Platform: PlayStation 4, PC
Release Date: November 19th, 2019 (PS4, PC)
Genre: Action / Adventure
Developer: Ys Net
Publisher: Deep Silver
I guess I should preface this review with this statement. So, I have never played a Shenmue game. I know right? This will be the most unbiased review you’ll read, because I have no opinion on this series. Easy to be honest when you don’t have a prior connection to it. I can say I have heard Shenmue 3 is one of the most requested sequels of our age, and I’m delighted to give you my thoughts. Let’s jump in!
The first thing I can say about Shenmue 3 is I don’t think I have ever played something like this before. This game is extremely unique. As I started from the beginning I truly had no idea what to do. I don’t want that to sound like a detriment to the tutorial or anything, I legitimately was playing something brand new to me. Terming this game as an action/adventure game almost doesn’t do it justice. If you’ve never played a Shenmue game, you don’t know what it’s like.
The game picks up immediately where the second leaves off. Whoever had the idea to put a recap movie for Shenmue 1 & 2 in the menu is a genius. This is a touch that helps someone new like me understand what’s going on. While it didn’t leave me comfortable discussing the story with someone who has played through the first two, at least I wasn’t in the dark.
You begin in Bailu village, trying to help Shenhua (the girl you rescue in Shenmue 2) to find her father. The mystery of the Dragon and Phoenix mirrors loom as you go around questioning the villagers for clues. This is your main gameplay loop, talking to people. You chat and chat until you figure out where to go next. It’s not exactly a walking simulator in this, but more a digital scavenger hunt. The further you get, the more the village opens to you. It’s cool to learn how it all works, and eventually your deductive reasoning will lead you right where you need to go before the game might even tell you to go there.
You find some thugs have terrorized the village to find stonemasons, who somehow are linked to the mirrors. This leads into the next type of gameplay, the fighting portion. Once you find them and and watch cutscenes you are thrown into an arena style fighter. There are plenty of combos and you’ll find it’s best to learn them. Mashing buttons only works in the beginning as learning better moves and improving your current ones through sparring at dojos is important. One thing I can say about the fighting? It’s definitely fun and feels unique, which isn’t an easy task given a dearth of fighting games.
This brings us into the next unique feature of Shenmue 3, health. You have a bunch of bubbles symbolizing your current health status on the bottom left corner of your screen. What I didn’t expect is that it progressively gets lower as you go throughout the games day and night cycle. Sleeping will fill you back up, but if you fight or spend a lot of time running and adventuring you’ll need to buy food to replenish it. It isn’t the worst thing ever, but it tends to hurt you at the worst possible times. I feel like it’s a neat feature, but it’s annoying to monitor. On the plus side, it can increase when you do different dojo training activities.
There are a few moments in the game where you aren’t supposed to win. These are the times where you collect yourself and go to look for a way to win. You do this by once again, talking to the general populace until you have an answer. Both sections (the village and the city) of the game have the exact same story. You run around talking to people, you find the gang, and then you lose to the leader. From there you help a kung-fu master who is reluctant to teach you so that he’ll teach you a move to beat the baddie. Once you have said move, you go to fight them, and by that point the game has RPGed you into getting stronger anyway.
The journey in the middle of all of this is where Shenmue 3 really shines. The village of Bailu and the city of Niaowu are beautifully constructed. While not densely populated like some games, they still manage to feel alive and vibrant as you traverse them. Niaowu is an incredibly large city and I still cannot believe how large yet connected it is. The Chinese culture that is shown off as you walk through each area is a tribute to the people at Ys Net who developed the game. The world itself is the reason I enjoyed Shenmue 3 as much as I did. Also, the soundtrack? Wonderful, although it cuts oddly as you move to different areas.
The world is much larger than it looks as well. You can go shopping and grab new clothes along with food. You can buy items to collect or sell at a pawn shop. There are odd jobs to do to earn money as well (Trust me, you’ll need money). There are even arcades and gambling parlors available to you. You are never stuck when you are waiting for the place the story is leading you to open. Just walk around and you’ll find something to do. Some characters even have side missions for you to help them with, which can lead to some nice rewards.
As for the game, it doesn’t come without problems. There are multiple misspelled or incorrect words in the subtitles. I’ve walked into several rooms and shopkeepers took several seconds to spawn in, if I didn’t have to turn around just to give the game a chance to load them. The facial animations when characters talk can be awful, and sometimes not as awful as the voice actors themselves. Don’t get me wrong, a good bit goes right, but there is too much wrong to ignore. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it is noticeable.
Quick time events are also troublesome. I don’t mind them and even enjoy them if done correctly. Shenmue 3 isn’t the worst offender of them, but they are mediocre at best. These moments take you by surprise at times, and the amount of time you have to press them is way to little. I had moments when I repeated a QTE and kept pressing the button and still missed it. Just a few extra milliseconds would have been a nice addition. On the plus side if you must repeat one, it’s always the same button, and the save points in these are generally forgiving. I say generally because some are not.
Lastly, the story. You finally get to face Lan Di, the man who killed your father in the series, at the end of it. I mean, that’s why Ryo has been on this three game journey. But it’s nothing more than a tease. You can’t even damage the guy. I know I was landing shots, but nothing. The fight ends when you take enough damage for your friend to step in and stop you from going further. This gives Lan Di the time to escape, and you survive to fight another day. I guess I at least rescued Shenhua’s father, but where is my revenge?
If I was a fan of this series and had been waiting 18 years for this sequel I might be furious. For me it was more a feeling of disappointment. Why in the world would you leave a game that might have never seen the light of day a cliffhanger? We might never see a Shenmue 4, and after playing this one, I want a fourth game to happen. I even bought the first 2 to play them. It’s just inconceivable to me that you would delay payoff to fans that supported you (especially as the game had Kickstarter funding) and waited so long.
If I had to summarize my thoughts on Shenmue 3, it would come down to this. Shenmue 3 is a game from the past that has somehow found its way into 2019. It’s different than anything you’ll play, and it’s a fun game. There are technical problems, but they don’t ruin it. My biggest qualm is that there shouldn’t have been another cliffhanger ending with fans still recovering from the previous cliffhanger ending from 18 years ago. I really do hope this isn’t the end of the franchise, because I would like to play another. Shenmue 3 feels like a remaster of a game that never released, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. If anything, it stays true to itself for better and worse, which you can’t say about most games.
David Burdette is a gamer/content creator from TN. He loves Playstation, Marvel, Star Wars, and many other fandoms. You can check out his content at YouTube.com/SplitEnd89 or on Twitter @SplitEnd89.