Released two decades ago, Shenmue was ahead of its time. Ironically, its long awaited third instalment is out of time.
That’s what happens when a game’s not only picking up precisely where the story left off 18 years ago but also acting as if open world games, trends, and mechanics in intervening years never happened.
Yet comparisons to the likes of GTA or indeed Sega’s Yakuza series are also mistaken. Shenmue was never about giving the player free agency to do whatever they want or engaging in over-the-top exploits. A story of a teenager seeking revenge, it was also about existing in a specific place at a specific period in time. And while the game features martial arts, it was more about mastering its teachings than executing them in power fantasies.
How you view Shenmue 3 will mostly depend on whether you’re coming at it as a fan who grew up on the original Dreamcast classics or completely fresh expecting a modern game. More importantly, how much you get out of it is whether you have the patience to appreciate it at the glacial pace that suggests its characters haven’t quite thawed out.
Catching up on old timers
It’s fitting that the first half of Shenmue 3 is set in the remote Chinese village of Bailu, mostly populated by the elderly and where you can bet on turtle races, because the pace of its story moves just as slowly, and you’ll be repeating yourself over and over.
Just trying to track down a group of thugs who’ve been causing trouble in the area should in theory be a single plot point but can take up to an in-game week as you learn a morsel of a clue before you either head home for the day or need to wait around until evening to speak to another key character.
If that sounds like a maddening waste of time, fortunately Shenmue 3 at least gives you the option to fast-travel and fast-forward to the next meeting point during these moments.
Fans on the other hand will appreciate this relaxed nature where plot is ultimately secondary to soaking up the atmosphere and getting stuck in to a gentle routine. From practising martial arts to a breezy bout of manual labour chopping wood then spending those wages to feed yourself and gambling away the rest for seemingly useless bric-a-brac, you really are living in this virtual world.
While there’s a running joke that Shenmue 3 looks like a 20 year-old game, thanks to Unreal Engine, it’s actually a beautiful game to behold, even by modern standards.
Although it might not compare with the photorealistic fidelity of big-budget games today, it’s really not bad at all, certainly when compared to other Japanese developers like Nintendo and Sega who are also used to working with smaller budgets.
This is thanks to great art direction as well as a loving care to detail, from the natural beauty surrounding Bailu Village to the rows of bustling market stalls selling all manners of treats and trinkets in the game’s second and largest location, port city Niaowu. It makes viewing the game in first-person mode all the more worthwhile, which Niaowu makes use of with a delightful activity hunting the town’s mascot hiding in its many shops.
Sure, leading man Ryo still looks a bit stiff and awkward, though it’s as much an endearing quality to laugh with rather than at. Everyone else has a more stylised appearance, but considering the relative shoestring budget the game is working with, that there are hundreds of expressive characters with their own names, routines, and most of them you can talk to, is a hell of an achievement.
Money over matter
Martial arts remains a core focus in the story, even though you don’t actually do a lot of fighting, at least not against proper foes. At best, you can participate in some sanctioned fights, but much like real martial arts, a lot of time is spent training in dojos, improving your technique on wooden dummies, or sparring against fellow martial artists, all to level up your various skills.
Perhaps more important than kung fu, however, is the rest of the busywork on offer. If you’re skipping the jobs, arcades and gambling, I dare say you’re playing Shenmue 3 wrong. As basic as many of these activities are, they all neatly feed into a system where you can earn money or prizes to acquire new skills to then train up.
It’s all ridiculously idiosyncratic in a way not everyone will take to, especially once you hit a couple moments when the only way to progress is to cough a huge wad of cash. If you’re already comfortable in its loop however, then it’s just another excuse to take your time in the game’s grind.
Shenmue 3 verdict
Quite honestly, if you’re a newcomer to the series, there’s going to be little reason to jump into Shenmue 3 now when there are much more sophisticated open world games today.
But then no one else has really made an open world quite like Shenmue, with the intimate, relaxed pace and mundanity that’s more like Animal Crossing with martial arts.
Dedicated fans who have followed creator Yu Suzuki’s opus all the way through to its miraculous Kickstarter revival are ultimately the audience here, and on that basis, Shenmue 3 is a successful continuation of that journey, with the same gentleness and charm it always had.