The Shenmue franchise makes its return after almost 20 years of having a very uncertain future. While the budget and gravity behind the series isn't what it once was, the scope of franchise creator Yu Suzuki's vision remains unchanged, even in this third installment, although the development team has obviously had to make a few sacrifices along the way.
Probably the most important thing to know about Shenmue III, if you're curious about playing the game, is that this is a title made with an extremely specific and narrow audience in mind - namely the people that not only played the first two Shenmue games, but also enjoyed them and want more of what they got back in the early 2000s.
What this means is that it really isn't advised to jump into Shenmue III unless you're already a dedicated fan of the series, since it's effectively like jumping into the third book of an ongoing saga, and you'll likely find yourself scratching your head wondering what's even going on.
The gameplay isn't much different from what it used to be either, so if you don't have fond memories of the prior titles then its distinctive style might seem jarring to you. There's a lot of walking around and talking to people to find out information about where to go and who to find next, and being asked to perform various trivial tasks for those characters.
If you are part of the game's narrow target audience, though, then Shenmue III delivers in spades. It continues the journey of Ryo Hazuki's vengeance for his father's murder and introduces new locales and brand new memorable characters, as well of course as featuring familiar faces. It builds on the Shenmue mythos, causing a very enticing blend of nostalgia and freshness which some gamers have waited almost two entire decades to experience.
While the lessened budget means that the game doesn't have groundbreaking graphics that are at the top of its field anymore, the art direction makes up for this by delivering beautiful vistas; you can practically smell the scents of the flower fields as you traverse past them in Bailu Village, and get a real feel for the crowded streets and enjoy the bustling city life of Niaowu, which is reminiscent of the Hong Kong area in Shenmue II.
Another area where corners have had to be cut is the combat system, which no longer features grabs, although there are a bunch of new punch and kick-based Kung Fu moves to learn, as well as plenty of returning moves from the previous games which are still at Ryo's disposal when it's time to do battle. Much as in real life, practice makes perfect, and you must continuously use moves while sparring to level them up. In order to increase your stamina there are also various exercises available near training areas. Together, the offense stat (from learning more moves) and the defense stat (from increasing your stamina rating) combine to level up your overall Kung Fu, making you stronger as a result.
Perhaps the most disappointing change, though, is that due to Sega's lessened involvement in this entry - despite being the owners of the intellectual property - the capsule toy machines no longer contain various Sega characters for you to collect, instead leaving you with mostly mundane things to try and win with your coins, like types of cars or fishing lures, as well as some admittedly nice small figurines of Shenmue I and Shenmue II characters, thankfully.
The interesting thing about Shenmue III is that no other game really plays like it. Despite Shenmue's legendary status within gaming, no other titles really sought to take up the mantle during its long absence, and experiencing Ryo's life through the epic moments as well as the mundane ones is a welcome return. It feels like meeting an old friend again.
Although the game's main focus lies on unravelling the narrative that was started way back in 1999, there are other things to keep you occupied as well, such as games in the arcade where you can hit high scores to win prizes, or the huge amount of herbs you can go out and collect to earn extra money. Contrary to the Shenmue I & II re-releases, which had mostly straightforward trophies/achievements for you to grab, there are some here that will probably require a lot of grinding to obtain.
In an era when a lot of franchises are desperately struggling to try and reach new audiences, often to the point of alienating the fanbase they already have in the process, Shenmue III ironically becomes a breath of fresh air by instead remaining rigidly focused on what it used to be, with its modernization being almost entirely focused on quality of life changes such as fast travel in controlled circumstances and cut scenes being skippable. Shenmue III is a game made specifically for the fans the series, with little concern for people who aren't already part of its fandom - and, actually, there's nothing wrong with that.
Still, I only finished the first two Shenmue games this year, so don't think that you need to have experienced them during their heyday to enjoy this entry. The Shenmue I & II pack available on Steam, as well as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, is a great buy - if you try them out and like them then Shenmue III will likely be right up your alley.
Shenmue III feels like the sequel fans were robbed of so long ago and tells the next chapter in a story 20 years in the making. It does so in a way that anyone who enjoyed the original titles, whether that be back when they were released or more recently, should be able to appreciate. Hopefully fans won't have to wait 18 more years for Shenmue IV.
This review is based on a digital copy of Shenmue III for the PS4
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