Aside from neon and cheeky references, video games don’t often mirror ’80s cinema. From the golden age of summer blockbusters all the way to cheap action schlock, that decade is full of off-kilter stories, catchy soundtracks, and killer scriptwriting. But sequels often hit the same notes as its predecessor to much lesser effect, feeling like reunion tours rather than worthy follow-ups. Video games have typically avoided this problem due to the nature of the medium and its ever-improving ideas about gameplay. SHENMUE 3 is not a typical video game.
Picking up exactly where the Shenmue franchise left off in 2001, Shenmue 3 is a marvel of persistence and vision. Continuing Ryo Hazuki’s quest for vengeance against Lan Di, the series’ main antagonist, you can finally explore the Chinese village Ryo arrived at briefly at the end of the second game alongside Shenhua Ling. While there is a recap video to let players get up to speed, Shenmue 3 assumes you’re intimately familiar with the past game and where it left off. Of course, anyone rushing out to play Shenmue in 2019 is probably already in that camp.
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Once you get used to Bailu Village, you start asking questions about Shenhua’s missing father. This leads you on the hunt for stonemasons, which eventually gets you involved with several thugs linked with Lan Di. They’re all after the Phoenix mirror, a mythical artifact that Ryo found during the events of the first game. These stonemasons are tied into the artifact’s creation, and solving their disappearance leads Ryo to a tour of several Chinese locations and confrontations with characters from Shenmue‘s past. While little of its story stands out, it serves as inoffensive, solid background noise for all the characters you’ll meet and weird chores that you’ll do. It may take quite a bit to start saying anything, but that feels fitting — if slow — for a Shenmue game.
The truly dedicated fans who crowdfunded this mad dream into existence will find exactly what they’re looking for with Shenmue 3 from its dialogue to its storytelling. This is a Dreamcast game traveling into the future, lacking any bells and whistles from our modern age. It’s a purely single-player experience that takes its time with dialogue, movement, and just about everything else. It has knowingly strange quirks, like the stilted English vocals and bizarre tutorial messages. The dialogue is still a straight translation, making it funny in a bad movie kind of way.
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That’s not to say that nothing changes. There are a few iterative steps forward, although it’s what you might see in a direct follow-up rather than a years-in-the-making return. Limited fast travel options pop up, mostly at the beginning and end of each day. The game auto-saves for you, although you can still record your progress each night before you go to bed. Players can skip some repetitive cutscenes after a few days, but not all. A few other minor conveniences pop up, but this is still very much a Dreamcast experience. For better or worse, this is more Shenmue, and few things will make fans of that franchise waver in their devotion.
If you’re not already on board but still interested in this legendary franchise, Shenmue is a lot to take on. It’s one of those creations that you have to give yourself over to before you can appreciate it. It took hours and hours before I could get over the goofy voice acting, longer still before I could overlook the intense attention to needless detail. It’s a game that demands your focus and a game that isn’t afraid to waste your time. Going in with the wrong mindset, Shenmue is a torturous slog through logical inconsistencies and inglorious fetch quests.
Shenmue 3 Review | Life is for living
If that’s all fine with you, what will you actually be doing in Shenmue? The gameplay splits into three equal parts. There are “detective” sections, where Ryo has to ask around or gather clues about his next objective and this pillar has seen a few improvements here. For example, residents will now point you in the right direction rather than just mentioning street names. This is where you’ll get to know each citizen, learn their quirks, and hear their repeated lines over and over. Once you find the right place, you’ll either be triggering a story cutscene or utilizing your kung-fu in a fistfight.
Fights have always been pretty controversial in Shenmue, as they include complex button inputs in what is otherwise a low-key adventure game. The developers try to split the difference in Shenmue 3 by adding an automatic attack button, letting you use complex maneuvers with one press of R2. However, even with this concession, the battles feel imprecise. You’re fighting from an offset third-person perspective, and hits that look like they don’t connect often deal massive damage. Training to “improve your kung-fu” will make these go more smoothly, but throwing punches was never a smooth experience.
When you’re not pushing the story forward (and sometimes even when you are), you can pass the time with minigames. Some of these are for pure enjoyment and others earn you money to spend in the game’s shops. Part-time jobs include the classic forklift sections from past games and the new activity of chopping wood. There’s also everything from the Lucky Hit Plinko boards to various Chinese betting games to a few arcades. Unfortunately, since this isn’t a Sega game, you can’t play real arcade titles anymore, but a few QTEs never hurt anyone. These are fine for what they are, and the culture shock of interesting spins on American concepts are good to see. While they add variety, these types of diversions aren’t really that novel in the modern day.
Shenmue 3 Review | Cruise control
I probably had the wrong mindset throughout Shenmue 3‘s early hours. I hated the awkward menu system, especially how pausing the game wasn’t on the Options button. Because of the game’s comically bare-bones combat tutorial, I didn’t realize there was a block button, making early fights infuriating. Random games of chance pop up as mandatory story objectives, each requiring money to play, which required working for several in-game hours. The whole campaign felt like a Russian nesting doll of tedious objectives, all leading to progress in a story that I wasn’t excited about.
As I labored on and on, my thoughts wandered. What would a modern version of Shenmue be like? Would it hit the same solid tone that this game strives for? Would fans of the series express their disappointment at modernization? Is Dusk any better off idolizing Doom Eternal instead of Blood? Isn’t a movie like Terminator: Dark Fate better than another failed attempt at bringing T2‘s perfection forward? It’s evident that Shenmue 3 is an improvement on its predecessors. By the same token, it doesn’t forfeit anything vital to what made those games work. In a world filled with an endless need to modernize old franchises, that might be a decent solution.
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Amidst all this pondering of about my own nostalgia, things finally clicked into place. The random strangers I kept asking for directions became recognizable characters. I began to learn the layout of each location and adjust to the rhythms of local happenings. The awkward presentation that seemed so prominent early on became charming and Shenmue finally made sense. The objectives weren’t tedious; they were down to Earth. Just like every new day doesn’t guarantee consequential progress in your own life’s journey, every story beat in Shenmue isn’t a momentous occasion. This is Animal Crossing without the restrictions on how much you can play each day. It’s less about the gameplay or even the story and more about creating a sense of place. In that sense, Shenmue hits it out of the park.
While it’s arguable that Shenmue 3 tarnishes the series’ legacy as a work of innovation, it doesn’t because it doesn’t quite need to push forward in the same regard. Leave to the boys of Kamurocho to carry on that burden. This game could never surpass the original, and it doesn’t try to. You get callbacks here and there and a few knowing nods, but the new Shenmue just wants to live alongside the past. If you squint hard enough, the trick almost works Just like the also-ran sequels of the 1980s, Shenmue 3 provides a greatest hits collection played with slightly different notes.
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This particular revisit gave me a newfound respect for Yu Suzuki and his singular vision for what Shenmue is. It’s easy to make fun of something so low key in such a bombastic industry, and I’ve had my fair share of laughs at Shenmue‘s expense. However, meeting it at its level, living in Ryo Hazuki’s shoes provides a calming experience that can’t be had anywhere else in gaming. As long as you go in wanting more of that and less of a childhood-affirming revelation, you’re set. After all, Ghostbusters 2 may not be Ghostbusters, but it’s still pretty dang good.
GameRevolution reviewed Shenmue 3 on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher.