Shenmue 3 is finally here. Who would have thought that Yu Suzuki was literally waiting for someone to say ‘please’ before releasing the third chapter in his magnum opus? Well, it’s here now, leaving us games critics with a massive question we almost daren’t ask: can it possibly live up to the incredible weight of expectation? The answer, for the majority of the time, is a resounding, unbelievable, ‘yes’. With both bells and knobs on.
The story resumes from the bizarre, curve-ball cliffhanger of Shenmue 2. If you remember, Ryo was in a cave deep in the forest of Guilin, staring at two massive carvings of the Phoenix Mirror and its twin, the Dragon Mirror. Well, after touching the central points of these carvings in unison, Shenhua and Ryo discover a secret passageway, emerging into a forgotten valley. But as soon as they get outside the cave, all hell breaks loose.
"Realism goes completely out of the window at the start of Shenmue 3"
Remember that bit in Shenhua’s poem about the dragon emerging from the Earth and dark clouds obscuring the heavens? Totally happens. That’s right, for all of the meticulous recreation of 1980s Yokosuka in the original, realism goes (briefly) completely out of the window at the start of Shenmue 3. And the result is spectacular.
With the sword added to the arena-based combat and Ryo discovering the ‘strength hidden within him’, there’s a distinct God of War vibe to the new fighting system, which has been brought up to date in astonishing fashion. As the swooping camera moves with breathtaking fluidity and directorial flair through the epic battlefields, PS4 truly shines, providing jaw-dropping, cinema-quality special effects.
Even so, the machine maintains 60fps, 1080p visuals as Ryo cleaves his way through swathes of mystical foes, all drenched in sumptuous specular lighting and advanced, ethereal smoke effects, leading up to a generation-defining showdown with the dragon. It’s incredible. You’ll likely wear out your share button taking screenshots; it really is that good.
At this point, I should point out that Xbox One’s version is (slightly) less spectacular. It still plays the same, but only manages 792.8564p and at somewhere between 30-40fps, with some screen tearing. As a result, it looks considerably rougher around the edges of both Ryo’s haircut and Joy’s nipples, the latter of which are modelled so gratuitously, they may be responsible for the majority of slowdown. It’s still a magnificent-looking game, but you can tell PS4 was the lead platform.
The move scrolls return, allowing you to learn new fighting techniques like the ‘double-fisted glans slap’ (must be a foreign one, that), before practicing and--eventually--mastering them. However, now there’s just as much chance of finding them secreted in the mountain environments as buying them in shops, making for an enjoyable treasure hunt.
There is a dojo or practice space in every main area, and Ryo is soon joined by Fukuharu-san, his sparring partner from Yokosuka. Sadly, it seems Ine-san passed away after Fuku-san accidentally mistook her for a croissant in a terrible breakfast accident, so he’s free to tag along for the ride. His dialogue is awful, but fortunately there isn’t much of it.
"You can still pick out quest-giving sailors in the crowd by their hats and stripy clothes"
The voice acting is deserving of special note, as it finally lays to rest the ghost of Shenmue 2’s English dub for Xbox, with believable, emotion-filled gravitas from Nolan North as Ryo and Troy Baker as Lan Di. In one smile-raising nod to the imperfect past, a beggar in the street calls after you: “No? OK, how about a game of lucky hit?” That’s just awesome.
After the barnstorming technical showpiece of the opening act, things once again calm down, as Ryo resumes his quest for revenge against Lan Di. However, as suggested by Yu Suzuki in recent interviews, Ryo’s path soon veers away from vengeance as he learns more about his father’s past. The new plotline sees Ryo and Lan Di actually working together, as they arrive in a brand new setting for the series: Venice.
Forget the procedural generation of the interiors of Shenmue 2. Every single shop and building in about a 2sq mile radius of central Venice has been rendered in its entirety. Suzuki and his team must have been developing this game for the entire time we’ve been waiting, because not one room I explored during this review was anything short of a showcase for CG rendering. It could act as an interactive holiday brochure. Heck, it could act as an interactive holiday full stop.
Outside of these architectural wonders, crowds of people fill the streets. You can still pick out quest-giving sailors in the crowd by their white hats and stripy clothes, though. It’s so realistic, you can forget about people putting up umbrellas when it rains. In Shenmue 3, they actually buy umbrellas, selecting individually-rendered 3D items off racks and buying them with fully-rendered coins from velvet purses. There’s nothing like it.
"It wouldn’t be Shenmue without the occasional clumsy moment to make you appreciate the brilliance of everything else"
Needless to say, there are achievements like ‘Maybe I should get another’ for collecting every capsule toy (there are 1987 of them) and ‘Ah… idiot’ for punching Fuku-san in his stupid face when he isn’t blocking properly. It’s a very knowing sequel, but it tempers its occasional self-referential humour with serious, award-worthy moments of supreme drama and reverie.
QTEs are mostly gone, although a few remain. If you thought the ‘crate carrying’ minigames in Shenmue 2 were tedious, just wait until you see the new canal sections when Ryo takes on a job as a Gondolier (no doubt we’ll be controlling that in Sonic & All-Stars Racing 3). But it wouldn’t be Shenmue without the occasional clumsy moment to make you appreciate the brilliance of everything else for the rest of the time.
For all the minor annoyances like old-school tank controls for moving Ryo and the fact there’s still unresolved sexual tension between Ryo and Nozomi, no other developer has captured the majesty and beauty of martial artistry like Yu Suzuki has in Shenmue 3. Yes, the plot is totally cuckoo, but you’ll go along with it, just to see what the master wants to show you next.
Sadly, the game can’t last forever and there is yet another ‘the story goes on’ at the end. I don’t know about you but, personally, I’m not sure I’ve got the nerves to wait another decade and a half for Shenmue 4. But at least Shenmue 3 is here, it’s real, it isn’t compromised in any way by modern gaming trends, and it’s absolutely wonderful. I suggest you buy three copies. If everyone does, perhaps that will actually pay for the cost of its development.