Shenmue 3 was made for fans - it can't appeal to anyone else
Let’s get this out of the way: Shenmue III is for Shenmue fans. It’s not a starting point for the series, and the short recap video does not do much to catch people up on this somewhat standard tale of mystery and revenge. Shenmue III is obviously a love letter to those who have waited for decades to see the series return and the continuation of Ryo Hazuki's story.
So, is Shenmue III the triumphant return that series fans have been waiting decades on? Not really, unfortunately, although the target audience will still get some enjoyment out of this title.
Shenmue III picks up immediately after the conclusion of the second title. Ryo Hazuki is still trying to find his father’s murderer, but the trail goes cold when Shenhua’s father goes missing. The game has you exploring the small rural town of Bailu village, as well as the city of Niaowu, trying to figure out where Yaun was taken and the link between the mirrors and Ryo’s father’s murder.
The thing is, for a series that has been dormant for almost twenty years, it appears as though Yu Suzuki, the series director, isn’t concerned with getting to the ending of Ryo’s story. Shenmue III’s plot moves at a snail’s pace, and the ending is another cliffhanger that offers little closure on the story. It’s a risky move for sure, as Shenmue III would need to be popular enough to continue the series on its own, but at the same time, the title does nothing to appeal to anyone other than the most hardcore fans of Shenmue.
Every plot point in Shenmue III is wrapped up in mountains of mediocre tasks. You need to find what happened to Yuan and the other stonemasons, but you also need to work at the local market to earn money. There’s a woman clearly in danger from some thugs, but you need to go and pick that cinnamon in the field over there. You’re always losing stamina and you need to eat, but eating costs money, and money costs time to make.
Oddly enough, though, I did feel somewhat drawn into the game’s mundane tasks. Sure, most of the mini-games came down to dull timing or button mashing, but it’s a nice way to turn your mind off and accomplish something. It’s with these day to day tasks that I can see why people often consider the Yakuza series a spiritual successor of Shenmue, as the mini-games and side-stories present in Yakuza titles give me the same feeling.
But one thing Shenmue III fails to do is learn from the games that released in the last 20 years. Many of the game’s design decisions, from the aforementioned stamina system to the lack of a meaningful map to figuring out what to do next, are outdated and obtuse. There is no modernization of mechanics here, which can make Shenmue III more frustrating and tedious to play than it needs to be.
It’s almost as if Suzuki pulled Shenmue III out of a Dreamcast vault, dusted it off, updated the engine, and called it a day. While Shenmue III was a Kickstarter project and not expected to have a full AAA budget, the blatant disregard of how games after Shenmue II have changed and updated the genre makes this new title downright painful to play at times.
The gameplay isn’t the only aspect that suffers from the outdated design, either. Shenmue III’s cutscenes and voice acting are downright horrid. Stilted lines and unnecessary camera cuts make each conversation difficult to sit through, which is pretty damning for a title where you need to talk to people a lot to progress. Sometimes conversations are downright non-sensical, with each person clearly talking about different subjects, but yet the lines are spliced together like some sort of strange ‘Abridged’ series experiment.
Moreso than any other part of Shenmue III, the graphics are an extreme whiplash in quality. The scenery is beautiful, even if not every single blade of grass is rendered. I always enjoyed heading to the Verdant Bridge and the beautiful flower field that surrounds it. But at the same time, the level of care was not extended to the people that live within this pretty world.
Characters are as stiff as the lines they deliver, and they possess this uncanny valley quality to them that makes watching them move and interact with the world somewhat unsettling. Children look like caricatures of themselves, Ryo walks as if he’s bound to the tank controls of old PS1 titles, and Shenhua is pretty but seems unable to express any emotion on her face at all.
Shenmue III is a game of half-measures. It ultimately delivers on its promise of the continuation of the Shenmue story for fans that have been waiting on it for years, but that doesn’t mean it delivers on that promise well. Shenmue III could have been so much more, or at least tried to wrap up Ryo’s tale, but instead, we are left with another cliff-hanger. Deep Silver and Ys Net delivered a game that works but is as unambitious and dull as Ryo’s dialogue.
[ Editor's Note: This article previously ran as a scored review, but the author's time with the game wasn't in line with the RPG Site review policy. As such, the score has been removed, but the article content remains otherwise unedited. ]