Judging by the time reviewers and Kickstart supporters received their copy of Shenmue 3, nobody truly has been exposed to the Shenmue experience fully. It’s not the kind of game you want to rush, nor can. On that basis, this write up is almost a pre-review as having only likely scratched the surface, we want a fair assessment, right?
I’ll start off being outlandish and say that you’ll either love Shenmue 3 or you will hate it. There isn’t really any middle ground as you need to invest in both the story and your precious time. I won’t try to define who won’t like it. But, I will say the camp who do will have enjoyed the original title on the Dreamcast back in the late 90s, those who played the remastered version from last year, or perhaps those with high levels of patience and invested in story-driven games.
I’m in the latter camp. I was swallowed up into the Shenmue world back in the day and like many, gained an interest in Japanese culture. Fast forward some years, and I moved to Japan, and it was very much like 80s Shenmue, only people talked funny. In the time I was there, I never grew out of buying drinks from the vending machines. Thanks for the addiction, Shenmue. Anyway, Shenmue 3 picks up from Shenmue 2, and you start off in a cave off mainland China.
To say I’ve been looking forward to this game would be an understatement, but on first impressions, I was a little put-off. Cinematic dialogues were aplenty, not much was going on for hours, and in comparison to titles such as Yakuza, the graphics didn’t feel right. That’s when I realised where I had it wrong by comparing it to another title (the Yakuza series theoretically replaced the Shenmue saga in its absence). While the two games are comparable – focusing on dialogue and mini-games, there’s an innocence about Shenmue 3 that is refreshing. Time passes by at a leisurely pace, but not much happens. That may put a lot off, but for me, I found a slight bliss in it, and after a few hours, I was hooked again and have been playing almost non-stop. Shenmue 3 is mostly the same as the original titles, so it does feel very dated compared to today’s games, but it does have a few new additions.
First of all, a fundamental part of Shenmue was learning the martial arts, so combat was paramount. In the first series, the fighting was based on the Virtua Fighter model. It was a bit slow, but it worked fine. This time around, the combat is a bit more fluid and arcadey. Initially, I wasn’t a fan (like the improved Yakuza 6 combat system). Still, it started to grow on me as there are frequent opportunities to spar with allies. With sparring, you drill a move until you master it. Through repetition, the move levels up, increasing your attack power and kung fu skill. When you finish level 11 of a move, you master it and move on to the next. There are three special moves to start with so to unlock new moves, you buy a skill book and repeat the above. There are more than three moves, these are just the special ones.
In the original title you had a job as a forklift truck driver and between shifts could practice your moves until you perfected them. In this case, you have the endurance parameter. The first one is a mini-game where you practice your horse stance. As this levels up, so does your endurance (represented in the bottom left of the screen). You can also practice the one-inch punch, which also improves your endurance, but you don’t need a skill book for these. With regards to endurance, this is what posed the biggest problem for me so far.
When moving around, not only does time pass (a clock in the top right like the original games, day turning to night), but your stamina drops continually. You can either sleep at the end of each day to replenish it fully or eat food. Some food you can pick along the way and make or sell for medicine, but mostly you need to buy it. That means money, which also means a job. The first one has you chopping wood for a measly amount, so you’re going to have to get accustomed with grinding unless you just persevere with the story.
As for the story, you don’t need to have played the originals; otherwise, it would eliminate a massive market already as the game is nearly 20 years old. There’s the option to play a recap movie, but you can jump straight in and put the pieces together yourself. It wasn’t a complicated story to begin with. Still, regardless, Shenmue 3 is written so well that you don’t feel completely isolated from what’s going on. One thing you will have to get used to is the camera angles. They aren’t dynamic conversations, but the camera moves around constantly to add a bit more drama. Shenmue 3 is full voice acting though. Your character, in case you didn’t know, Ryo Hazuki, sounds like the original voice talent. I wasn’t a fan so I switched to Japanese which changed the nuances a bit.
So far this early(?) review is more reminiscing of the other games. In fear of being unpredictable, I’ll mention a few other things that are present such as the quick time events (QTE). Buttons will flash up for you to repeat in a set amount of time and are a little juxtaposed with the slow pace of the dialogue, but a welcome addition once more. Jumping back to the visuals again and while it isn’t as realistic as Yakuza, it’s very much a Shenmue game and the graphics are in fact stunning. Like the games before it, I found myself walking around looking at the clouds or sidetracking to throw stones in a bucket to win an alarm clock. That’s right, the mini-games remain and are just as addictive.
For now, then, I will say that I’m very much enjoying Shenmue 3. It’s not something you can rush, but I aim to report back with a few more details soon. Do note a couple of things, though. It was hours until I actually got involved in a fight that wasn’t sparring and while there’s an autosave, there is no pause menu to save the game. You have to retire to the home you temporarily share with Ryo’s counterpart, Shenhua and save up just before bedtime. A little bit annoying if you ask me, but what’s the rush?