Shenmue is a franchise with a long and storied history. It’s one of those games with a cult following which, despite the game being a financial flop, demands a sequel with an almost religious fervour. After a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 helped revive the franchise, we’re now looking forward to Shenmue III’s release in just a couple weeks on 19th November.
Until 2018, you’d be forgiven for not having spent time with the series. With an original release on the Dreamscast in 1999, the game is certainly not new, but they were locked to a niche following from the doomed platform. The remasters last year sought to remedy this, and did at least bring them to a wider audience, but they were sloppily done and riddled with bugs. No game has ever crashed my PS4 as many times as Shenmue II. Unlike recent remasters such as Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII, the remasters of Shenmue and Shenmue II didn’t do anything for the quality of life issues inherent in games released 20 years old. Whether this gained the franchise any new fans remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
None of this, of course, detracts from how mind-blowingly pioneering Shenmue was back in the day. You see the ripples from these games everywhere, from the 3D open world exploration through to the quick time events. Without Shenmue, videogames would certainly look different today. The question is whether or not Shenmue III looks to be a worthy successor.
I got a hands-on preview of Shenmue III and, unsurprisingly, the game picks up where Shenmue II left off. Our heroes Ryo and Shenhua are walking through Bailu village looking for clues about her dad. They’re standing in an old tomb looking at gigantic versions of the dragon and phoenix mirrors that fans of the franchise will be all too familiar with. As moody and atmospheric as this scene is — it feels like a Chinese version of Uncharted, which works pretty well — it isn’t quite as well-rendered as I had hoped. It is certainly a step up from the original games, but it doesn’t show off what the PS4 is capable of. If anything, some of the textures looked more at home on a PS3.
From here, we see the scenes set out in the September 2019 trailer. Bailu village is a stunningly beautiful place, with traditional Chinese architecture, kids practicing martial arts in the village square and more greenery than you could shake a stick at.
There are some oddities with the language, however. Despite being set in the middle of backwater China in the mid-1980s, there’s an inconsistent mixture of Chinese, Japanese and English on the signs. That certainly makes sense for helping the player – one of the things that got me through the first game was being able to speak Japanese – but given the history between China and Japan, there’s no reason I can think why you’d see the Japanese word ‘arubaito’ written on the side of the shop in Bailu. It’s a small thing if you only speak English, but breaks some of the authenticity and immersion for me.
This is just the start of the disjointedness. It feels like you have a cutscene every 100m or so, and the audio is as stilted as ever. Ryo still parrots everything back to himself to make it exceptionally clear to the player that that is, in fact, exactly what you were just told, and the lip-syncing was clearly was not done in English. That’s not a problem if you want to play in Japanese — if Shenmue II is anything to go by, it’s going to be significantly played that way — but if you want to play in English, prepare for some sketchy lip sync.
Fortunately, a skip button has been added to skip over the redundant dialogue, but it doesn’t always work. Equally unfortunate are the other bugs, like when someone you’re talking to stops chopping things and turns to face you, but you still hear the chopping noises regardless.
There are other things in the game that break the immersion, like having Shenmue Gruppa gacha machines with Ryo’s face clearly emblazoned on the side of it, but for each of these there’s something that brings you back into the franchise, like the Lucky Hit minigames from the previous game. I guess you take what you can get if you’re a fan of the franchise.
Another significant quality of life upgrade in that the ‘jump’ (previously ‘wait’) feature has been upgraded to allow you to skip time forward when you arrive at your goal early. My biggest memory of Shenmue was messing around with the backlight on Ryo’s watch out of boredom while waiting for people’s daily routines to catch up with me. Time skipping was present in Shenmue II, but it feels even better in this game.
There’s also a nice feature in that when Ryo enters his ‘examination’ mode to inspect things, anything you can interact with is highlighted with a red circle, which makes life much, much easier. This covers everything from liquorice you can pick to sell, to drawers you can open and apples you can pick up. It certainly looks like Ryo is going to need a lot of apples because, as Shenhua helpfully points out, you can’t fight on an empty stomach.
Fighting is pretty much what you remember from the previous games, except that there is more of an emphasis on keeping Ryo’s health up. After my first fight in the game, I was left to heal Ryo back up to max health. Healing is as simple as eating, but in this instance Ryo’s breakfast was a whopping six pears, two apples and a banana. If he gets into another fight soon, he should be prepared for mild-to-moderate gastric distress!
So where does that leave Shenmue III? As with Shenmue II, you really should play the previous game if you want to follow anything that’s going on, and it’s your feelings on those previous games that are going to decide whether or not you’re going to like this. It feels very much like more of the same.
If, of course, you love the previous games, you’ll likely love this one too and, given the ardent fandom surrounding this game that’s pretty much a given. It is a nice step forward and it will finally give fans a step towards closure — whether or not Ryo makes it to a fourth game remains to be seen.