A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my experience revisiting Shenmue I & II. I got a lot out of replaying those games, but my original goal was to refresh my memory before playing Shenmue III. With the story and gameplay of the originals fresh in my mind, I was going to give Yu Suzuki’s improbable sequel a fair shake. The end result of this three game journey was not what I was expecting.
Replaying Shenmue II completely recontextualized that game in my memory. This time around, the second game clicked for me. It was vast and impressive. Ryo’s journey through Hong Kong and the surrounding areas felt like virtual escapism to another time and place. The attention to detail and deliberate pace felt like the foundation for Red Dead Redemption 2. This was the pinnacle of ambitious, massive-budget video game creation in the Dreamcast era.
There are obvious issues. The default English voice acting is garbled, stiff, and poorly-paced. The story is a series of mysteries to solve that continuously relies on the hilariously bad voice acting. Approach Shenmue II with the wrong attitude, and you will find a joke of a game, with moments straight out of Tommy Wiseau’s playbook. Approach Shenmue II respectful of the time and place it came out, and you’ll find a grounded story about a stubborn teen running headfirst towards violence and revenge, as a cast of characters all try to teach him another path. There’s a great story hidden within the limitations of Shenmue I & II, and it’s easy to see how differently it would have turned out if it were made today.
Which brings me to Shenmue III. I stayed in the dark regarding this third game. I never expected much from it. The Kickstarter woes and the early bits of footage gave me little hope that it would be good. History was not kind to the Shenmue franchise, and in the years between my first time playing the originals and replaying them in 2020, I convinced myself that Shenmue really didn’t have anything to offer.
Obviously that changed a lot as I approached the end of replaying Shenmue II, with a copy of Shenmue III freshly installed and waiting. I was genuinely hyped up and excited! I knew Shenmue III could never be as ambitious as the originals on an indie game budget, but surely modern advances would smooth out some of that, right?
I’m not sure what happened along the way, but budget and technology limitations or not, the soul of Shenmue escaped before Shenmue III was completed. Years of fan expectations, Kickstarter money, and game industry changes mixed around in the minds of Yu Suzuki and team to create something almost utterly devoid of the old games’ charms.
Shenmue III embraces some of the worst aspects of modern games, while disregarding most of the advances that would have made the originals truly exceptional. The simple Virtua Fighter-inspired combat of the originals is replaced with something far worse: an RPG layer that enforces repetitive grinding.
Classic minigames return, like Lucky Hit and capsule toys, alongside new forms of gambling and odd jobs. However, while they were mostly optional before—added to the world to create a sense of place or enhance the story—they now exist as part of the gameplay loop and a relentless economy.
Here’s the thing: old Shenmue games didn’t have a “gameplay loop”. Certainly not in the “30 seconds of fun, repeated over and over”-style established by Halo and Bungie back in the day. Part of Shenmue’s appeal was its novelty. That Virtua Fighter combat I mentioned comprised maybe 10% of the original games. It was appealing because it was so robust, and yet it was used sparsely. Those capsule toys? Amazing that I could choose to collect every single mech from Virtual On, but there was never any great benefit to doing so.
Shenmue III is different. It is modern game design laid bare in the most vile way imaginable. Ryo is constantly burning through his health bar as he runs around town. He can’t fight or train on low health, so he must buy food constantly. Money is always in demand, because he always needs it for food or new moves. And he can’t ignore any part of the training->eating->buying->working->gambling->fighting loop because the story has hard roadblocks throughout that demand it.
Therefore rather than playing fucking Shenmue, you spend the majority of the game doing Videogames 2019, a soulless grind where you fill in XP bars and grow numbers for hours. The genuine, slice-of-life sensation of the old games is destroyed by the need to grind dull mini-games hundreds of times to “level-up your Kung Fu” or make an arbitrary amount of money.
Shenmue III begins immediately where Shenmue II left off, with Ryo and Shenhua traveling to mainland China and her small village. Shenmue I’s Japan would absolutely have arcade games and capsule toy machines, and so it made sense. But here? In a simple fishing village?
A true “for the fans” sequel to Shenmue I & II would throw away any and all fanservice if it didn’t make sense for the place Ryo found himself in. Instead Shenmue III is a mess of cheap mini-games shoved awkwardly into two towns that don’t feel authentic at all. All along the way awkward Kickstarter reward tiers and stretch goals are shoved in your face. Is that an authentic Chinese temple? No! It is a monument to the backers who helped fund the game. Is that some American tourist walking around? No, it’s just some white dude who paid to be in the game.
Shenmue III never lets you forget the many, many ways it was compromised.
If only the story at the heart of the game made all of this worthwhile. After all, Shenmue II left off at a pretty exciting place, with Ryo and Shenhua finding a mysterious temple and seemingly discovering magical powers. Yet that moment isn’t addressed, and the plot treads water focusing on an entirely new mystery. By the end of Shenmue III, Ryo and Shenhua’s story is no further along than it was when it begins, nor is their relationship.
There are small moments early on where Ryo and Shenhua come home after the day is through and ask each other about their lives. Here the two compare and contrast their experiences growing up in different countries, in urban vs. rural towns, and in entirely different cultures. It’s the best bit of character development in the game, and yet even this is marred by “fan-service” as the game sticks to the same voice actor and awkward cadence as the originals.
Reviews called Shenmue III a “strictly-for fans” experience that was worth the wait. Either I’m not a true fan or I take issue with that conclusion. After all, it was clear that the biggest problem with Shenmue was the way the story was delivered. To intentionally stick to that delivery, even going as far as tracking down the same voice actor years later, feels like some sort of sick joke.
I read a few articles after finishing the game, trying to understand what happened to create such a disaster. In one, Yu Suzuki tells the journalist he considered making Shenmue III a Telltale-style adventure game to cut back on the scope and just wrap up the story. Instead, he decided that fans deserved a full Shenmue experience. As a fan though, I’d take that alternate universe over this version of Shenmue III in a heartbeat.