Shenmue III review (PS4)

After a long wait, Shenmue III is finally here, and it’s out for Playstation 4 and PC (through the Epic Games store). We played the PS4 version and here is what we thought.

The third Shenmue game has been a long time coming, and that’s not just from the perspective of the original games that came out close to 20 years ago – for the Sega Dreamcast, to put things in perspective. Shenmue III was actually announced back in 2015 after years of rumors, and an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign followed. The game was scheduled to come out at the end of 2017 though, and here we are… two years later.

The end result is an interesting mix of nostalgia, fan service, technical evolution and incremental gameplay enhancements. It’s also a direct sequel to Shenmue II, with a story that picks up right where that game left off. You relive the final scenes of the previous game as a quick refresher, but if you need more of a reminder then there’s a lengthier ‘what happened before’ option in the main menu as well. I suppose this could potentially help complete newcomers get into the Shenmue story as well, but with a game that’s been so clearly designed with the philosophy of the original games in mind I would advise those players to play the recently released remasters first.

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Not only do they give you a good intro into all things Shenmue with a ton of story depth and detail, they also lay down the groundwork for what Shenmue III is built on. In other words, if you don’t (or didn’t) enjoy Shemue I & II, then odds are pretty good that you won’t enjoy the third one either. On the other hand… if you did, then you’ll feel right at home here.

For those familiar with the first two games, the biggest change they’ll immediately see with Shenmue III is how gorgeous it can look – especially considering the scope of these games. The level of detail on character models is a bit of a mixed bag, but I found that backdrops and environment were consistently beautiful – especially when you travel around the more rural areas of the game.

The story centers on Ryo Hazuki’s partnership with Ling Shenhua, who he tries to help in her quest to find her kidnapped father – a plot that quickly appears to be tied to the fate of Ryo’s own father, who was murdered. The latter’s been a central plot in the original Shenmue games as well, and unfortunately Shenmue III doesn’t offer the kind of narrative finality that you were maybe hoping for – I was left thinking the conclusion was saved for a sequel that might never come.

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With a story that’s tied to a series that had its last release almost twenty years ago, it’s interesting to see how much else in the game is faithful to that era – for better or for worse, even if you’re a fan. The voiceover work is far from impressive, especially when compared to the kinds of narrative experiences we get when playing something like Red Dead Redemption 2. On the other hand, there is a tremendous amount of narrative depth with a huge amount of lines and pretty much none of the NPC in the game will brush you off – they’ll all engage in conversation with you about your topic, even if they have little to say about it.

These conversations (which aren’t skippable the first time you start them) along with the general day to day stuff that comes with a Shenmue game certainly keep you busy, even if it’s not all edge of your seat kind of stuff. Instead of just progressing through the story beats, you also have a regular life to lead, a job to go to in order to make money and social activities that can help you either lose that money or make more of it. And yes, all of that can make Shenmue III feel like a bit of a grind at times, especially when viewed within a context of how other (similarly lengthy) games fill up their campaigns. Having said that, the game is more streamlined than its predecessors in not having you wait around for the clock to strike a certain hour either, which is a nice quality of life improvement.

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This also translates to the game’s quick time events, which make a comeback as well. Failing them prompts an immediate retry, rather than throwing you back into the game to get back to the sequence at hand – which is great if these events stress you out and you tend to mess them up quite a bit. With a lengthy 30 to 40 hour campaign, I didn’t need that kind of retracing of my steps.

The game’s combat system has been revised with simplified controls, though the fights themselves remain challenging. Part of that is because you need to do quite a bit of grinding (through short minigames) to slowly level up your skills and make combat less of a challenge, but opponents are also prone to block a ton of your attacks. With the exception of combo moves being easier to learn the fights are mostly similar to what came before, but since Shenmue II we’ve of course had the refined combat of the likes of the Arkham games, Spider-Man or even Dark Souls, just to name a few options. By comparison, the combat in Shenmue III feels a tad dated.

Shenmue I and II were always niche classics in their own right – partly because they started on a console that never took off like perhaps it should have, but also because of the gameplay contained within. Shenmue III is much more of a mainstream release in terms of the platforms it’s released on and the technology used to make it, but I’m thinking the gameplay will make sure it stays a title that has its biggest appeal to a niche group again – those who are fans of the original games. To them, this is excellent, though you’ll wish the story had more finality to it. To everyone else, this isn’t a reason to start playing Shenmue.

Score: 7.1/10

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