After 20 years of waiting, Shenmue 3 is here. It’s exciting to behold, even if the title retains its plodding pace and relaxing atmosphere. While it stumbles around like a man out of time, it’s return is a magical event strictly for fans.
I doubt anyone who deeply cares about Shenmue is reading this review: as soon as the title reached the hands of hardcore fans, most of them made up their minds. From a distant land in the East, Shenmue 3 is finally here, and those who truly, deeply care are wrapped up, blanketed, by its irrefutable – and often irritating – charm.
I can’t deny how happy I am that Shenmue 3 is in my hands. While I haven’t waited as long as those who enjoyed the original Dreamcast duology have – as a 22-year-old man I discovered the series in a car-boot sale 12 years ago – I’ve still waited. Generations have passed – Hell, numerous relatives that I shared my love for the series with have as well – and I find myself actually playing a game I never thought I would.
It’s a hard game to critique. As a standalone story, the continuation of Ryo Hazuki’s quest for vengeance isn’t one for newcomers. It also isn’t one for those seeking the ending for a franchise teetering on the edge of a cliff. This is what Shenmue 3 was always meant to be: its visual makeup might be gloriously enhanced from what the early 2000s could have ever dreamed of offering but it’s crafted exactly how I imagine it would have been back then.
Simply put, this is the next chapter of the Shenmue Saga, exactly how creator, writer and director Yu Suzuki would have had it. It doesn’t try to prematurely rush to wrap up a series: just like the prior two games in the series it takes its time and allows you to truly get immersed into its multiple environments.
It’s a natural evolution of its predecessors: environments are densely detailed with memorable NPCs and interactive objects. The typical Shenmue gameplay returns in stride. As Ryo you’ll walk around town asking the people around you to help you with your quest. The start of the game tasks you with finding a Stonemason, a later one requires you to discover information on the village’s Verdant Bridge. It’s a casual detective game with a healthy dose of clunky Kung Fu fighting and QTEs when the situation arises.
Each question Ryo has to solve in order to progress in his journey are surprisingly logically answered. Discovering the next information you need is intrinsically tied to the occupation and personality of NPCs within the world. To discover information about the old bridge, you’ll need to talk to the village’s elderly folk. If you wish to find the thugs terrorising shopkeepers in the Prominade, you go ask the shopkeepers in the Prominade. It’s clearly signposted if you take the time to look around.
Certain missions do require Ryo to be at a certain place at a certain time but, unlike its predecessors, Shenmue 3 truly respects the time of the player. While Ryo might be unable run very far without depleting his health/stamina combination of a life gauge, the game more than makes up for its forceful nature of engaging you in its scenic walks. It’s simple: instead of waiting around for time to pass you can just fast-forward time and skip to the next story beat.
Of course, Shenmue doesn’t really want you to do that. Whether you’re in the village of Bailu or the town of Niawou, there’s always something to do to pass the time. Ryo can train his Kung Fu by practicing stances in relaxing QTE sections, get a job such as chopping wood, gamble in a host of mini games or fight at an arena. There’s even prizes to win, arcade games to play and the iconic gacha machines to play. It’s as full a world as it’s ever been and far more beautiful than we could have ever imagined.
But it’s the moments in between that makes Shenmue 3 worth waiting for. For 19 years fans have imagined the interactions between Ryo and Shenhua and director Yu Suzuki has delivered everything we wanted and more.
Nearly every night, Ryo and Shenhua can participate in a number of conversations as they get to know each other. Not only do fans get to fully embrace the clunky but amiable stop-start dialogue that Shenmue is known for, but they get to truly see these two characters interact on a daily basis. It’s amazing for those who have waited nearly two decades for.
Shenmue 3 is an acquired taste, very acquired, but it’s everything I ever wanted it to be. As a Shenmue sequel it’s fan-pleasing perfection. As an actual game it leaves some things to be desired: combat is clunky , facial animations are unpleasing and there are numerous translation oddities. However, at the end of the day, it’s a game I’ve awaited for years and I’m far from disappointed.