Review: Shenmue III (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • PC

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PS4 Physical Software
  • PS4 Slim
  • HDTV

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: Shenmue III
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (23.94 GB)
Release Date: November 19, 2019
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Ys Net
Original MSRP: $59.99 (USD)
ESRB Rating: T
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Shenmue III is the long awaited third installment of the storied Dreamcast series that fans have been eagerly anticipating since the second game originally launched eighteen years ago. After a record breaking Kickstarter campaign in 2015, introduced during Sony’s E3 conference by series director Yu Suzuki, Shenmue III is finally out. It wastes no time picking up immediately where Shenmue II left off in the 1987 Chinese village of Bailu.

For those who did not experience the original games, Shenmue III centers around one Ryo Hazuki. The first Shenmue opened with Ryo witnessing his father’s death at the hands of Lan Di and vowing to track him down and avenge his father’s death. Ryo traveled across Japan and well into China before meeting a destined ally in Ling Shenhua. The duo start off Shenmue III in Shehua’s home in Bailu Village as a new locale awaits Ryo on his quest for vengeance.

Shenmue has always had a unique gameplay style, and the developers at Ys Net have retained the same open-world/action-adventure essence of gameplay, but sprinkled in a few modern tweaks and quality of life improvements. Since the first two games were originally designed as single thumb-stick Dreamcast games, they there marred by quasi-tank controls. As a fan of the original games, I learned to tolerate and adapt to them, but I breathed an instant sigh of relief to see Shenmue III implement a contemporary dual stick movement control scheme.

Shenmue III retains the same gameplay flow as prior entries where Ryo spends his day exploring the world and updating his progress in a journal whenever he talks to a NPC and learns a clue for his next objective. In between objectives and working on finding Lan Di, Ryo has a whole world of activities and distractions at his disposal. One of the staples of the series is Ryo having a lot mini-games and jobs to take a break from the greater quest. Most of them return and new ones debut for Shenmue III.

Ryo now has a constant life meter he has to keep replenished by buying food from the many shops in town, and there are many ways to earn money. Ryo can get a job splitting wood or, later on, yes, driving a forklift (although in a much limited capacity and unfortunate lack of forklift races when compared to the first game). There are also many gambling options available, and fishing debuts in the series as another way for Ryo to earn income. I experimented with them all and found wandering and picking herbs and trading in specific herb sets to net Ryo the most money, but appreciated the diversity of options available.


There are plenty of mini-games found in the several arcades throughout Shenmue III. Regrettably, since this is no longer a Sega published game, there are no longer vintage 80s Sega arcade games available to play anymore (although there are some Sega easter eggs noticeable in the forms of posters and other little secrets to those with a keen eye). There are still a bunch of old and new mechanical parlor games that are a welcomed form of entertainment, and I found myself occasionally returning to them in order vanquish personal bests.

The last major parts of gameplay are the battles and action sequences, and they transpire in two ways. Most fights and clashes with opponents take place in Shenmue III’s fighting engine. It feels like a more polished version of the previous game’s engine and not as loose. Ryo can learn and purchase new moves and now assign them to R2 for a quicker attack input. Battles felt a little unpredictable in prior games and I felt more in control of Ryo in most fights here. Ryo can ‘master’ his new moves he acquires throughout the game in sparring sessions and also level up his endurance on practice dummies. I am glad they made training a semi-regular part of Ryo’s daily routine because the final antagonists ramp up in difficulty and I came in prepared with a highly-trained Ryo. I can see if one neglects training, as the game does not necessarily recommend it until very late in the story, and you can find yourself well overmatched. Luckily, there are adjustable difficulty settings available anytime during gameplay.

I played the entirety of Shenmue III on normal and the only part of gameplay I got hung up on were Shenmue’s vintage Quick Time Events (QTEs). I never had that much trouble with them in the first two games, but the way the QTE prompts are animated in Shenmue III is they have a circular meter surrounding the flashing button prompt that rapidly fills up, and I found myself constantly distracted by that meter animation and failed roughly half of the QTEs in the game. If there is any upside to this it is that the QTE fail animations are intentionally over-the-top hilarious, and there are frequent checkpoints in QTE sequences so there is no repeating vast stretches of gameplay.

While Shenmue III does feature some quality of life improvements like auto-save, manual save anywhere, and limited fast travel opportunities, they are all implemented to varying degrees of success. The manual save anywhere option is tucked away in a couple of sub-menus, and if not coming across it early on, some may be led to believe that saving can only be done when Ryo goes to bed at the end of his in-game day. With such a huge world, I appreciate it when Ryo gets the option to fast travel to the next objective whenever prompted to, but it happens sparingly. After putting in a lot of time with Shenmue III, I got pretty familiar with the world and was able to traverse effectively, but the locales open up exponentially in the back half of the game, and it is in the back half when I found fewer and fewer fast travel options presented. I can see how this can add up and frustrate newer players to the series.

Visuals:
The original Dreamcast games sported state of the art graphics for their time back in 2000/2001. Flash forward to 2019 on a Kickstarter budget, along with some additional investing from Deep Silver, and that is not the case anymore. Shenmue III is a much nicer looking version of Shenmue, but as you can see in the screenshots, it is comparatively about a generation behind the latest upper tier releases on PS4. After replaying the remasters, I do appreciate the jump in quality of the character models and huge open world available, but there is no hiding it is a few steps behind the competition.


Audio:
Ryuji Iuchi returns to deliver another masterful score for Shenmue III. There are a plethora of standout selections, and like past games nearly every shop and environment has its own unique theme. I would be remiss not to touch on the polarizing voice acting here, as Shenmue newcomers will likely be thrown off by the voice acting performances. The original Shenmue games had an unprecedented amount of voice acting with their wide array of NPCs, and the way the performances were stitched together gained a cult hit ‘so bad it’s good’ reputation. Interviews with the voice actors for Shenmue III stated they were instructed to retain the ‘charm’ of the voice acting of the original games with intentional stoic and stilted performances. As a fan of the original games, I loved how the voice performances came off, but I can also see how newer players diving in fresh would be taken completely aback by them and quickly switching to Japanese voiceovers instead.

It is worth pointing out, however, there are some perplexing moments from Ryo’s voiceovers by voice actor Corey Marshall. Either he must have been ill or he was absent and they had someone else fill in for him on some recording sessions, because it can be jarring to hear someone else completely different voice Ryo from time-to-time.

Online/Multiplayer:
This is a single player only game with no online component.

Conclusion:
Qualms aside, I somehow yet again became re-immersed in another Shenmue world and found myself returning to old Shenmue habits. I would plan my daily routine of at least knocking out so much primary narrative progression, X amount of time working or acquiring items to sell for income, X amount of time training Ryo’s combat skills, and whatever remaining time playing mini-games or getting lost exploring the world and talking to NPCs. I very much enjoyed this process, and am glad I spent the past year replaying the HD remasters of the first two games released on current systems to get refreshed on the plot. There is an abbreviated recap movie available from the main menu hitting the broad strokes of the key points of the previous games that is sufficient enough to get you up to speed, but considering it has been eighteen years since the second game, and if you are willing to invest the time to get the most out of Shenmue III, I highly suggest replaying the HD remasters. Rest assured, Yu Suzuki squeezed in many callbacks and references throughout, with several poignant moments in the final hours that especially struck me and got me already anticipating the next chapter in Ryo’s saga.

While I am obviously an ardent fan of the franchise, there is no denying there are some prevalent gameplay issues with the core game. The manual save being hidden and not keeping a focus on Ryo’s training until late in the game being key among them. Being used to some unique elements of Shenmue before, I was able to overcome them, but I could see them, combined with the one-of-a-kind gameplay of Shenmue, being a turn off to others. That said, being a big fan of the series and waiting eighteen years for the third game, I am largely gratified with how Shenmue III turned out as another true Shenmue experience, quirks and all. Past fans can rest safely knowing this is the game you have been waiting eighteen years for, while others I heavily advise to check out some clips or streams to be prepared what you are getting yourself in to.

Score:

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Gruel

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