The fact that Shenmue III feels like a direct continuation of the cult SEGA Dreamcast classics is testament to veteran director Yu Suzuki’s unflinching ambition. There may have been almost two decades between this long-anticipated PlayStation 4 instalment and its predecessor, but developer Ys Net isn’t afraid to pick up the plot immediately where it left off. With stern-faced star Ryo Hazuki and his mysterious accomplice Shenhua Ling dumbstruck in a Bailu Village cave, the sequel re-treads the closing moments of Shenmue II before immediately picking up the narrative thread.
This is true time capsule stuff, with the game design left unaffected by the 18 years of advancement that have occurred since the series’ last outing. Running on contemporary Unreal Engine 4 technology, the release looks lush, with saturated colours and sprawling vistas lending a somewhat magical flavour to the otherwise ordinary Guilin backdrop. But as an experience, this follows the exact same format as its forebears, meaning you’ll spend countless hours interrogating clueless locals as you attempt to progress the plot at a glacial pace.
Those who backed the project in its Kickstarter phase will no doubt be drawn in by the slice-of-life structure: buildings can be entered and explored; cupboard doors can be opened, and ornaments prodded and probed. But it’s an acquired taste made all the more divisive by new mechanics which require the plastered protagonist to eat and drink throughout the day to sustain his energy. Mind-numbing chores, such as wood chopping, are given an arcade flair – but, ultimately, the release still demands you invest an eye-rolling amount of repetition in order to get by.
This is perhaps best represented by the combat system, which adopts a more role-playing format than the Virtua Fighter-inspired mechanics of old. Battles are much more numbers-focused this time, with Ryo required to train regularly in order to improve his mastery of the martial arts, thus making him more deadly in combat. It does take a lot of the skill out of fistfights, as an over-levelled Hazuki will generally crush his opponents regardless, but it makes sense in the context of the character’s pursuit of kung-fu excellence.
So much of the game is spent simply engaging with locals, however. The opening area is a rural resort, sparsely populated with playing children and stonemasons. Much like Yokosuka in the original game, the sandbox opens up as you progress, revealing abandoned temples hidden by sunflower fields and small market stalls erected in wooden shacks. It complements the sprawling metropolis of second city Niaowu nicely, which is more reminiscent of the densely populated districts of Shenmue II’s colossal Hong Kong.
Each of the locations possess the property’s trademark feature: locals are governed by their own schedules, meaning they’ll get up and go to work in the morning – and head home for dinner at night. As in previous titles, this means there are moments where you may need to wait for an appointment, though the quality of life improvements from the previous game return, meaning you can advance time to speed up the process. Of course, there’s plenty to do should you choose to kill time, with original arcade games and toy capsules to keep you occupied.
New activities include herb collecting, with specific sets of flora and fauna demanding high prices at market. You can also go fishing in both regions, while the entire gambling system is linked to the pawn shops from previous titles in a much more engaging way. Prior to the release, auteur Suzuki said that he wanted each of the title’s elements to be tied together, and that’s particularly evident as you bet on turtle races in reward for tokens, which can later be spent on trinkets and sold off for cold hard cash. Unique clothing options, as well as an abundance of move scrolls, give you lots to work towards.
But it can be hard to truly invest into the side-activities when the thrust of the plot is so engaging. Make no mistake, Shenmue III’s script and voice acting is as awkward as it’s ever been – even if there’s a nod and a wink to many of the scenes. But while it’s been superseded by superior cinematic storytelling in the generations since the series was introduced, there’s a modesty to its tale of two mirrors that draws you in. Returning characters will leave seasoned fans squealing, while many of the exchanges Ryo engages in are laugh out loud funny.
Much like its predecessors, the sequel straddles the line between silly and serious masterfully, and its ability to keep its feet on the ground in even the most absurd of scenarios is a welcome change of pace for what is, ostensibly, an anime-inspired narrative. There’s no conclusion to the saga here, but the story does move along, and we can only respect Suzuki’s restraint; there may never be a Shenmue IV, but what’s on offer is preferable to a truncated, rushed race to the end. If it takes another 18 years for the next chapter, then so be it.
Shenmue III is a game lost in time, but that’s probably the greatest compliment you can pay this long-awaited sequel. Newcomers will be utterly bemused by its slice of life-style idiosyncrasies, but for franchise fans this is the faithful follow-up that they’ve been waiting almost two decades for. This is a weird and wonderful game; it defies contemporary convention in favour of its own decades-old direction. The industry may have moved on, but even 18 years later, Ryo Hazuki still somehow feels relevant.