‘Shenmue 3’ Early Impressions: Yep, This Sure Is A Shenmue Game
Shenmue III is out today, and I've played just a little of it so far. Ergo, don't take this as a review. But do take it as a warning if you're intending to play veteran game director Yu Suzuki's long-awaited third entry in a series that dates back to the SEGA Dreamcast era, but have zero experience of the two games that came before it.
Frankly, I'm not sure why anyone who's not played 1999's Shenmue and its 2001 sequel (both of which were given a high-def spit and polish for release on PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2018) would pick this up, but gamers have been known to do the craziest things. If you've not, much like the second game, there's a recap movie that fills you in on major events - albeit with no searching for sailors or forklift racing memories, alas.
That'll sort you out so far as the story goes - but it's not the tale this game is telling that's going to feel jarring to a player schooled exclusively on the past two console generations. It's, well, everything else, really. When I played a preview of Shenmue 3 at Gamescom in the summer, I wrote that it's a love letter to the Dreamcast games - not just in terms of its spirit, but also its presentation, controls, mechanics and pace.
If you're into Shenmue, you'll want to watch this special launch trailer...
Shenmue III starts incredibly slowly. It picks up after the revelation at the end of the second game - protagonist Ryo Hazuki, a moody teenage martial artist, has discovered a large mural of a dragon and a phoenix in a quarry near a delightfully quaint Chinese village. He does this alongside Shenhua Ling, a local girl who he befriends after saving her from a river. Now, this dragon and phoenix are important For Plot Reasons, connecting back to the start of the first game when Ryo learns about the mysterious and magical dragon mirror. Which is all very exciting, and there's fire, and Shenhua reads a dramatic poem, and then...
Then the pair of us wander around the village, called Bailu, asking after certain people who may or may not have witnessed some thugs, who came through the place in search of a stonemason - Shenhua's dad, who just so happens to be missing. And this is where Shenmue III reconnects with the game of 20 years ago: the process of extracting information from these people is like having a tooth pulled.
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You wind up running from one side of the village to the other, and back again, chasing shadows until you leave the village, to speak to a guard who's wandered up the path a way, only to then come back and chat with one of the very first guys you met.
Which is completely in keeping with how Shenmue and its sequel were. Ambitious though these games were for the time, they were glacial-paced affairs, heavy on atmosphere, able to establish a rare sense of place compared to many games of the time. Shenmue, while it featured combat, wasn't about adrenaline-soaked action - although the then-pioneering use of quick-time events did bring some breathlessness to proceedings. It was detailed, methodical. You sought clues, made notes, chased hunches, rarely hurried. And played a shedload of Hang-On and Space Harrier. (The series is set in the 1980s, and features era-appropriate mini-games.)
Bailu has no arcade machines, but does have a few capsule toy dispensers (I've already 'won' a little red forklift - nice). There's a place to practise your kung fu, and a tai chi master to spar with, too. There are herb maps to follow, and shopkeepers who'll buy whatever you've picked. There's Lucky Hit. To a fault, this is 100 percent a Shenmue game, through and through.
Which is the point, of course. When I met Yu Suzuki earlier this year, he told me that Shenmue III was all about pleasing the fans of the past games, rewarding them for their love and their patience for these characters and their stories. It's not a game that's supposed to innovate; it's not a game that's meant to look on the same level as today's AAA releases, using as it does original sketches from the first game's production. (Not that Shenmue III doesn't look beautiful, in its own way - like how the old games look in your imagination, dripping with added colour, but not as they actually were.)
"What's more important is the world," Suzuki told me. "I wanted to make fans very happy, with a new episode inside this Shenmue world." And, even at this early stage, I cannot deny that I am happy with this Shenmue world, so far. The stiff acting and awkward models and weird turns of phrase and stunted dialogue, they all equal Shenmue. That's what we had, and we thought it was amazing for the time; it's what we're getting now, today, and in a weird way it's just as satisfying. And a lot prettier.
I'm heading back to Bailu now, to deal with a fella with a scar (who was part of the Gamescom demo, so I'm pretty sure I know how this is going to go - fisticuffs, guaranteed). And if you're eager to join me, please don't take this journey without knowing what you're getting into. Shenmue III is a game that missed its ideal release window. It should have been with us in the middle of the last decade, not the very end of this one.
Its arrival in 2019 is welcomed, of course, but it gives the game a strange, performance art feel. Gaming's modern tools and tech are doing a fine imitation, an interpretation, of work that came long before; creating the illusion of a virtual world that could never have existed then, but always has in memory.
Featured Image Credit: Deep Silver / Ys Net