It’s a bittersweet feeling sitting down to write this review, not even ten minutes removed from the credits having finished rolling. 18 years have gone by since the journey of Ryo Hazuki and the revenge he seeks for his father’s murder by a man named Lan Di was left on an ultimate cliffhanger in a cave outside of Bailu Village. Thankfully, Shenmue III recreates the ending moments of the second game not only to refresh fans of the series on what transpired all those years ago, but as a way to seamlessly transition into our third time out with Ryo. We’re a long way away from Yokosuka, Japan, and while that may be so, we aren’t as far as it seems as what we have here is a beautiful and faithful rendition of the Shenmue experience fans of the franchise have been desperately waiting for.
|Available On||PC, PS4|
|Reviewed On||PlayStation 4 Pro|
|Release Date||November 19, 2019|
|Time Spent Playing||42 Hours|
Yu Suzuki is a man that I have the utmost respect and admiration for. Never giving up on his passion to see the Shenmue saga completed, he sat and waited for the right time to strike in terms of bringing the next chapter into the market. Thanks to crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, Suzuki was able to launch a successful campaign, one he holds a Guinness World Record for, thanks to the folks at PlayStation which allowed him the stage space to introduce the project at E3 2015. Four years later, we finally have the completed game, but the story of Shenmue is far from being over.
Shenmue III brings the story to Guilin, China, in a small remote village known as Bailu Village. Here, Ryo finally crosses paths with Shenhua Ling, a mysterious girl that we’d seen glimpses of in the first Shenmue, and then actually got to briefly meet at the conclusion of Shenmue II. “From a distant land in the East… from across the sea, he shall appear. He does not know of the strength hidden within him. The strength that would destroy him. The strength that would fulfill his wishes. When he is ready, he shall seek me out. And we shall brave together the rocky path. I shall wait. This encounter has been my destiny since ancient times. A dragon shall emerge from the earth, and dark clouds shall obscure the heavens. A phoenix shall descend from above. Its wings will create a purple wind. In the midst of the pitch-black night… a morning star shall glisten, alone.”
This poem that Shenhua recites several times throughout the story of Shenmue gives me chills every single time she says it, which itself is enough to showcase the effect Shenmue as a whole has had not only on my gaming choices and the types of experiences I enjoy playing through, but on my life as a whole in a much deeper way. Every so often, an experience, a song, a poem, anything really… it touches a person’s soul and is able to leave an impression that lasts a lifetime, and if possible, is something we’d take with us into the afterlife.
The masterful storytelling has always been one of the strongest selling points for the games in my opinion, and Shenmue III is no different. Ryo and Shenhua are in search of her missing father after they discovered he was not in the quarry as they suspected at the end of Shenmue II. In the early moments of Shenmue III, the pair discover that her father has been kidnapped by a group of local thugs seen harassing the villagers, and from there, the plot of the third game truly begins to unfold. While I would have liked to see more of the overall story of Shenmue told with this game.. especially because there’s a real chance it could very well be the last time Yu Suzuki is able to make a Shenmue game.. at the end of the day, I’m okay with where we’re at in the story and what was chosen to unfold in this go round. But that’s speaking from the heart of a fan and someone that absolutely adores the franchise. Critically looking at the narrative through the lens, we can easily recognize that more should have been done to bring the story closer to a satisfying conclusion.
I’m a huge fan of the setting in the original Shenmue, and I still think it’s my overall preferred game in the trilogy. However, Bailu Village is now my favorite individual location that we’ve had the pleasure of visiting through the mind of Yu Suzuki. The daily life struggles that we saw heavily in Shenmue I are back in Shenmue III, and getting to know the villagers on a personal life is a game in itself. From the laid back atmosphere of the Sunflower Grove, to the shops and bustle of the Panda Market, to the serene and calmness of the Fishing Lake.. Bailu Village had a spot that fit any mood and feeling.
I oftentimes describe the original Shenmue as a Japanese life simulator, and I’m happy to say that Shenmue III carries that tradition forward, allowing you to live out a life of sorts in Bailu Village if you choose to do so. Shenhua is there to greet you every morning with a pleasant but brief conversation, and then it’s up to you to choose what you’ll be doing on any given day. Want to progress the plot forward and race toward the end of the game? Just focus on the main story. Want to earn some extra income? Go split firewood down at the local store, pick herbs all around the village to sell for medicinal purposes, or rent a fishing pole and find the perfect spot to earn a sizable income in a few hours time.
Mini-games return in the form of arcades, allowing players to take on a game of Whack-a-Mole and Highway Star, while favorites from the other two games return such as Boxing and Excite QTE. As the narrative progresses forward and Ryo finds himself in a new location (which I’m trying to avoid discussing as much as possible in this review, as I didn’t know about it before heading in to Shenmue III, and I think I appreciated it that much more because of it), there are a handful of other mini-games to play, all of which feel unique and offer a nice way to waste a day away if you want.
Side missions are plentiful this time around, and many of them add extra layers onto the narrative that I would have been disappointed had I not seen. Recently in a discussion on our weekly Max Level Podcast, I was discussing the fact that Ryo, though he is a ladies man and it shows, has never been swayed by anyone in particular as his thirst for revenge has always been greater than his thirst for anything else. A few side missions actually play into this, and avoiding spoilers, it was a joy to see Yu Suzuki and the developers have a bit of fun with this. At a certain point in the game, there’s also an International phone players can mess around with after purchasing phone cards, and the cameos that make an appearance through this had me wiping away tears of pure satisfaction.
Because when it all boils down to what’s most important, it’s the fans that pledged to keep Shenmue alive. If this wasn’t a faithful recreation to the original experiences, we would have been sorely disappointed. Sure the game is lost in time and feels like a modern SEGA Dreamcast game. While others could portray this as a negative aspect, it’s exactly what I wanted. I’m stepping back into a time capsule to the way game direction was when Yu Suzuki was producing the original masterpieces. Controls have been slightly updated thankfully, but we’re still jumping into first person mode and examining objects, and it feels wonderful.
Combat has been drastically downgraded in Shenmue III, and is one of the main negative aspects about the entire package. Throws have been removed completely, and the basics have been simplified even more to make combat an afterthought. There sadly aren’t even that many QTE Events, something synonymous with the franchise since Yu Suzuki basically coined and created them for Shenmue. It’s the one aspect that feels like it took a step backward instead of a progressive step forward.
Thankfully, the composition comes to life in chill-inspiring moments thanks to series composer Ryuji Iuchi returning to do the score. “Shenhua’s Poem” is a beautiful track that mixes classic Japanese instruments with sweeping violins and instrumentation that was able to bring goosebumps to my arm every time it came on. “Good Luck Song for Travelers”, the song that plays whilst walking through the dusty roads of Bailu Village, whisks you away to a far away place, even if you’ve never been there personally, and makes you feel right at home. “A Beautiful Land” is the type of song we’ve come to expect in Shenmue, offering a very cinematic feel while keeping it grounded in the culture of the game. Ryuji Iuchi crafted a soundtrack to Shenmue III that not only deserves to be enjoyed by fans of the series, but fans of music in general.
It breaks my heart that Yu Suzuki may not ever be able to complete Ryo Hazuki’s journey. Shenmue was originally meant to be an 11 Chapter saga. The original game is just Chapter 1, and then a manga that released over in Japan was the second chapter. Shenmue II was meant to be Chapters 3, 4, and 5. I’m not entirely sure how many chapters Shenmue III consists of, but if I had to make an educated guess, it certainly felt like we get to experience Chapters 6 and 7. That leaves, if I’m correct in my estimation, 4 chapters left that fans deserve to see. Maybe 3 if Shenmue III also includes the 8th Chapter. Either way, Yu Suzuki has already turned his attention to a hopeful Shenmue IV, and it’s up to us as the fans of this series to ensure we get an ultimate conclusion to this epic tale.
My final score is reflective of the entire package overall, with my thoughts as a diehard fan of the series being placed aside for just a moment. Personally for me, as someone that has waited since 2001 to see this story continue and that loved everything about the originals, this game is as close to a perfect release that we could have expected it to be. But as someone coming in with little-to-no experience with the franchise just looking for another game to pass some time with, Shenmue III leaves a lot to be desired. But I don’t suspect many passing gamers are even going to give Shenmue III a chance. As mentioned earlier, this was done solely for the passionate fanbase that exists around Shenmue and Yu Suzuki. And for us, we cannot be happier that we finally were able to play the next chapter in this series.