Shenmue 3 is not for everyone. It’s wonderfully idiosyncratic, yet frustratingly laborious at times. It’s also awe-inspiring, occasionally ugly, and one of the most compelling games I’ve played on PlayStation 4. Make no mistake; Yu Suzuki’s revenge-driven, marital arts epic is a Shenmue game, and in that respect, hasn’t been made for newcomers in mind.
Most importantly however, it is exactly the type of game that Shenmue aficionados have been waiting for after 18 years.
Shenmue 3 PS4 Review
A True Love Letter To Fans Of This Decades Long Saga
To understand why Shenmue 3 is such a big deal, you have to acknowledge its history. The Dreamcast original launched in 1999 in Japan and a year later in the west, and at the time offered unprecedented freedom for an open-world RPG. People had their own schedules, day turned to night, and you could examine hundreds of in-game objects, from vital clues to the contents of Ryo’s sock drawer.
It was a stunner too, pushing the Dreamcast’s hardware to the limit and looking far better than any early PS2 game. The sequel expanded on the open-world setting, ramped up the combat even more and provided one of the biggest cliffhanger endings ever and then…well, nothing. The games didn’t pull in the numbers to recoup the budget, and Shenmue 3 remained stuck in development hell for over a decade.
So, yeah, you can see why it’s such a big deal for fans.
Shenmue 3 picks up literally where the previous game left off, right in that same cave that Ryo and Shenhua found themselves in what appeared to be a supernatural twist to the series. That’s downplayed a bit here, mind, and you soon find yourself returning to the picturesque village of Bailu to begin searching for Shenhua’s missing father, Yuan.
Obviously, creator Yu Suzuki isn’t equipped with the same budget as triple-A studios, and it does show. Characters have an almost plastic look about them, and I’m pretty sure one of the stonemasons Ryo spoke to was related to Jeff Tracy from Thunderbirds. Lip-synching is off at times, and folk sway robotically on the spot as you converse.
Yes, there’s an undeniable charm about it all, as if to recall its Dreamcast trappings. Characters retain an undeniable personality about them, from rambunctious children playing in the streets, wise Kung-Fu masters, and enthusiastic shopkeepers. Shenmue 3 has personality in spades, giving each location depth and character. It feels real, even if it doesn’t always look it.
Locations meanwhile are brimming with detail, thanks in no small part to the Unreal Engine 4‘s legwork. Early morning walks reveal sun-kissed meadows and glistening streams, while night time sees torches lit on roadsides, sending shadows dancing all over the place. Bailu is a tranquil place, oozing atmosphere from every pore; Naiwuo on the other hand is punctuated with grand temple and shrines, its streets bustling with shops and gambling outlets.
Make no mistake, Shenmue 3 can look gorgeous at times.
Developer Ys Net has opted for a totally uncompromising experience with Shenmue 3, and in doing so, sticks a middle finger up to modern gameplay conventions. Indeed, Playing Ryo’s latest adventure feels like opening a time capsule from 1999. Progression largely based on gathering clues to find your next lead, chatting with the locals until you speak to the right person, allowing Ryo to jot down the next step in his trusty notebook. Sound familiar?
Much like the original games, there’s an almost cathartic enjoyment to be had by indulging in the mundane. Ryo and spend most of his day wondering around without progressing the plot, picking up herbs to trade in for more cash, swelling his toy capsule collection, chopping wood to earn some dough, or sparring with local martial artists.
Returning home at the end of a day, you feel like you’ve accomplished something, even if you haven’t really done much. You’ve lived a day in Ryo’s shoes, and that is satisfying enough. When the plot does pick up, you’re compelled to move forward; Shenmue 3’s following-the-breadcrumbs style progression reward patience, and I was always excited to move to the next step and find out what happened next.
That’s not to say it doesn’t falter at times, as it does. Some quests can be obnoxiously slow and encourage a lot of grinding, whether that be earning a ton of Yuan to purchase an item that someone wants in exchange for info, or trying to find the right person to speak to without so much as a clue as to what they look like or where they are.
It’s not all flapping gums with the locals, though. You’ll also use L2 to enter the game’s first-person view mode to do some detective work, rummaging around ransacked houses and the like to look for clues. It’s a welcome change of pace, and one that Shenmue aficionados will no doubt be familiar with.
This is the classic, dusty Shenmue paradigm, warts and all.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of Shenmue 3 is that your stamina/health is one and the same. Merely running around the open world will knacker Ryo out, draining his health in the process. If you happen to run into a battle at this point, you’re as good as brown bread. To counter this, the young Hazuki must replenish his health by gobbling food — apples, garlic, bananas, whatever he can get his hands on — and that costs money.
It’s annoying at times, and there are times where you will have to constantly interrupt what you’re doing to chop some wood or gamble to earn some extra cash, so you can stuff your pockets with more grub. Still, you can extend your health by buffing your Endurance, which you can do by practicing various moves such as Horse Stance and One-Inch Punch at Dojos.
Speaking of which, Ryo’s Kung-Fu abilities are where Shenmue 3 has seen the greatest progress over its predecessors You’ll now pump experience into the plastered protagonist’s battle skills, either by simply sparring with local folk or actually getting into a ruck with resident thugs.
To raise your Attack however, you must level up a new move scroll; you can’t increase your prowess simply by battling, so if you’ve reached Master for all existing scrolls, then you’ll need to cough up the dough for a new one. It’s an odd design choice, and one that I feel is a little bit of a misstep, as it encourages further grinding for cash when you could simply just level up by fighting regularly.
Combat punctuates the main story as before, but you won’t actually find yourself forced into many battles compared to, say, Shenmue 2. When it does happen though, it’s usually pretty challenging. Gone are the dedicated Dodge and Throw buttons, meaning Ryo’s movement feels somewhat stiff and slow.
While it feels like a step back from Shenmue 2’s combat in this respect, slugging it out with bad guys still feels punchy and rewarding. Ryo has some impressive-looking techniques up his sleeves, and there’s an element of strategy involved as you aim to exploit holes in your opponent’s defence to block and counter at the right time. Plus, assigning your special moves to R2 and cycling through them with R1 helps a lot.
The Saga (Wait) Begins… Again
Fortunately, the ubiquitous QTEs that plagued the original games have been tone down somewhat, and they’re a little more forgiving this time around if you fail them. So, after 18 years, can Shenmue 3 possibly deliver on near-insurmountable expectations? Well, yes, and no. There’s no conclusion in sight for Ryo’s journey by the time the credits roll, but there’s some truly epic moments and interesting story beats that fans will absolutely lap up, including one heart-stopping moment that people have been waiting for.
While some gameplay choices are a bit hit and miss, and the story is frustratingly slow in places, Shenmue 3 is ultimately the fan love letter that you’ve been waiting for, and it’s clear Suzuki-san had that in mind from the beginning. When I read folk’s criticisms of Shenmue 3, they accuse it of failing to modernise the brand. But they’re missing the point. To do this would dilute the unique experience these games have to offer, and that’s something Suzuki never set out to do, something which I applaud.
Welcome back, Ryo — let’s just hope it’s not another 18 years until we meet again, eh?
Shenmue 3 is out now for PS4 and PC on the Epic Games Store.
Review code kindly provided by publisher.