It’s been almost 18 years since Shenmue II released on the Dreamcast in Europe, but its long-awaited sequel feels like it’s been preserved in a time (toy?) capsule during that time. This is the greatest compliment that could be paid Shenmue III, of course: look beyond the richly rendered Unreal Engine 4 visuals, and the follow-up clearly subscribes to the very same design blueprint that famed director Yu Suzuki devised in the late 90s. This is Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment in its purest form, and if that awkward acronym means anything to you at all, then you’ll love this game.
It’s worth stressing right from the outset, however, that this is a weird package by 2019 standards. Those who’ve feasted on a banquet of Grand Theft Auto and Yakuza in recent years may be bemused by the glacial pace on offer here; gameplay is made up of a series of different strands, each designed to simulate real-life. This means investigations may devolve into mundane activities such as rifling through drawers and interrogating clueless inhabitants of rural Chinese settlement Bailu Village.
This is the structure that patient fans of the property will have been hoping for, though; the title takes very little time to set out its stall, recreating the famous cave scene from the concluding minutes of its predecessor and picking up the plot thread like two decades haven’t even passed. Plastered protagonist Ryo Hazuki is as awkward as ever, while supporting cast characters like the crucial Shenhua retain their toe-curling dialogue.
Shenmue’s defining characteristic has always been its ability to create believable backdrops, and despite operating on a shoe-string budget, this third instalment maintains that mainstay. The inaugural area is more picturesque than the grimy urban setting of Yokosuka in the first game, but it adheres to the same format: it’s a sandbox that you very quickly familiarise yourself with, learning its many intricacies as though you’re in foreigner Hazuki’s trademark white sneakers.
The title constricts you to a set path early on, but it isn’t long before the stabilisers are removed and you’re given the freedom to explore at your own pace. Buildings can, for the most part, be entered, and cupboards can be searched. You’ll quickly stumble upon bars, gambling dens, fishing hotspots, and homes – each populated by their own cast of characters, adhering to their own work-life schedule that’s governed by an in-game clock.
The quality of life improvements from Shenmue II return, meaning that you can fast-forward time to crucial moments if you choose; you’re also free to mind your own business and play a round of Excite QTE 2 – one of the arcade games returning from the original – to keep you occupied until your appointment. New life simulation mechanics like eating – tied closely to Ryo’s energy – add to the sense of realism. It’ll be tedious to some; immersion to others.
There are other subtle mechanical improvements, like a more in-depth levelling system that rewards you for taking time to train. Invest effort into your kung-fu, for example, and you’ll increase your overall energy and fitness, meaning that you can sustain yourself for longer both in battle and when out and about. Herbs populate the landscape and can be collected and exchanged for cash and combat scrolls, while collectibles like the infamous toy capsules now serve a larger purpose.
Suzuki has said that he wanted the wealth of activities that the series is known for to be better connected, and this is obvious throughout. One side-quest, for example, sees you locating a soccer ball for a wannabe footballer living in the village. However, to get it you’ll need to play one of the new minigames – a simple activity where you throw rocks into buckets – in order to earn it. Where you were simply killing time in past games, it feels like there’s reward for time wasting here.
But it’s not without its issues: in an era of instant gratification, Shenmue III’s tardy pacing is almost obscene. Dialogue is drawn out to extreme lengths, with characters repeating themselves to the point of irritation. The problem with this is that the game wants to embed you in its world, but no one converses like a human being. It’ll be off-putting to anyone but the most ardent fans, even if the series’ trademark humour is present throughout.
The presentation also reflects the title’s overarching budget limitations. While the art direction is generally excellent, marrying realistic environments to stylised character models, the animation is sub-par across the board – whether it’s Ryo’s encumbered sprint or the dodgy lip-syncing on display. These are forgivable shortcomings, of course, and anyone familiar with the project’s development will be able to overlook them – but they must be mentioned.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the plot – that one of vengeance and friendship and loyalty and betrayal – remains as intriguing as ever. It really does pick up exactly where the series left off 18 years ago, a bold but welcome move that will delight fans who’ve waited so long for this moment. The mere sight of returning characters results in moments of fist-pumping euphoria; a reward for the patience of franchise faithfuls.
The fact that such fanservice is surrounded by a game that’s not only serviceable but a direct continuation of the work that was started almost two decades ago is a testament to the unflinching ambition of Suzuki and the Ys Net team that he’s assembled. For this long-time fan, the mere existence of Shenmue III is a dream come true; that it’s actually a very playable, very enjoyable game is pure fantasy. Welcome to the Fantasy Zone, we guess.
Are you a long-time Shenmue fan, or a casual observer? Will you be playing the hotly anticipated sequel now that it's finally here? Furrow your brow like Ryo Hazuki in the comments section below.