When it first debuted on Dreamcast back in 1999, Shenmue was a wonder to behold. Set in a gloriously recreated 1980s Japan, it helped pioneer the open world adventure genre – although creator Yu Suzuki preferred to call his masterpiece a “FREE”, or Fully Reactive Eye Entertainment – as it told of young martial artist Ryo Hazuki’s quest to find his father’s murderer. Mixing combat and exploration with the need to take on day jobs and choose your activities carefully to meet the demands of a pressing clock, it was one of the most realistic games then seen. Although a 2001 sequel continued Ryo’s quest and took him from Japan to Hong Kong, it ended on something of a cliffhanger and the series has been in limbo for the better part of two decades.
Until 2015, that is, when Suzuki announced a Kickstarter to produce the long-awaited next chapter. While the original game was, at the time of release, the most expensive video game ever made, the crowdfunding campaign hit its own record of being the fastest funded and highest funded game in the site’s history, bringing in $6.3m.
Sadly, it turns out $6.3m – plus whatever extra funding Suzuki attracted after the crowdfunding – is not enough money to make a Shenmue sequel that lives up to its predecessors or its reputation. The money seems to have been spent on some absolutely stunning environments, with everything else finished with some loose change found down the back of the couch – background characters pop in and out of existence, NPC models are often cartoonishly ugly, and the voice acting is some of the worst we’ve heard. This is Shenmue on a budget, and even then it’s two years later than the original Kickstarter pitch of 2017.
Shenmue III picks up right where the second game left off, with Ryo and his companion Shenhua finding a mysterious cavern. While there’s a catch-up movie to ostensibly bring new players up to speed, it works best as a reminder for returning ones. Narratively and structurally, you’re thrown into the proceedings with no real imperative to care about Ryo’s dead dad or Shenhua’s missing one. If this had come out circa 2003, continuing directly might have been forgivable (or more importantly, in players’ memories). In 2019, it’s an invitation not to care.
Shenmue III feels dated and clunky to play, more an unearthed relic than a long awaited return.
This sense of detachment is, probably accidentally, Shenmue III’s calling card. While the original game was set roughly a decade before its real-world release, the long years since Shenmue II make this feel even more of an anachronism. We’re now roughly 30 years removed from its setting – not a problem, video games are fiction – but more problematically 20 on in design sensibilities and technology.
The mechanics have scarcely evolved, making Shenmue III feel dated and clunky to play, more an unearthed relic than a long awaited return. Combat, for instance, starts off with a prompt to literally just hammer the face buttons, and although Ryo can learn more combos and specific attacks as you progress, the experience never feels to expand beyond randomly hitting buttons. Similarly, exploration and talking with random characters, once one of the delights of the series, is brought low with atrocious dialogue – characters frequently respond with non-sequiturs, making conversations baffling.
On top of all that, the UI is terrible, with the kind of simplistic menus that would seem out of place on a PS2 game, and having to zoom into first person mode to pick up or interact with items. Again, it all feels horribly outdated for a game released in 2019.
Shenmue III does try to retain the softer elements that made the previous games so unique, with cinematic camera angles and multiple shots for cutscenes, though these occasionally get a little too choppy. There’s also no denying the sheer ambition of the game, packing in a frankly daunting amount of side content – mini-games, shops, cooking, back alley brawls, items to collect and more – and some breathtaking locations to explore.
It’s not enough though. While there’s nothing overtly broken about the game, it’s all so sloppily put together that it can’t help but disappoint. Shenmue, and its fans who’ve been waiting two decades – some of whom will have directly invested in this game’s production – deserved better.