Shenmue 3 (Playstation 4 Review)
It’s been a long time — a whole 18 years — since we’ve seen Ryo Hazuki sport his Iconic brown leather jacket and green knapsack in the bustling streets of Hong Kong. Time’s change and so do people.The uncertainty surrounding if the Shenmue name will ever again grace our dusty television screens was wavering on dissipation. After a surprising kickstarter campaign, revamped character models, and unethical exclusivity deals we finally have Shenmue 3 in our hands, but was it really worth the wait?
Shenmue 3 kicks off exactly were the second game finished: with Ryo and Shenhua spelunking in a quarry looking for the whereabouts of Shenhua’s father, Yuan. The mysterious absence of Yuan forces Ryo and Shenhua into action by investigating his disappearance in the neighbouring villages. Ryo’s journey has taken him from humble beginnings in Yokosuka to Wan Chai and Kowloon, and now a remote village in Guilin. Through it all his adamance for revenge has been resolute, seeing him through the most trying of scenarios. Facing off against hardy gangs and various criminal organisations, saying his farewells to family and friends as his travels take him further from home. We’ve been there through those high’s and lows with Ryo, understanding him as he develops into a young, admirable man. However, Shenmue 3’s plot somewhat unravels this progress, reverting him back into a humble, yet defenseless lad. Common street thugs are the menace of the day and requires Ryo to overcome adversity again at a beginner level. The implausibility of Ryo’s defenceless nature takes away from the narrative to extend what seems to be very little and unnecessary plot development.
Ryo doesn’t travel far this time round, in fact he is more restricted than ever. The storyline typically progresses after Ryo has accomplished a particular task but doing said task is a roundabout road of asking questions that fundamentally all have the same answer. Ryo must trot around town and ask citizens who, what, where, and why questions. This is par for the course for any Shenmue game but Ryo’s movements are limited to where people tell him he can go. No longer can you venture off the beaten path in search for answers or to simply kick loose. Unless Ryo is explicitly told to go somewhere, he will turn tail and refuse to venture outside the intended area. This genuinely wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the world you get to explore was larger in scale than it actually was. Being wary of spoilers, you explore two distinct areas that aren’t much larger than one another and far more condensed than that of Ryo’s hometown Yokosuka and completely overshadowed by the sheer scale of both Wan Chai and Kowloon from previous games. This results in overextended periods of investigation where Ryo jumps between townsfolk, asking the same questions, getting the same answers until that answer finally sticks; rinse and repeat. Ultimately, the plot for Shenmue 3 gradually unfolds steadily but the larger overarching narrative of Ryo’s journey really takes a hit in terms of pace.
The speed at which Shenmue 3’s story can be unravelled is relative to the player, especially since there are tons of miscellaneous activities to partake in. Long time fans will be glad to hear that the long standing Gacha machines make a return and are now more inviting than ever. Traditionally intended as a means for the player to make a profit of collecting toys from their irrational crutch on toy collection. Capsule toys can now be traded in to vendors for move scrolls (or Cash) granting further purchase and desire to give that Gacha machine one more spin.
Alongside this you have Herb collection, Fishing and Chopping wood to make money. Herb collection sees Ryo roam the Guilin countryside in search of rare herbs, a new form of collectable similar to capsule toys, which can be traded for cash. Fishing has Ryo stand for hours on end catching fish to trade for, once again, cash. And finally offering to chop wood for local residents, the official job of Shenmue 3, is far less laborious and time consuming than past jobs like hauling crates or forklift driving — Forklift jobs do make a return but the same sentiment as above stands true. Gambling is of course ever present too except now it has more steps involved than before. Lucky Hit, Roll It on Top, amongst others, are here to take your hard earned tokens. Before youplace a bet you must exchange your cash for tokens to gamble, you can then take your tokens to a Prize Exchange to trade for items of value to which you can then sell for profit. Whatever your vice may be, be it popping the plastic cap of those captivating capsule toys or striking it big on Lucky Hit, there’s always something to keep idle players busy and Ryo making money.
If those tasks feel too dissociative for you then there are always subquests to undertake, but they aren’t very apparent. Occasionally a bystander will want help resolving a particular problem and its upto Ryo to offer help. Some are rather inconsequential, some require a bit of foot work and the rest involve winning prizes or buying items for other characters. The rewards aren’t always worthwhile, although they are a nice addition to a game that seems to stick heavily to its roots and own tried and true mechanics.
The largest mechanical overhaul has to be to the combat. Shenmue’s combat in general has never been something it could be proud of and in Shenmue 3 fighting seems to have gotten worse. YsNet has done away with directional inputs and sidestepping in favour of making everything very mash friendly. The only thing you need to worry about is hitting the four face buttons on your controller to do combos. With the introductory tutorial message uncomedically saying “hit buttons” to fight. Punches and Kicks all seem rather loose with character models flaying when being struck and a lack of hitstun means both characters can wail on each other without pause. Training is still a large part of Ryo’s daily routine and fighting is one way to better yourself. Ryo can opt to spar with any given individual trained in martial arts, pressing a sequence of buttons when prompted in Quick Time Events (QTE) which further levels up that move and Ryo’s attack damage in general. On the flipside, Ryo can also train his endurance at various training posts to level up his vitality, which is again a sequence of QTE’s. Vitality is more so important this time around as Ryo has a hunger mechanic that whittles away at his hitpoints the longer he goes without eating so you better stay on top of your training. Ryo’s hunger meter is a newer feature to the series and since Shenmue isn’t a survival game Ryo’s hunger is an “end all” scenario, therefore becomes very manageable.
What might need a bit of getting used to is the voice acting, for better or for worse remains uncompromisingly amateurish, particularly in Ryo and Shenhua’s case. Ryo, played by Corey Marshall, continues the trend of being cold, distant and short in conversations all the while still remaining stoically charming. Delivering awkwardly flat lines you can’t help but cringe and smile to at the same time. Shenhua, while not played by the original actress Akasha Scholen, is now played by Brianna Knickerbocker and delivers as memorable a performance as Akasha once did. Contributing to the same deliberate awkwardness Ryo does in conversations Shenhua does come over more soft spoken and endearing. That being said, both characters are in contrast with the rest of Shenmue 3’s roster of talented voice actors like Kyle McCarley, Johnny Yong Bosch and D.C. Douglas to name a few. While these perfomances are of a higher standard, the poor script defining these voice lines could do with a bit of a re-write. Hearing Ryo’s generational old dialogue trends and flat delivery next to captivating performances from more experienced voice actors is jarring and often takes away from the immersiveness of Shenmue 3’s world.
I say world, but as I said before “world” is a stretch. What it lacks in scale it does not lack in beauty. The sharp, crisp visuals of the verdant foliage during the daylight to the ominous flickering of lanterns during the night both Bailu Village and Niaowu Port and delightful to explore.. Character models of many main characters are done justice and chiseled to perfection to look as faithful as possible to looking like regular human beings. Regular NPC’s on the other hand are caricatures of the tropes they play and others could be viewed as downright offensive in certain circumstances. All of this cumulative effort would be for not if the entire package wasn’t stitched together with a fantastic soundtrack, with a few new original pieces making their way into the fold, most of Shenmue 3’s soundtrack consists of past score we’ve all come to know and love, with updated audio.
While I do have a lot of love for the series — being a fan since Shenmue 2 in 2001 — I’m not blind to the generational strides videogames have made since then and it’s quite clear that Shenmue 3 is trapped in an era of its own. Contrasting voice acting, regimented gameplay and rough combat are large question marks for the series going forward. Shenmue 3 is a game made for the fans (largely) funded by the fans. So if you weren’t a fan of Shenmue before, you won’t be now.