Shenmue was once listed as one of the most expensive video games. It still has a relatively high budget for a game even compared to the modern generation and even after all these years, the game remains as ambitious as ever despite some dated mechanics getting in the way. When fans were finally able to see Yu Suzuki getting back to the series with an announcement of Shenmue III during Sony’s iconic E3 2015 press conference, they were ecstatic at first but the revelation soon hit when it was revealed that it would be a crowdfunded project.
How do you even follow up a video game as ambitious and expensive as Shenmue on a Kickstarter that can’t even foot the bill for half of the budget? While Shenmue III Kickstarter was a massive success and managed to generate more than six million dollars in crowdfunded money, it was still peanuts compared to the first two Shenmue games. Another uphill battle was to deliver on the sky-high expectations of the fans who were expecting a follow-up to a generation-defining video game.
There is no doubt that Yu Suzuki had to face a tough task of not only delivering on the expectations but also crafting a game that could respect the legacy of Shenmue. Now that the project is out and in the hands of everyone, it is clear that he has managed to achieve his goals despite some flaws. It was not an easy project from the beginning and faced some controversy and multiple delays, but the end product is surprisingly great and should be pleasing to the fans of the series who had to suffer through such a long wait to see the continuation of Ryo Hazuki’s journey.
Shenmue III relies heavily on its story to deliver an adventure game that also offers some action. The first two Shenmue games redefined the 3D story-telling genre with their quick-time events that allowed the developers to create cinematic events while also offering the players some degree of control over them. In this regard, there is nothing revolutionary in Shenmue III and it is a by-the-numbers sequel that offers a modern take on the same old formula. This is why some of the design elements used in Shenmue III feel dated now.
Since the story is so important in Shenmue III, there is a decent recap option available on the main menu before you can begin the game. It is recommended to give it a watch before proceeding with the new game even if you have already played the previous two games. It is not that lengthy or convoluted and explains the basic premise of the story neatly. Once you begin a new game, the story immediately picks up from the ending of Shenmue II. It is a direct continuation of the chain of events from its predecessor and the game soon puts Ryo Hazuki in an explorable area called Bailu village in Guilin.
Shenmue III is a game where a huge emphasis is placed on interacting with NPCs, finding clues, and in this process, learning more about the story or world itself. In this regard, there is no similarity between Shenmue and Yakuza series even though they have been compared in recent times. Yakuza has a lot of stylish action and this is one aspect of Shenmue III that is severely lacking and highly disappointing. There is some semblance of combat in Shenmue III but it has a janky feel to it and lacks proper depth. When the first combat tutorial begins, the game asks the player to button mash and while I initially thought it was a joke, this is, unfortunately, the case for most of the fights.
Shenmue III has a full day and night system that works in real-time. Just like its predecessor, Ryo carries a watch that allows him to keep track of time. This is an important system because certain story events won’t trigger or characters can only be met during a specific time of day. The game bypasses the day and night system with an automated jump that allows the player to move to a specific location at the required time and advance the story. If you are not in the mood to wait for the time to pass then this is quite useful. However, the game plays much better if you take the time to explore the surrounding location, talking with NPCs or doing the various side activities including minigames.
The developers have tried their best to preserve the legacy of the series by making detailed interiors, interactive environments, and giving every NPC some story. However, most of the conversations with NPCs tend to turn out as generic and the visuals don’t do them any favor. The game is highly divisive with its visual makeup where it can look stunning at times but also ugly at others. The consistency of visuals is distracting with some high-quality character models like Ryo and Shenhua and plenty of ugly-looking NPCs including some important characters. The lighting in the game is gorgeous with its day and night cycle. It gives every location a different look depending on the time of the day.
The story is not that long and can be completed in 15 to 20 hours. The pacing of the game feels all over the place and it sadly doesn’t measure to its predecessors. There are multiple locations to visit in the game offering a semi-open level design that encourages exploration. There is no loading when moving in between these locations going from one point to another. The shifts between cutscenes and real-time gameplay feel awkward. There is a fade to black transition and the camera angles don’t always look great with a lackluster presentation. The quality of the cutscenes is also all over the place which is important for a story-heavy game like Shenmue III. In this regard, this could be blamed on running out of time and resources due to a lower budget.
In my opinion, the best way to view Shenmue III is to look at it as a game that had a steep hill to climb, and it managed to reach the top, but not without some major setbacks. I don’t doubt that if Yu Suzuki had the resources to develop an ambitious sequel, he could have done it. The smaller budget of Shenmue III has led to some unfortunate cuts like a flawed combat system, lackluster NPC conversations, and low-quality cutscenes, but it is hard to shake the feeling that this is still an admirable sequel that should satisfy the most ardent fans.