Full disclosure: The original Shenmue rocked my tiny mind and my beloved Dreamcast way back in the year that was 2000, ultimately prompting my slow descent into the world of entertainment “journalism” and pushing me toward a career in writing. Once I’d committed hours to the game after a shift at work, I’d spend another hour writing about the experience on a website I’d created to help sharpen my skills as an amateur wordsmith. And while Shenmue II didn’t have quite the impact that I’d hoped, I still loved the game. However, I’d come to the realization that I would more than likely never see the conclusion to a game that kickstarted my current career and helped reintroduce me to the power and imagination of video games. In other words, Shenmue III had huge shoes to fill.
Herein lies the problem. I am attempting to take a very critical approach to Shenmue III, but I’m having a difficult time separating myself, Shenmue fanboy, from my other role as an unbiased video game “critic.” As a fan, Shenmue III feels like something crafted in an alternative reality where the developers were allowed to continue their story without much restraint, then plucked from said reality and delivered to us nearly 18 years later. It feels like a relic of a different era, and despite some quality-of-life improvements here and there, those who don’t follow the dramatic story of the Shenmue franchise’s rise and fall might think this is some kind of remaster of an older game. No, Shenmue III is very much a new game, and that is precisely what makes it so difficult to review.
To start, and most importantly I will say that Shenmue III provided yours truly with exactly the sort of experience I’d dreamed the game would deliver. For better and for worse, it feels like something ripped from a different world and dropped into the laps of those who would appreciate it most: the fans who’d hoped for ages that the story would continue and that our hero, Ryo Hazuki, would finally lock horns with the villainous bastard who murdered his father. Without giving too much away, I will say that I expected something a bit more concrete in terms of a conclusion, and I worry that Shenmue IV will never come to pass. Despite that slight disappointment, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Shenmue III, to the point where I am able to overlook the technical hiccups, dated gameplay, and the repetitive nature of the package as a whole. It’s Shenmue through and through, which will make a lot of people wonder what all the fuss is about.
And that’s going to be a huge barrier for Shenmue III: Finding new fans. Because Shenmue III feels dated and strange, even to someone who played the hell out of the previous entries in the series. Simply put, you walk around, talk to people, learn something, talk to someone else, maybe fight someone or do a quick-time event, buy some junk, do a mini-game or two, and then repeat the process until either the scenery changes or the game ends. That’s it. If you’re looking for a full-on action-packed experience, then you’ll end up deeply disappointed by Shenmue’s reliance on conversations — stilted conversations at that. However, if you want a straightforward adventure game, you’ll likely get turned off by the simplistic martial arts sequences and the overall lack of puzzles — unless you count figuring out who to talk to next as a puzzle. Most people don’t, of course, which will quickly become a huge issue for some.
Games have changed a lot since Shenmue’s arrival back in 1999, and some would argue that the game laid the groundwork for quite a few popular franchises. In fact, the Yakuza series — a stack of games that I love with almost every ounce of my being — probably wouldn’t exist if not for the eventual demise of the Shenmue brand. And all the games influenced by Shenmue grew and changed over the years, growing and changing with industry trends and gamer demands. Shenmue III apparently leapfrogged all of these advancements and landed in 2019 like some sort of goofy character from a time-travel movie. If you’re expecting something as slick and polished as modern-day AAA or even AA games, you’re in for a serious shock to the proverbial system. Shenmue III thumbs its nose at convention.
But, strangely, that almost works in the game’s favor. By not making the game slicker and more modern, it feels like a true successor to Shenmue II. And while it definitely looks fantastic and sports an incredible amount of detail — especially for those of us who feel strangely compelled to open and examine every single drawer and cabinet in the game — it doesn’t come close to matching its modern-day contemporaries. The controls feel stiff, and action sequences aren’t very kinetic, and it just feels as though the developers didn’t have quite enough money to smooth over a lot of the rougher edges before its release date. And here’s the thing: Were this any other game, I’d probably shake my fist in anger while lazily writing a handful of sentences that dripped with snarky disappointment and misguided outrage. But I can’t do that with Shenmue III. As a critic, I am ashamed. As a fan, however, I will take up that charge.
Naturally, this is where being a Shenmue fan begins to infiltrate my ability to give the third installment a proper critique. Despite these glaring issues, some of which will immediately turn off old-school Shenmue fans looking for an updated experience or those tuning in to see what all the fuss is about, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the last installment. Yes, the dialogue feels like something written by an individual who’s never had a real conversation with another human being in their entire lives, and yes, the character designs often resemble creatures deleted from an independent developer’s unreleased horror game, but damn it, that’s the charm of Shenmue III. It’s often a janky, odd, and frequently unpleasant video game, though not quite in the same league as Deadly Premonition, Phantasmagoria, or The Harvester. No, all of its quirky shortcomings make the story and gameplay gel in ways that, in theory, shouldn’t work.
Shenmue III, despite all of the things I’ve mentioned, charmed me. I spent hours playing Lucky Hit, catching fish to win T-shirts and jackets, going to fortune-tellers so I can rip off the local “bookies,” playing QTE games in the local arcades, talking to the same people over and over and over again, and raising Ryo’s rank at the local dojo. Oh yeah, and when I had some time to spare, I looked through drawers and tried to unravel the mysteries behind some ancient mirrors so I can find the man who murdered my father. And although I spotted every cut corner and rolled my eyes when Ryo had yet another nonsensical conversation, I still loved Shenmue III. You have to embrace this thing as a whole; taking it apart and looking at the components individually will drive you crazy and make you question how you spend your free time. For Shenmue fans, it feels like coming home after years away — it still looks, sounds, and smells the same, and you wouldn’t change a thing about it.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Deep Silver.
Shenmue IIII pushes its epic story forward while holding firmly onto dated concepts, game design, and narrative presentation, but it will likely please die-hard fans of the series. Everyone else, meanwhile, might wonder what all the fuss is about.