It’s hard to believe that we’ve actually come to a day where I can sit down and write down my thoughts about Shenmue III. After standing in that cave for 18 years, fans finally get to see what happens beyond the torch lit cavern. What Yu Suzuki managed to accomplish on the budget provided was quite an impressive feat, creating a world that is just as immersive as previous installments in the series. While Shenmue III‘s story and narrative left me with more questions than answers, I believe Shenmue III is a worthy sequel to Suzuki’s magnum opus. I’ll be breaking this review down into three parts: environment/art design, gameplay, and story. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment
Following the scene in the cave, we find ourselves in Bailu village. Unlike the streets of Yokosuka or Hong Kong, Bailu village is located in rural China. One aspect of Shenmue that Suzuki has always done an amazing job at were the environments. Bailu village and Niaowu are extremely detailed, right down to the books you read and bottles you drink out of. Just like in Shenmue I & II, you can open almost every drawer and examine every object, with Ryo chiming in with a comment on every item.
Bailu village is full of vibrant colors and quirky looking characters that Shenmue fans have come to expect from the series. You get a real sense of community in Bailu village, which is a feeling I only felt walking the streets of Dobuita. If there’s something Suzuki knows, it is how to capture the quintessential atmosphere. One of the best experiences in Shenmue III is running around at night in Bailu village and getting to the top of the hill near Shenhua’s house, where you can gaze at the full moon and look down on the dimly lit community.
Niaowu, on the other hand, is quite the opposite of Bailu village. Where Bailu was like Yokosuka, Niaowu is closer to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. The city of Niaowu is draped in a royal red color and surrounded by water. Niaowu is adorned with food stands, shops, arcades, casinos, and places where Ryo can perfect his kung fu. If you missed the city life while you were in Bailu village, Niaowu will certainly satisfy those who prefer a more urban experience.
Just like in Shenmue I & II, the character models can be a hit or miss. Ryo and Shenhua, in my opinion, look fantastic. Some of the other characters could have definitely been beaten less with the ugly stick. I do, however, agree with the direction of the “look” of the characters. I don’t need Shenmue characters looking like Yakuza‘s photo-realistic models and think Suzuki and the rest of the team did a great job maintaining that Shenmue look.
Let’s Get Sweaty
After 18 years, I’m sure many longtime fans wondered how a Shenmue III game should play in 2019. I often wondered that myself. After beating Shenmue III, I honestly felt like that was exactly how the sequel should have played like. As soon as you gained control of Ryo and walked around, I got that same sense of joy like playing Shenmue for the first time. The quirky characters, music, environment, and dialogue were what made the first two so fun. While this may sound appealing to a longtime Shenmue fan such as myself, it could be objectively unappealing to the non-devoted. People who did not enjoy the original Shenmue games, might not find anything to write home about.
Unlike the Shenmue I & II, Shenmue III has a new fighting system. According to Suzuki, the fighting system had been simplified and streamlined to appeal to a broader audience. Due to budget constraints, throw moves were eliminated from Ryo’s arsenal. The fighting mechanics are paired with an RPG-like leveling up system. In order to get stronger, Ryo must spar and train to increase his attack, endurance, and kung fu. While I preferred the Virtua Fighter-inspired fighting mechanics of the first two games, I understand the decisions made by Suzuki and quite enjoyed Shenmue III‘s fighting system. Training felt like it gave more purpose this time around. Hopefully throw moves can be brought back in Shenmue IV.
The stamina system is certainly one that will leave the audience divided. After a fight, training session, or long run, Ryo’s HP bar will deplete and require you to fill up on food. I honestly don’t mind the addition of a stamina system for Ryo, but I wished that it did not deplete as quickly as it did. Luckily there’s a food stand or shop everywhere so there’s no shortage of food sources.
Shenmue III has a plethora of distractions to keep you busy. Part-time jobs, side-quests, gambling, capsule toys, fishing, and collecting herbs can keep you entertained for hours. What Yu Suzuki does very well is connecting all these features into a symbiotic relationship; Everything in Shenmue III has a purpose to it.
If you fight a local thug, Ryo must reach a certain level of kung fu or else your foe will take you to the cleaners. In order to get stronger, you need to spar with a local villager or train at the martial arts school. Fighting and training depletes your stamina, which will require you to purchase food at the local shop. If you don’t have enough money to purchase food, you’ll need to take up a part time job or collect herbs for cash. Gambling earns you tokens to use at the prize exchange, which lets you purchase food, clothing, and collectible trinkets. The trinkets can be sold for a lot of money or exchanged at the pawn shop for new moves. I never felt like these activities were put in for the sake of passing the time. Everything had a purpose.
In terms of actual game performance, the PC version of Shenmue III is a much smoother experience. The PS4 version will have some noticeable framerate drops, especially when you run around Niaowu. You’ll encounter the occasional character pop in and certain environment pieces loading in, which can take away from the immersive experience. I would definitely hope the team releases a patch to alleviate the issue.
The Story Goes On…
Shenmue‘s story has always been a focal point of intrigue for fans. While the initial premise may have been simple (father got murdered, now his son is seeking revenge), the story expanded into the mythology of the dragon and phoenix mirrors and a prophecy of a man from a distant land in the east, who shall appear in front of this mysterious girl. Together they would brave the rocky path, and full this prophecy that was destined since ancient times. Shenmue II ended on a floating sword and cave with two giant carvings of the fabled phoenix and dragon mirrors, so understandably, most fans thought business was about to pick up.
(Spoiler warning ahead)
While Shenmue III did explain some of the questions posed in Shenmue I and II, it did not feel like it moved the needle too much in terms of story progression. The overarching premise of Shenmue III is Ryo’s continued search for Lan Di on top of Shenhua’s missing father. We had some new information on the background of the Phoenix and Dragon mirrors and some additional backstory to Zhao Sunming and Iwao Hazuki’s relationship, but an answer to the meaning of the Shenmue tree or a further explanation of the prophecy was absent as well.
The final part of the game where Ryo and his friends stormed the castle did feel a bit rushed. You arrive on a boat and as soon as you enter the fortress, you meet a pawn shop owner and have to find his three missing items. The quest seemed a bit out of place in my opinion, especially given the environment and gravitas of the situation. You finally come in contact with Lan Di and one of the leaders of the Chi You Men, Niao Sun, but your interaction with them was extremely minimal. If the castle portion was fleshed out and we were given more time with Niao Sun throughout the game, it might have packed a bigger punch.
(End of Spoilers)
Despite some of the issues I had with Shenmue III‘s story, I immensely enjoyed the game. Yu Suzuki managed to recapture the feeling of Shenmue III in 2019. Suzuki created a world that is just as immersive as previous installments in the series on a fraction of the budget and that is commendable. Despite being absent from the gaming industry for 15 years, Yu Suzuki created a sequel worthy of the Shenmue name, and it’s a joy to see him back.
- Beautiful, detailed environments
- Fun, quirky characters
- Tons of distractions; It all feels connected
- Feels like a Shenmue game
- The story didn’t feel like it progressed far enough
- Some performance issues