Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Ys Net
Review Date: 1/30/20
I loved the first two "Shenmue" games, flaws and all, and both games ended on infuriating cliffhangers. So when Yu Suzuki launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to make "Shenmue III," I was one of the first people onboard. Unfortunately, it was more of a publicity stunt than anything, as Sony later revealed that they had already agreed to fund the project. The crowd funding simply guaranteed pre-sales and introduced some stretch goals and extra perks. Even with the game fully funded, development took two years longer than anticipated, and the game wasn't released until late 2019. Sneak peeks at production art were disappointing and filled me with dread. How could this game possibly live up to the hype as well as honor its groundbreaking legacy? And would it totally go down in flames like other crowd funded games that I've supported in the past?
"Shenmue III" picks up right where "Shenmue II" (2001) left off, with Ryo Hazuki and a mysterious girl named Ling Shenhua discovering a cave decorated with designs for the Dragon and the Phoenix mirrors. Shenhua's father has been kidnapped by a gang called The Red Snakes, under orders from Lan Di's organization, the Chi You Men. The first act takes place in Bailu Village, which is a quaint hillside community of old farmers and fishermen. After finding a secret scroll related to the stone mirrors, Ryo learns that Shenhua's father has been taken to the town of Niaowu, which is where the second act takes place. Niaowu is much like Hong Kong in "Shenmue II." It's a bustling tourist town full of shops, vendors, entertainment, travelers, and thugs. Ryo's attempts to rescue Shenhua's father are repeatedly thwarted by the Red Snakes until an old kung fu master teaches him some new moves. The third act takes place at an old castle across the river, but it feels rushed, incomplete, and overly linear, as if the team ran out of time and money to fully build it out. Not surprisingly, just like the first two games, it ends on a cliffhanger that denies Ryo his revenge once again. Let's just hope it doesn't take another eighteen years to continue the story in "Shenmue 4."
For better or worse, "Shenmue III" is so stubbornly true to its roots that it feels like a game trapped in time. The graphics are definitely more polished, but the interface and the mechanics haven't evolved at all, which makes the game feel instantly and oddly familiar. It's like meeting up with an old friend that you haven't seen in a long time, and neither of you have aged well. The locations are breathtakingly beautiful and rendered with an amazing amount of detail, while the characters (apart from Ryo and Shenhua) look like bizarre cartoon caricatures. It's a curious design choice, and one that makes it easier to identify the 200+ individual characters. The hotel manager in Niaowu is especially grotesque, and it's hard to tell if she's supposed to be a joke or not. The character animations are stiff, awkward, and exaggerated, which is reminiscent of the original games. Rather than go with proprietary technology, the game utilizes the popular Unreal Engine 4, which made my heart sink based on its poor performance in other games. However, it works surprisingly well in this game, and I didn't experience any of the glitches, foibles, and graphic artifacts that I normally associate with that technology. Although, much like the original games, it suffers from pop-up people in crowded environments if you try to move too quickly. I don't know if it's a limitation of the Unreal Engine, but I noticed that the dynamic weather isn't as dramatic and varied as it was in the original games, and the abrupt transition between evening and dusk is disruptive and visually jarring.
The gameplay is nearly identical to the previous entries, as Ryo spends his days talking to strangers, helping them out, and generally getting the run-around. He has to take on part-time jobs in order to buy food, since his stamina is constantly dropping and he needs a full health gauge in order to fight and run. He also needs cash in order to collect capsule toys, play arcade games, and purchase martial arts scrolls to improve his fighting skills. Ryo can make money by chopping wood (I chopped A LOT of wood), fishing, collecting herbs, and of course, gambling. The fishing mechanics aren't very fun, and you can't use the fishing spots that you find until someone activates them for you. It's a weird and broken system. When you get to Niaowu, a forklift job at the harbor eventually opens up, which offers bigger paychecks and a nice dose of nostalgia. You can also catch ducks for cash in order to keep the Peking Duck House restaurant well stocked. At the end of each day, Ryo has to head back to his home base (either Shenhua's house or the Hotel Niaowu) and sleep. Fortunately, while the narrative suggests a constant sense of urgency, it's never enforced and you can play at your own pace. I have the tendency to explore every nook and cranny whenever I discover a new area, which can seriously derail the plot and occasionally messes with the timeline of events. However, the game also encourages thoughtful exploration and has numerous distractions to keep you busy for hours on end. Collecting herbs is a serious and maddening chore, but it allows you to enjoy the rich scenery. Similarly, every shop in Niaowu contains a hidden mascot called Chobu-Chan, and searching for those forces you to scour every shop and fully take in the brilliant level design and detailed artwork. It's a very rewarding exercise, although some of the critters are deviously difficult to track down.
The writing is awkward and clumsy, but clever and humorous at the same time. Some of the characters and conversations are truly hilarious and punctuated with a nice touch of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. The mooncake vendor is a cute dingbat who doesn't realize that Ryo is the Japanese karate master with the leather jacket and bandage on his face who everyone is talking about, while C.C. (one of the hotel guests) is constantly confusing Ryo with other people who aren't even remotely similar to him. Unfortunately, the jerky drift camera makes conversations unintentionally clunky, and often times the camera angles are completely broken. Ryo is still at a complete loss when it comes to dealing with women, but at least he's not as much of an asshole this time around. There are a lot of women in the game, but there are only two female fighters, which I found disappointing. Both Masaya Matsukaze and Corey Marshall reprised their roles as Ryo, which is pretty amazing given the amount of time that's passed. One of the best features in the game is the ability to listen to the original Japanese dialog, which is MUCH better than the English voice work and provides a considerably richer and deeper experience. I briefly tried listening to the English dialog and had to switch back after a minute or two because it was so regrettably awful. An interesting aspect of the Japanese dialog is that Ryo's American friend Tom Johnson speaks absolutely terrible Japanese. It's hard to tell if this was meant to be funny or if it's a stereotypical American accent, but I found it somewhat offensive. Similarly, several gay characters like to hit on Ryo in the game, and I can't decide if that's supposed to be progressive, insulting, or comical.
The relationship between Ryo and Shenhua is very sweet and touching, and the rapport system increases their intimacy the more you interact with each other. At the beginning of the game, Shenhua simply pokes her head into Ryo's room and calls to him to wake up. After about a week, she ventures halfway in to wake him up, and eventually she starts approaching him and touching his shoulder to wake him. It's very subtle, but extremely effective. Unfortunately, that tenderness disappears in Niaowu, and they only meet up with each other in the hotel lobby in the morning and at night. While the game is formulaic and predictable to a fault, one major surprise occurs during the climax in Bailu. Shenhua, who is normally a shy and timid girl, goes all Jean Grey and tortures a member of The Red Snakes behind closed doors when Ryo can't get any information out of him. It was a truly shocking and horrifying moment that made me put down my controller and cry. What happened is never explained, but the bad guy is left completely shattered and scared out of his mind. She sweetly quips "You were easy. I've had a harder time breaking chopsticks." She never discusses or exercises her powers again, which adds to her mystery, but also introduces an annoying continuity flaw when she later (inevitably) gets kidnapped. Ryo spends a lot of time rescuing kidnapped girls in these games...
The fighting mechanics are about as loose and sluggish as the previous games, and mostly boil down to random button mashing. However, there's a nice feature where you can assign R2 to a move of your choice, which can do some heavy and calculated damage. The first few fights in the game are overly hard and nearly impossible to win, which forced me to change the difficulty setting to "easy." However, by the end of the game, it almost becomes too easy. The fight on the bridge at the Old Castle has about a dozen guards to get past, and you can take each one out with a single hit. It's nothing even close to the harrowing 70-man warehouse brawl in the original. Story related fights often incorporate quick-timer-events (QTEs), but they rarely exceed three or four commands, which is a welcome relief. Sadly, at my age, my reflexes and reaction time are literally not fast enough to perform the required actions, which was very frustrating and disheartening. Fortunately, the patterns are pre-set, so once you memorize them you can anticipate them and react accordingly, but random prompts are nearly impossible to hit. Ironically, the most difficult part of the game involves catching chickens via QTEs, and you have a set time to catch them all. The biggest disappointment is that you don't even fight in the climactic showdown against Chai and Lan Di, as it simply boils down to four button presses.
While progressing through the story can be tedious and occasionally annoying, where the game really shines is in its world building. It's all about the journey, and if you focus too much on the destination, you're bound to be disappointed. In order to get the best and fullest experience out of "Shenmue III," you have to fully embrace its paradigm and allow yourself to get lost in all of the fantastic and ridiculous details. Visit every shop, explore every alley, buy souvenirs, play arcade games, collect capsule toys, gamble for silly prizes, hunt for herbs in every patch of grass, fish at every location, chop wood, catch chickens and ducks, master your forklift skills, build your endurance, practice kung fu, participate in street fights, help the locals with their problems, make every phone call, and talk to EVERYONE you meet - multiple times.
That said, it took a while for me to warm up to the game with its archaic interface and old-school sensibilities. It's not a big hurdle for fans of the original games, but it's not likely to win over any new fans or appeal to the younger crowd. While the presentation is gorgeous, the game is not without bugs and quirks. The music is fantastic, but doesn't loop well, and the traditional Chinese instruments featured in Bailu Village can become grating after a while. I only encountered one game limiting bug that trapped me in a puzzle that I couldn't interact with, which forced me to reload a saved game. The most frequent bug I encountered was that I didn't get paid for my forklift work about 25% of the time, which was somewhat annoying. Some of the puzzles are wickedly difficult, and I found the Bell Tower puzzle to be completely illogical and impossible to solve without online help. Even after I saw the solution, I didn't understand it. I saw very few visual glitches (apart from pop-up people), but the most amusing one was when it started raining inside of a building that I was in. It's hard to keep track of all conversations, and sometimes characters would refer to conversations and events that hadn't happened yet. Also, there's no way to skip through conversations and cinematics, which becomes annoying when you encounter repeated dialog (although I've read that the v1.04 patch addresses that). There are also the inevitable typos and questionable translations in the menus and subtitles. Another problem I ran into was a late-game quest to find herbs for a pharmacist. Since I'd already collected all of the herbs in the area, I couldn't satisfy his request for NEW herbs, even though I had everything he needed in my inventory. And finally, the inventory menu really needs a zoom feature so that you can inspect your items more thoroughly!
Since the game relied on crowd funding, the game honors its supporters in several very cool ways. Some people's names can be found inside temples, in notebooks, and in the Hotel Niaowu register. But the most impressive collection can be found at the Save Shenmue Temple in Niaowu, which is completely devoted to backers who pledged to have their portraits in the game, or be immortalized in their own capsule toys. It's very fun. Of course, the downside is that user content dilutes the purity of the game and includes some silly names and inappropriate text, including at least one tasteless Donald Trump reference. Backers also have access to additional phone messages, which really drive the nostalgia home. It's wonderful talking to Ine-san, Fuku-san, Nozomi, Joy, Fangmei, Guizhang, Tom, and even Goro. The romantic tension with Nozomi is sweet, but frustrating at the same time. Why is Ryo such a hapless dork?
"Shenmue III" is one of those divisive games that people either love or hate. Regardless of what you may think about the game, you have to admire Yu Suzuki's intense passion for the material and the unwavering purity of his vision. I thoroughly enjoyed the game, despite its numerous flaws and the disappointing and underdeveloped final act. It stumbles nearly as often as it soars, but when it hits its stride, it's simply incredible. Having the Japanese audio is a major win for the series, and being able to select a difficulty setting is a nice feature, instead of having to rely on the auto-difficulty logic of the previous games. The inclusion of herb hunting and hidden Chobu-Chans encourages thoughtful exploration, and conversing with the various vendors in Niaowu provides a lot of entertaining moments. While it's bound to be yet another commercial failure for Suzuki, I'm extremely happy and grateful that it got made, and I hope it's not the last we see of Ryo Hazuki and his friends.