Review: Shenmue III

How is everyone holding up? I hope all of my readers are fighting against this Covid-19 crisis by staying healthy and staying home. We are certainly living through an unprecedented event and during times like these it’s often hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, I’ve been hiding out in my Hermit Grotto plowing through my endless backlog of games. If there is a bright side to the situation, it’s this; There’s never been a better excuse to curl up on the couch and find a new game to play!

Today I’m going to share my thoughts on the long awaited Shenmue III. Now, I want to be up front and admit that I was a little late to the Shenmue party. Of course I knew about the first two games and I was well aware of their legendary status. But it wasn’t until the re-release a little over a year ago that I was able to finally play them for myself. What I found tucked away in those games was an amazing and memorable experience. Now, neither of those games were perfect. But even with all their flaws, Shenmue I & II were both incredibly immersive and may actually be two of the most emotional games I’ve ever played. I’ll admit, I’m sure my affinity for Asian culture had a lot to do with how much I enjoyed Shenmue. But even putting that aside, you can’t deny just how powerful these two games are.

Fast forward to November 2019, after spending years in fan-funded development, Shenmue III was finally released and available to players everywhere. Personally, I’d only been waiting a little over a year to see the next chapter in Ryo Hazuki’s story. But some fans have been waiting almost two decades. How will this long awaited sequel fare? Let’s find out!

Shenmue III picks up immediately where the previous game left off. Ryo and Shenhua travel to her home village of Bailu in search of clues leading to her father’s whereabouts. After asking around the village, it soon becomes clear that something larger than expected is going on. It’s not only Shenhua’s father that’s gone missing, but a handful of other stonemasons as well. On top of that, a band of thugs have recently appeared in town causing trouble. As Ryo continues to search for clues, he gets to know the ins-and-outs of this small mountain village and eventually uncovers its secret history.

Fans of the previous Shenmue games will be delighted to learn that the gameplay in this new chapter is nearly identical to the first two entries in the series. The majority of the game focuses on Ryo as he wanders around searching for clues, talking to people, participating in sidequests and playing mini-games. In fact, aside from an obvious visual upgrade, Shenmue III could easily be mistaken for a game released only months after the originals.

The biggest change to the gameplay this time around has to do with the combat system. Combat in this game is much more complex, but also more fun. Ryo is able to learn a ton of new moves and and techniques. Once learned, each of these moves can be practiced and leveled up. Some these moves are obtained through sidequests, while others can be bought from merchants.

When I say that Shenmue III‘s visual are impressive, I mean it. Some of the scenes in the game are downright stunning. The use of lighting and shadow are masterfully done. These stellar graphics are combined with an incredible soundtrack. Together, they make for a truly magical ambiance. On more than one occasion, I found myself wanting to visit the real-world locations that inspired the areas in the game.

In this chapter of the Shenmue saga, there are two main areas to explore. The first is Bailu, a small village nestled in the wondrous Guilin region of China. The second area is the portside city of Niaowu (a city based on the real-world location of Phoenix Ancient Town). Life in Bailu is very simple, it’s mostly a farming community with a smattering of fishermen and stonemasons. In this area, the player will spend most of their time talking to various NPCs, performing the occasional side quests, and doing odd jobs to earn enough money to keep the story going. There is a temple where players can challenge opponents and increase Ryo’s Kung Fu skills. Progressing through this area is really as simple as finding and talking to the right NPCs and earning enough money to buy a few key items. That may sound simplistic, but it is actually very time consuming. This is especially true if you allow yourself to get sucked in to all of the various mini-games and optional quests.

Once you’ve reached the halfway point in the game, it’s off to Niaowu. This area is vastly different than the slow-paced setting of Bailu. Niaowu is very reminiscent of the Hong Kong area from Shenmue II, but with it’s own flair. Aside from the atmosphere, however. The Niaowu portion of the game plays very much like Bailu. The game’s story continues to unfold by talking to NPCs and following breadcrumb after breadcrumb. There’s plenty of fishing and gambling establishments in Niaowu. There’s also another Kung Fu academy and even an underground fighting arena. Needless to say, there’s plenty to do.

I mentioned earlier that the gameplay in Shenmue III is almost identical to the first two games. I mean that. It’s essentially a carbon copy. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. From one viewpoint, if you’re a fan of the original games and simply want to see how the story unfolds, I suppose you couldn’t ask for anything more. On the other hand, you’d think after almost twenty years, the developer would want to wow us with something new and fresh. I’m very much on the fence when it comes to the way this game is presented.

For many, especially players who are new to the series, I can imagine this game might be a pretty tough pill to swallow. For starters, the overall gameplay feels pretty archaic. Combine that with a stiff and clunky playcontrol that seems like it’s pulled out of a forgotten game from the mid-nineties, and you’re left with an experience that going to get some pretty puzzled looks at best. The saving grace for new players is the vast amount of content and the incredible attention to detail.

As a fan of retro games, I consider myself to be pretty forgiving when it comes to games with pretty dated gameplay. But even for me, there were portions of this game that just seemed cumbersome. A large part of the game consists of wandering around talking to random NPCs until you pick up a key phrase of word. Then, you keep wandering around asking people about the new word or phrase you’ve just learned. This pattern continues for nearly the entire game. Occasionally, you’ll reach a point where you have to obtain a certain item, or win a fight against a bad guy or two. Nine times out of ten, you either don’t have enough money to obtain the item, or you’re not strong enough to defeat your opponent. This means that you suddenly shift your focus to either training to improve your fighting skills or working odd jobs to earn cash. Both of these activities are repetitive and time consuming. Once you’ve managed to achieve your goal, it’s back to talking to NPCs and following breadcrumbs.

If you’re in a hurry to get through the game, this model of gameplay is going to wear you out fast. So with that in mind, what I suggest is to just kick back and take your time. Explore the world around you. Don’t feel like you have to rush. Even though the game technically has a time limit, it’s pretty difficult to run out the clock. My advice is to follow along with the game’s story until you reach a point where it starts to feel like a chore. At that point, take a break and explore. Gather herbs, try your hand at some games of chance, go fishing, etc. Once you’ve earned a little money or seen all there is to see, pick back up where you left off. This is a game that’s best enjoyed at your own pace. There’s so much more to do than just what’s laid in front of you.

Now if you’ve decided that Shenmue III is a game that you want to experience, it’s important to be aware that are also three optional pieces of DLC available to you. It’s important to note that all of the DLC is available for players who purchase the deluxe edition of the game (including a few exclusive cosmetic costumes). They are also available individually, or as part of a DLC bundle. Personally, if you didn’t buy the deluxe edition, I recommend the bundle for the best value.

The first DLC release for Shenmue III is the oddest and most pointless. This add-on is called Battle Rally, and it’s nothing but a silly race-themed addition to the main game. It adds nothing in terms of storyline, and while it’s mildly entertaining at first, it gets old quick. The way it works is simple, you pick a character from the game and sprint your way down various courses in Bailu village. There’s a second mode of play included in this add-on that’s essentially nothing more than a scavenger hunt. It’s through this mode that additional Battle Rally courses are unlocked. The ultimate prize for completing this DLC is an alternate costume for Ryo to equip in the main game. Honestly, the whole thing is very underwhelming.

The second DLC release is much more interesting, it’s called the Story Quest Pack. This add-on actually integrates itself into the main game, but really amounts to nothing more than one big side-quest. It’s certainly a welcome addition, but there’s just one big problem; after a certain point in the game the new content becomes completely inaccessible. In fact, in my case I wasn’t even able to experience it because the DLC wasn’t released until I had already passed that point of no return. For me to undertake this content, I’d actually have to start a new game. Considering the reward for completing it was again, nothing more than a cosmetic skin, I didn’t feel the urge to start all over. Needless to say, this DLC is best purchased before you start playing to ensure you don’t run into the same problem I did.

Finally, we have the final DLC release; The Big Merry Cruise. Again, this add-on amounts to nothing more than a few new side-quests that take place on a gambling-themed cruise ship. The reward for completing it are yet more cosmetic skins. All in all, I’d say the DLC packs for this game are pretty weak. If obtained as part of a bundle or if you can catch them on sale, they might be worth it for new players. But for players who have already completed the game, there’s almost nothing included in these packs to make them worthwhile.

In the end, Shenmue III is very much a mixed bag. The storyline is good, but ends on another cliffhanger. The gameplay is charming, but antiquated. The soundtrack and visuals are amazing, but the voice acting can be pretty repetitive. It’s pretty much split straight down the middle. If you’re a fan of the first two games, then Shenmue III will immediately feel comfortable and enjoyable. If you’re new to the series, or someone who doesn’t like retro games, this might be one you’ll want to pass up. Regardless, I found my time with the game to be an overall pleasant experience. I enjoyed the story and the new characters. I’m hopeful for another sequel, but I just hope we don’t have to wait another eighteen years to get it.

Difficulty: Variable –  Shenmue III offers a number of difficulty settings and they can be changed on the fly. The content of the game doesn’t really change by modifying these settings, but the combat is certainly tougher. Also, the higher the difficulty, the faster Ryo’s health gauge depletes. For most players, I’d suggest playing the game on the Normal difficulty setting. But other options are there for those who want either more or less of a challenge. If I’m being honest, the hardest part of this game are the few QTE events that the player will encounter from time to time. These button mashers are not very responsive, and at least for me, usually take a time or two to get right.

Multiplayer:  None.

Story: Again, this is probably one of the biggest drivers to play. The storyline here picks up right where the last game left off and even though we still don’t have a resolution at the end of this game, the story is masterfully told.

Originality: Aside from a revamp of the combat system, there’s really nothing new to see in this game. It’s a clone of the first two Shenmue titles in almost every regard. In truth, this is very much by design. Shenmue III was created to be nothing more than a love letter to fans. So with that in mind, I suppose it’s forgivable.

Soundtrack: This is one of the high points of the game. The music in Shenmue III is simply amazing. The soundtrack is filled with classical Chinese pieces, and it really sets the tone for the whole game. Some parts of the game remind me of the music you’d hear at your favorite Chinese restaurant or sushi bar.

Fun: This is really a tough one to comment on. For some players, there’s a lot to enjoy about this game. If you like atmosphere, mini-games, and a slow-paced experience. This game will really appeal to you. If you’re not that type of gamer, you may be left wondering what anyone sees in this game at all. For me, I found the overall experience to be enjoyable, but sometimes maddeningly slow.

Graphics: This is another high point for the game. While Shenmue III isn’t always the most realistic looking game, some of the backgrounds and lighting effects are just mindblowing. The opening area in particular is just eyecandy to the highest degree.

Playcontrol: Just like the first two games, this is probably my biggest gripe. Controlling Ryo often feels stiff and sluggish. But, it’s much easier to get the hang of this time around than it was in the originals. The overall control scheme for the game is very antiquated. I understand that the developers were going for a retro feel with this release, but no one would have complained a bit if they had managed to improve the playcontrol.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Martial-arts violence.

Value: At release, Shenmue III sold for $60. The deluxe edition was almost $80. Even though I happily paid these prices at the time, it’s hard to recommend the game to someone else when it comes with such a steep price tag. Thankfully, the price has already dropped and most physical copies can now be obtained for around $30.00. At this discounted price, the game is probably worth it for just about anyone who wants to see what all the fuss is about. The DLC, on the other hand, is a much harder sell.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Shenmue III is very much a mixed bag. There’s plenty about the game to enjoy. But for everything that it gets right, there’s just as much to complain about. Coming from someone who loved the original games, it difficult for me to give it such a low score. I’m certainly glad I experienced this sequel. And if there’s ever a fourth chapter, I’ll be one of the first in line to get a copy. But on the other side of the coin, I can admit that I was hoping for a bit more from this game. God knows the Shenmue name certainly deserved a better treatment. But at the end of the day, the fans that wanted a another helping of their favorite dish, got exactly that. At some point in the future, I plan to sit down and fire up the New Game + and give this game and all of its DLC a much deserved second look.

Originally Available: PS4, PC

Available on: PS4, PC (Epic Game Store)