Have you seen any sailors?
It’s so hard to hold water for Shenmue in 2019. Far from a fine wine, it’s an acquired taste. It’s like an aged exotic cheese for an audience that’s primarily sensitive to dairy.
The polarizing reaction to the latest Shenmue re-releases everyone clamored for is proof of that, and Shenmue III isn’t very different.
Shenmue III (PC, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Ys Net, Neilo
Publisher: Deep Silver
Released: November 19, 2019
In spite of my select misgivings with the series, Shenmue means a hell of a lot to me. I was introduced to the first one by a dear friend, and we subsequently spent the entire day mucking about in its sandbox. But the second game arrived at a critical point in my life, when I really needed a form of escape; the sequel’s rich, endearing world was a perfect salve for a tumultuous spirit.
But there was a catch. Shenmue II infamously ended with a cliffhanger, a caveat I was completely unaware of at the time until I finished it. For nearly two decades the tale has been sitting in limbo, waiting to be told, only for series boss Yu Suzuki to swoop in at the zero hour and make it all happen on PC and PS4 in 2019. One issue-plagued Kickstarter campaign and many delays later, it’s finally here.
I will tell you right now that Shenmue III isn’t going to have that same magical spark that the series did for a brand new audience. Not only are you walking into an established story with history, the mechanics are similar to an early 2000s game. It literally picks up from the end of Shenmue II, and despite the (very retro) main menu recap movie, the nuances of character development are lost if you don’t have history with Shenmue. You even get a handful of key items from previous games! Here’s my quick recap though: a martial arts master and criminal killed our hero Ryo’s father, and he’s out for revenge.
By any metric in 2019, Shenmue III is rough looking. The menus are straight out of the early PlayStation eras, and the visuals, while updated as best as Ys Net could, are stiff — especially the character animations and facial expressions. That same principle applies to the voice acting, which is always stilted and sometimes goofy. This very well could be exactly what Suzuki was aiming for, but it might not be your cup of tea.
There’s two reasons why people primarily love Shenmue: it’s a hangout sim and an action romp. This is a series where you can learn ancient martial arts skills from a drunken master and kick an entire gang’s ass, then muck around in an arcade or do menial tasks for walking around money. On both fronts, so far Shenmue III delivers. Its environments are serene and calming. The soundtrack (some of which riffs on the work of the original) is fantastic and one of the best I’ve heard this year.
A lot of Shenmue III is spent talking to people that are usually complete assholes, leading to all sorts of interesting conversations and laugh-out-loud moments — both intentional and otherwise. You can also blow all of your life savings on capsule toys or a rendition of Bozo’s Grand Prize Game in the first half-hour, presented by a smoking carny. In fact that’s exactly what I did before advancing any semblance of a plot.
It’s also a game that features a 10-second cutscene, with loading, for taking your shoes off indoors (and another for putting them back on!), probably at Yu Suzuki’s request. It’s weird like that, and nostalgia aside, I think you have to be weird to enjoy it. Here’s the bizarre tutorial screen for the game’s first action sequence, a dojo skirmish where your opponent screams “stop that tickles” after being struck. Featuring a combat system, by the way, that feels like the most dated aspect of them all.
Naturally, I have a lot of mixed feelings here. Shenmue III feels like it could have been released in 2005 and I kind of love it for that. Whether that initial charm can last 20-ish (?) hours is yet to be seen. Stay tuned for expanded thoughts on Shenmue III as I dig more into it.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher. The reviewer pledged to the Kickstarter at the $29.00 level in 2015.]