‘Shenmue 3’ Really Is A Love Letter To The Dreamcast Classics
Ryo Hazuki, the protagonist of Shenmue III, is searching a small and very picturesque village for a bookmaker with a scar on his cheek. Exactly why, I'm not completely certain - this is a pre-release Gamescom demo, and plenty of story's already happened before we've reached this point. But, it's worth knowing that this third game follows on directly from the climactic events of 2001's Shenmue II. I think Shenhua's dad's been kidnapped since then, before now, but don't hold me to it.
Anyway, this bookie with a scar. He needs finding - and in classic Shenmue style, that means chatting to whoever Ryo can find. An old man's heard of the bookmaker, and suggests we speak to something else who'll know more. Said other sort confirms that the guy we're after is, to paraphrase, just over there. And over we go.
This fellow has information we need - but we're going to have to fight him for it, naturally. Ryo has a go, throws a few fists, and loses. This is mostly deliberate (I'm told the fight's difficulty is increased), as the next part of the demo is training - so we head up a hill for some sparring, and then back down into town, drinking in the view. We already know where our target is, but hey, Ryo's quite the talker, so let's natter with some other townsfolk.
What's Ryo going to ask about now? Where to find some herbs in this verdant valley? How about a way to make a buck or two, because he always needs cash (later in the demo I'll chop some wood, in a simple mini-game, and make myself some loose change). Press the A button on the pad, the one corresponding to the mouth symbol, and let's see.
"Do you know where I can find a bookmaker, with a scar?"*
Oh, Shenmue. Never change. And, really, Shenmue III hasn't changed at all from the formula that saw its two Dreamcast-era predecessors become cult classics. Ryo still seems to forget information he's just recently received. He still fights with a very SEGA-specific Virtua-series stiffness. His voice rarely breaks a monotone indifference. The controls are at first unintuitive but fairly quickly become second nature. Gacha machines remain addictive yet disappointing in the same exchange. Do I wanna play some Lucky Hit? You're flipping right I do.
Now, if all this sounds very, very familiar, I can confirm that it totally is. I expected Shenmue III to stick to the story beats of games one and two, of course; and for its leather-jacketed star to remain an uncommonly wooden hero. But what I wasn't so prepared for is just how much this new game feels like an old one, in how it moves, in its NPC interactions, its audio design, its menus and so much more. It's like a Dreamcast game that your memory has polished up, given an HD treatment and then some. And in that context, its visuals - neither truly 2019 'standard' in the eyes of many, but so advanced from SEGA's swansong system - make perfect sense. It doesn't play like anything made in the last ten years - and the Shenmue fan inside me absolutely loves it.
I leave the demo smiling, genuinely, my heart a little lighter than it was before sitting down with Ryo again. I'm optimistic about this game - which, hand on that very same heart, I wasn't until now. But my optimism is tempered with realism - if you're coming to Shenmue III having never played the games before it, and without a great deal of affection for *how* they play in a moment-to-moment capacity, then this is guaranteed to leave you cold, too.
When director Yu Suzuki says that he's made this for the fans, he's not talking about the fairweather kind. Anyone with an open-world, adventure game schooling that didn't begin in the 1990s, or at least dabble in it retrospectively, is going to bounce off this in no time. But, oh boy, if you ever liked seeking out sailors, you're going to love hunting down bookmakers. And then kicking them in their teeth.
(*Or words to that effect.)
Featured Image Credit: Ys Net / Deep Silver