It’s beyond any level of comprehension that I’m even writing this review. Four years ago, at Sony’s now infamous 2015 E3 Press Conference, Shenmue III was revealed as a Kickstarter-backed project from creative visionary Yu Suzuki. A man who, like many of us, had never given up the dream of realising the vision that some had thought long gone, a continuation of Ryo Hazuki’s revenge tale that has now spread across twenty years (in our time, at least). That Kickstarter was fully funded faster than any game in its history and was a clear reminder that those who loved this story never gave up on Yu Suzuki, and he didn’t either. If there’s ever a game that’s the pure definition of ‘for the fans’, Shenmue III is it.
I almost feel bad reviewing the game. I haven’t put it off, so to speak, but there’s a part of me that picks up the game and knows full well I have little interest in what other people think about it. I haven’t read any reviews, features or ‘hot takes’ from the royalty of gaming journalism purely because I know deep down the experience I have will be so intensely personal that I can’t fathom another person’s opinion jarring my own. I know what Shenmue is. It’s fiddly. Confusing. Patient. I can see its flaws from a mile away and I have done ever since I started the story on my Dreamcast nearly twenty years ago. Any complaints that critics can throw at it will bounce right off me because the ups and downs of what Shenmue always has been are on display for all to see.
It’s nowhere near a perfect experience, there’s probably an argument to be made that it’s not even that great if you want to chop it up into pieces and put a microscope over each and every pore of its code. The funny thing is, it’s like none of that really matters. For me, the wonderful aspects of Shenmue are in the little details, the fact that it’s more or less it’s own genre. Kojima without Sony throwing him everything he wants and instead having to Kickstart Death Stranding. Yu Suzuki’s vision is and always will be a beautiful concept in a flawed reality. But then, who the hell cares. I get to turn on my PS4 and play Shenmue III. I can’t believe that it’s real and I feel spoiled complaining about it.
Shenmue III transcends its flaws, of which there are many. Some of the animation is wooden, Ryo walks very much like Luther Hargreaves from The Umbrella Academy. The voice acting is flat and even boring to listen to at times. The very, very slow build of Shenmue that’s always been a part of its mechanics is very much present and correct here and the combat is poor. And yet, it’s like we already knew this was going to be part of the deal going in.
What Yu Suzuki has created here on a budget that was probably akin to what Guerrilla had to make the menu screen for Horizon Zero Dawn is utterly breathtaking. Suzuki’s eye for detail is excessive and fanatical. The ‘real-ife simulator’ is back once again in full force, for better and for worse and yet there’s nothing here that matters that’s inherently ‘bad’. What’s good, and what’s great, tips the balance in its favour beyond anything else.
The game begins exactly where Shenmue II ended and this was enough to render me catatonic within the first five minutes. Set in the gorgeous village of Bailu in 1987, it’s taken me twenty years to leave ‘that’ cave and what a moment. With your delightfully lovely and trusty companion Shenhua, you learn that her father is missing after ‘thugs’ have ransacked his home and other stonemasons of the village. As you explore the village in the only way Shenmue knows how – talking to everyone and getting easily distracted by playing too many mini-games dotted around – the story very slowly unearths, leading you to take on the ‘thugs’ (seriously, you’ll hear the word ‘thugs’ around about 352 times in your pursuit of them).
It’s up to you to build yourself back up physically, taking on the local monks in order to train for upcoming fights (JUST PRESS THE BUTTONS). Learning new combat maneuvers by purchasing scrolls with the money you earn from taking on local jobs such as chopping wood, selling herbs you find around the village and pawning capsule toys. Each and every option available to you to make money are mundane and so strangely addictive. I’ve lost hours to chopping wood. You can do it poorly and you can be the wood chop master, and how much money you earn is determined on how well you can chop wood. I’m still obsessed and I left that area long ago. All I want to do is chop wood and make that money.
Collecting capsule toys is as fun as it’s ever been. Of course this time with SEGA nowhere to be found in its development, you can’t pick up Virtua Figher or Sonic toys, instead you’re left with vehicles, fish and small versions of Ryo and his friends, something he doesn’t appear to notice at all. He’s holding a tiny plastic version of his childhood friends and the best he can muster is ‘oh, nice’. I would have questions. Still, acquiring a full collection of capsule toys will allow you to pawn them for big money, allowing you to purchase more scrolls. You’re able to improve your stamina and health in various mini-games dotted around the place and as Ryo has to eat to keep his health up, so every small mission or sidequest you take on feeds directly back into Ryo’s strength and knowledge. It’s a process but in the ol’ Shenmue way, you’re not in a rush to get anywhere or do anything, so they’ll always be time.
One particular side mission has you acquiring a white plastic fish for a kid in the village who wants to complete his collection so he can sell them to give the money to his parents. I did wonder how particularly difficult this could be so I headed to the capsule toys and 27 turns of the crank later I didn’t get a white fish. Not even one. Sorry kid, I tried.
Keeping your combat honed is of vital importance. Whilst at the very beginning of the game when you’re told to just ‘hit the buttons’ to take on a monk in the tutorial, it’s gratifying to know there is actually depth to the combat, no matter how clunky it feels throughout. Heading back to the dojo or taking on the local fighters who for some reason want to beat you down for their own fun allows you to level up certain moves. As ever with Shenmue, you’re at the mercy of your own time so be sure to learn new combat skills early on to ensure you can take on your enemies once you finally get there. When you come face to face with the ‘thugs’, if you haven’t trained you’re going to lose.
Throughout the game grinding becomes an integral part and almost second nature by the game you leave Bailu. It’s a location that prepares you for what’s to come rather brilliantly. The cycle of learning either combat or information in Shenmue is a cycle, and if you want to take on the bosses – that can only be defeated using particular special moves – you’ll have to train with kung fu masters who won’t teach you a thing unless you do work for them first. Somehow though, you’re not even mad. If you’re familiar with Shenmue in any context you’ll know full well this is how it goes. Yu Suzuki wants you to explore and learn everything you can about your locations and those who live there. Shenmue is more a detective game than anything else, but the aforementioned sense of pace is seldom a worry. Everything you need to know in Shenmue is in your own time. It’s so absurdly zen, the kind of game you want to take time opening up and exploring.
The tranquility of Shenmue is still present and correct, despite the dark undertones of its story. There’s a part of the unfolding story in Bailu which requires you to play hide and seek with a bunch of kids who won’t give up information until you do and I’m not even kidding. This leads to a location where you have to search for clues and like everything else, you get exactly zero direction, so you’re spending half an hour searching through every draw and under every broken table, every cupboard looking for one clue. Shenmue will never respect your time and you gotta want it, but boy is it rewarding.
They say nostalgia is a powerful beast. Look at us, as adults, falling into Marvel movies like we did with the comics. Watching remakes of our favourite Disney movies just because they look prettier now. We’re fully aware they’re cynical cash grabs and yet we don’t care, we’ll go anyway. We’ll watch reboots of our favourite TV shows and movies and pass them onto our kids. We’ll spend hours playing Football Manager to remember those days of huddling around a small monitor playing Championship Manager to realise the dream of taking Stoke City to the final of the Champions League. Nostalgia plays a huge part in our daily pop culture lives whether we like it or not.
Is that why the game industry went crazy when Shenmue III was revealed? For me, I don’t think nostalgia plays a part.When the rest of the Finger Guns gang asked me what I thought of Shenmue III I genuinely couldn’t give them an answer that could be considered conclusive. I just couldn’t. It’s like I’ve travelled back to 2003 and I’m playing Shenmue III on my Dreamcast. The game feels like the last eighteen years of video games just never happened, like the last two generations of gaming were all a dream. Has Suzuki learned anything from the modern game industry? Shenmue III certainly benefits from understanding what an audience expects nowadays from an open world RPG, and yet in a strange way just chooses to do its own thing regardless. I can’t compare Shenmue III to the likes of Final Fantasy, Red Dead Redemption, Spider-Man or Horizon because it’s not like any of them, for better or worse. The only game it can be compared to is its own predecessor and in that regard, it’s a massive improvement on what was already a masterpiece that sold so poorly it put the series indefinitely on hold. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a Shenmue IV, at this point I don’t need to know. I’m happy to basque in the fact that Shenmue III exists at all.
It’s not full of action sequences, it’s not blowing up in your face like Nathan Drake tied to a rope chasing a truck, it’s not being chased by a mechanical T-Rex or being chased by Troy Baker wearing a golden face or something (what is Death Stranding about again?). Shenmue III is a tonic to daily life. It’s meant to put you at ease, to let you unfold its wonderful story one piece at a time at your own pace. At no point will you be on the edge of your seat marvelling at the production levels, but you were never meant to, that’s not what Shenmue is about. It makes chopping wood and playing hide and seek oddly enjoyable. It makes collecting capsule toys a noble mission, saving up your money so you can buy a new T-shirt. It puts a smile on your face just by taking your hand and saying ‘hey, we’ve got a cool story, but there’s no rush. Just enjoy it’.
It’s old-fashioned, it’s dated, it’s messy, it’s clunky. It’s tranquil escapism at its absolute finest. It’s Enya on her holidays.
It’s absolutely wonderful.
Shenmue III is available now on PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro) and PC via the Epic Games Store.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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