It was a brief comment in Dave Halverson’s review of Dragon Quest VIII from the November 2005 issue of Play Magazine, and not especially relevant to the full review, but it’s stuck with me ever since: “…given the detail, that the lead character is not dynamic to steps and slopes does take a bite out of the realism.” I wouldn’t say I’ve paid attention to the functionally irrelevant detail of characters walking on stairs in every game I’ve played since, but sometimes I notice. In Shenmue III for instance, whenever the protagonist Ryo walks up or down a flight of stairs, his feet hit every step. Every. Step. I know relatively little about the rigors of game development, but it seems ludicrous to offer such attention to detail for something as banal as navigating a flight of stairs. And yet, Shenmue III is in many ways a game about embracing the banal, for better or worse.
The fact that Shenmue III even exists is somewhat of a miracle. The first two games were some of the most expensive ever made and although well received critically, wound up being commercial failures. They were contributing factors to Sega discontinuing the Dreamcast and exiting the console manufacturing business altogether. By the time Shenmue II released in 2001, prospects for future entries in the series were dim. Series creator and video game luminary Yu Suzuki never gave up hope for future installments though, perhaps buoyed by some of the most fervent fans of any media. I jokingly concluded my review of the first game suggesting I’d become one.
I got the chance to put my money where my mouth was following the surprise announcement of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of Shenmue III during E3 2015. The campaign was a riotous success and with $6.3 million raised, it still stands as the highest-funded video game on Kickstarter. Its release on PlayStation 4 and PC was tentatively scheduled for late 2017 but this date got pushed back a couple of times before it was finally released on November 19, 2019. To their credit, the developers at Ys Net and Shibuya Productions were transparent about the process, with many updates through Kickstarter. Some weren’t promising, but I made sure to keep my expectations in check throughout the process. Personally, I would’ve been fine if it looked like a Dreamcast game as long as it was authentic to its predecessors. Well, I got what I wanted.
Shenmue III began where Shenmue II left off. The events of that game centered on Ryo Hazuki’s time in Hong Kong, tracking down the man who killed his father. His quest for revenge led him to the rural Bailu Village, where he happened upon a young woman named Shenhua. Her family of stonemasons was connected to the mysterious set of Chinese mirrors that partially influenced Lan Di, the martial artist and Chinese cartel member who killed Ryo’s father. On their way to see her father, they stumbled upon a large sculpture in a cave, prompting Shenhua to recite a prophecy that’d been passed down in their village since ancient times. With destinies intertwined, their journey together was just beginning.
Her father’s unexplained absence impelled them to put on their detective hats. More often than not, Shenhua took care of the house while Ryo explored the village, slowly learning of the general goings-on and of more disappearances. His investigative work – questioning locals – comprised the most material form of gameplay, both in terms of time spent and how the story progressed. This was a conversational game, but not like in Mass Effect, where as Commander Shepherd I could “explore” a conversation, or have a material effect on it. Instead, Ryo was laser focused on the goal at hand. He asked other people hyper specific questions and if they didn’t yield any clues, he’d have to keep asking around until someone knew something about suspicious characters, or where a certain whatchamacallit could be acquired.
This form of interaction was unchanged from previous entries. So too, was the awkwardly framed dialog. As I pointed out in my review of the first game, it was like the dialog was translated directly from Japanese, with no consideration paid to making it sound “natural” to English ears. Like, Ryo would be talking to someone but their responses would sometimes relate to another subject, or they’d just communicate with odd acknowledgement. It was… humorous. As in the first two games, it took an awfully long time to make measurable progress. Any sense of urgency was belied by the fact that it sometimes took a couple of in-game days to hunt down an answer. Oftentimes I’d have to ask a half-dozen individuals before finally hitting upon a worthwhile lead. But, that’s Shenmue.
Similarly true to form, Bailu and Niaowu were chock full of distractions, and made to feel alive. When the setting for this game was previewed – a remote rural village – I was worried that there wouldn’t be much to do. My fears were vanquished after a couple of hours with the game. The breadth of things to do, and people to interact with was beyond most other games. Although the conversations weren’t always fleshed out, Ryo could chat with everyone. They operated on schedules too, like the denizens of Majora’s Mask. And as in that game, there were many sidequests to undertake. Shops were plentiful – something like 200 across both settlements – and there was no shortage of minigames or odd jobs to undertake. These distractions served a greater purpose, however.
These games are billed as life simulators, which is accurate. They portray a specific slice of life – a young man’s quest for revenge in the late 1980s – but the mundane aspects of life were embraced. Ryo woke in the morning, ate to replenish stamina, and went to bed at night, regardless of how much progress was made. I was free to devote as much time as I wanted to figuring out what happened to Shenhua’s father, honing Ryo’s kung fu, or just fishing. While in Niaowu, he and Shenhua stayed in a hotel and accordingly had to keep up with their lodging bills. This meant earning money through one of the few odd jobs, gambling, or selling collections of items to pawn shops. Being in Ryo’s shoes was enjoyable in the same way playing Animal Crossing is. Priorities were set, schedules were adhered to, and I did my best live it up with what I had.
At its core, Shenmue III was a kung fu revenge story, and so every now and then I had to engage Ryo’s kung fu skills. There honestly weren’t many brawls across the game’s forty hour runtime though, maybe a dozen? I almost always got trounced when they first occurred, too. With little effort I could find people to spar with, or wooden dummies to practice on. Doing so increased Ryo’s attack level or endurance level, which combined to form his overall kung fu level. In addition to the dozens of special attacks which could be activated through button combos or hot-keyed to the triggers, Ryo had a variety of simple punches and kicks.
Fights took place in cordoned off arenas, sometimes against multiple opponents. I could move Ryo around freely, although he was locked into a radius based on the chosen target. The battle system owes much to Virtua Fighter, so there was a deliberate pace to brawls that didn’t favor button mashing. Even with a sufficient kung fu level, winning battles was dependent upon evading the opponent(s) and taking advantage of openings. In part because of their infrequency I never really developed proficiency for combat. I trained Ryo when he was woefully underpowered for fights and managed to squeak by when necessary, often relying on health restoration items or multiple attempts. Brawling wasn’t bad by any means; I just felt it was more of a means to an end than something to go “all in” on.
Also scarce were series staple quick-time events. These popped up across a handful of cutscenes; Ryo chasing thugs, for instance. I think the best that can be said about their implementation is they were successful at involving the player in something that would’ve been an action-heavy, but otherwise passive cutscene. I could immediately retry if I botched one, so the stakes were thankfully low. The cinematics were great and the game, much to my surprise, looked fantastic. As I said earlier, I would’ve been totally okay if this just looked like a Dreamcast game but the environments were absolutely breathtaking. Bailu Village in particular had some spectacularly lush scenery, and I was sad Ryo and Shenhua had to leave. The vastness of Niaowu and amazing minutia that was modeled – down to each storefront having a tiny hidden mascot – helped to cheer me up though.
Standard fare for the series, but still impressive, was the voice-acting. Not the quality per se, as like the conversations themselves, they tended to be delivered awkwardly and were rife with inconsistent pronunciations. No, merely the fact that all conversations were voice-acted was impressive. On the other hand the soundtrack was legitimately great. Ryuji Ichii, one of the primary composers for the previous entries, returned. Those games were rich with emotionally moving songs and themes that helped shape the personality of town districts and other places. Heck, many are still in frequent rotation on my Plex server! The new compositions were lovely but in fairness, a lot of this soundtrack was new arrangements of classic songs. Nonetheless, all were appreciated.
I think it’s going to be hard for this game to make new fans of the series. It has done an exceptional job at satisfying my desires, since it’s basically a carbon copy of its predecessors with a beautiful coat of paint. But I’m able to look past, and even embrace its flaws. In many ways, it’s a very antiquated game! I love that the narrative unfolded at a glacial pace, because it allowed me to immerse myself in these meticulously designed settlements and get to know the numerous residents. New players maybe not so much, especially with no shortage of modern open world games that have about twenty years of progress setting them apart from Shenmue III. I sincerely hope this game winds up being successful enough to prompt development of Shenmue IV. As always, Yu Suzuki has shown both the willingness and hope to get started. Should that happen, I’ll be there on day one, even if Ryo doesn’t ascend every flight of stairs with meticulous care.