, fortunately, but in the initial going you'll need to pilot Ryo around at a leisurely pace to prevent a case of chronic stamina depletion.
Banishing The Slackers From The Temple
I get that the stamina system frustrates people, and it's a valid thing to complain about - it's unarguably silly to penalize you just for running. But it's also Shenmue 3's first test of your willingness to observe and test the environment and adapt. Bailu is designed such that you don't often need to sprint (especially being gated by the plot for the first couple of hours), and if you are you're missing some useful bits - like the herbs scattered everywhere that turn out to be an excellent source of money.
You'll also soon discover that only two things are really holding you back from running free around the environment - funds to purchase stamina-repleneshing food, and training to increase your maximum stamina (once maxed, sprinting everywhere is no longer prohibitive). Money is another area where there are frequent complaints, but again these tend to come from people trying to blast through the game. If you're just trying to hop through story cues as fast as possible, you'll be led to the Tao-Get store to chop wood for pocket money. While I actually didn't find this to be an entirely unpleasant mini-game (particularly with the vintage Sega arcade game-esque tunes that kick in once you get into a groove of centered chops), it is the slowest and most tedious way to build your bankroll. Fortunately, there are better options - but you won't find these unless you're voluntarily poking around. Herb sets generate a good chunk of cash just from quick stops to pluck them as you otherwise explore the environment and go about your business. The new fishing mini-game, essentially a stripped-down version of Sega Bass Fishing, is a little more entertaining and a lot more lucrative than log-splitting. The true money in Shenmue has always been in gambling, however; you're free to save-scum to make your fortune, but a minute of examination of and experimentation with the initial passel of Lucky Hit boards reveals that one is exploitable with a smart bet-doubling strategy that doesn't really require one to even save-scum.
Thus Shenmue 3 rather harshly screens out the impatient and the uncaring. It further tests them with the new training and combat system. The new fighting system is action-oriented as it was in previous games, and you can still train the power of individual moves up by repeating them in sparring sessions. But combat here is much more statistics-based than it was in the previous entries, asking you to raise new generalized "attack" and "endurance" levels to be able to hang in key battles. Endurance is the one that gives you more stamina to run around with, trained up by a series of mini-games; initially One-Inch Punch and Horse Stance, and later Rooster Steps. I found One-Inch Punch oddly meditative and pleasant, but Horse Stance is indefensibly tedious; fortunately, you can parcel these out with a casual session here and there as you happen to pass the wooden training dummies scattered all over the game world such that you aren't required to undergo any epic grind sessions to be able to survive in battle.
In addition to relying on stat-building more than in previous entries, combat has also been simplified in that throws and counters have been entirely removed. This was really an inevitability; with the first two games, Suzuki had the luxury of incorporating his own fresh Virtua Fighter 3 engine. This one had to be built from the ground up on a modest budget, and this is the compromise they settled on. The combat has been pretty frequently panned, even by fans of the game, but I didn't mind it. It was a little disappointing, sure, but the enemies are competent enough about blocking and attacking that you need to make use of timing, spacing and intelligent move selection. It's also sophisticated enough to have limb-specific contact; for example, launching into a leaping roundhouse will carry you over an enemy's attempted foot sweep. If you play around you'll discover chainable combos as well. It could use some additions and tweaking, but it's decent enough.
A Virtual Chinese Vacation
As with the first Shenmue, the game's great strength is its environments. Not an inch of Bailu village feels copy-pasted, inorganic or extraneous. The people that populate it are idiosyncratic in that classic Shenmue way and more fleshed-out than the usual passle of NPCs. It's an appropriately beautiful place to wander, not at all a letdown after what was hinted at in the epilogue of the previous game.
Of course, it's also not the game's only environment (as revealed in design documents long before this game's development even started). After the adventure in Bailu is concluded, we're off to Niaowu - a fictional Chinese coastal city that appears to be something of a shopping-and-dining getaway destination, but of course dotted with plenty of the requisite temples and martial artists.
Niaowu is larger and more intricately constructed, resembling a bigger and more varied version of Shenmue II's Aberdeen, and does not lack for distractions around every corner. However, it feels more sparsely populated than Bailu - there are more NPCs wandering about and hawking wares, but far fewer that you have meaningful interactions with.
I don't mean to suggest that Niaowu is a bad environment, but it's really where the game's budget constraints become painfully apparent. Bailu feels fully developed, like it covered everything that Suzuki originally planned for it to; Niaowu feels kind of rushed despite being larger and being home to a little more of the plot. Not the least of the contributors to this feeling is that it copy-pastes the exact same overall plot arc from Bailu: start out looking for the thugs that took Shenhua's dad, end up getting beaten up by ANOTHER bodybuilder, learn a move that's just a small variation of the one you used to beat the previous bodybuilder. To be fair, the game does throw an unexpected curve into things at the end that signals potentially interesting developments in the future ... but Niaowu as a whole ends up feeling like a filler chapter.
If you'll permit me a little digression here to a somewhat obscure deep cut from the PC gaming world, Niaowu made me think of Quest For Glory 3. As with Shenmue, the Quest For Glory series was planned out by the developer from the beginning to span four games. However, somewhere into the development of the second game, they realized the protagonist wasn't going to be credibly powerful or experienced enough to take on the much more dire threats in the planned sequel. So a new interstitial third game was kinda thrown together to help build them up. It wasn't a bad game by any stretch, but wasn't the high point in the series and really kinda felt thrown together. So it goes with Niaowu.
It also represents a risky gamble for Suzuki, who appears to be sticking to his original design plan from 20 years (and $50 million) ago in spite of the extremely precarious prospects of funding for future installments. There was some thought that he should have used this window of public interest and good faith to try to complete the series in one shot. If you understand Shenmue then you know that clearly wasn't going to work, but ending with a filler chapter that barely moves the story forward and doesn't really have a meaningful climactic battle is ... ah ... *bolder* than I think even the longtime fans were expecting from this installment.
Train Every Day Without Neglect
In addition to bringing curiosity and some patience, the Shenmue 3 gamer is asked to come prepared on the hardware side as well. The game isn't demanding in terms of processing power (my two-year-old barely-qualifies-as-"gaming" laptop handles it just fine with lower graphics settings), but on PC you'll definitely want a controller (it auto-displays the correct button prompts for both Xbox and PS pads).
You'll also want decent headphones, or at least a good sound system in a quiet environment. Shenmue is all about immersion, and a big part of that is the pretty music and the nice ambient sound design. People who like to game while listening to podcasts or albums are depriving themselves of a significant chunk of the experience.
That leads us to a less-obvious audio tweak that should also be made ... playing the game with Japanese voice acting and English subtitles. I know some people really don't like reading subs, but unfortunately the English dub of Shenmue 3 is probably the game's single biggest mistake. When the original Shenmue was created in 1999, standard practice for Japanese developers was to just grab whatever gaijin backpackers or sexpats or whatever happened to be around convenient to their studios - they just wanted to pay as little as possible and clearly did not care about the quality. A couple of key roles might get an actual professional VA, for example the returning and fan-beloved Corey Marshall as Ryo, but even they would be hamstrung by tone-deaf Japanese ESL direction. With Shenmue 3, Yu Suzuki's direction was reportedly to "do everything as it was done with the original games" ... unfortunately, what worked unintentionally in an ironic way in 1999 really does not work intentionally in 2019. The English VAs sound like they're intentionally trying to reproduce a badly-dubbed kung fu movie, and the end result is cringey. I don't speak Japanese and can't judge the quality of the voice acting, but it's clearly done with a more serious and straightforward tone and the lip syncing is keyed to it to boot. The superiority of Japanese language + English subs is something that even a lot of Shenmue fans are not aware of, as playing the Dreamcast version of Shenmue 2 (which was only released with subtitles) is usually the way you discover it.
A New Journey?
Again, the "eyes on the prize" goal here was continuing the story and expanding the game world in a way that series fans would find acceptable. By that metric, Shenmue 3 succeeds even if one would wish that maybe the story had moved a *little* farther along given the nearly two decade wait and the Sisyphean battle the series faces to simply continue existing.
The main success was in creating an engine and process that can be re-used for future installments at a presumably significantly lower production cost (and faster development time) than this game had. While one would love to see Sega step back in and shower the game with another $50 million to finish it out in lavish style, lack of interest beyond the established fan base (early sales figures are really not promising) makes clear that isn't going to happen. The rest of the series, if it comes to be, is going to be a similarly budget production that struggles to get barely-adequate funding from hesitant investors and leans heavily on the existing fanbase to make financially viable.
The good news is that the needed changes are tweaks rather than big structural overhauls. The core established here works very well. Just take the English dub more seriously, tune up combat a bit to add a little more complexity (ideally working throws and counters back in), do a better job of editing out needlessly repetitive dialogue, if you insist on keeping the stamina system then tweak it to just deplete more slowly, and so on. Shenmue 1 > 2 already shows a precedent for the story's pace and quality picking up drastically between entries.
If you're entirely new to the series, I wouldn't suggest stepping in with this installment. The first Shenmue has a lot to appreciate, but was more of a tech demo for its time. The second one is where the story really shines. Starting with that one and then going back to the beginning was what worked for me; maybe it'll work for you too.
* Shenmue 3 FAQ
* Paste Magazine - "Shenmue III is knobby and requires tremendous, repetitive effort before it gives up the special, unique warmth."
* Intel Gaming - "I’d like to believe games like Shenmue — slower-paced games — ... would help people enjoy a better peace of mind.”
* Slant Magazine - "Like the monks who urge Ryo to take his time developing his talents as a martial artist, Shenmue 3 asks a modern audience accustomed to instant gratification to contemplate the virtues of humbleness and persistence."
* Interviews with Yu Suzuki and team
* Gameplay Video
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