Compared to Shenmue 3's characters we've taken the long way around. Whereas we've had to take the days one at a time since the second game's 'To Be Continued' ending in 2001, the same can’t be said of Ryo and the rest. Ryo’s quest to find the dragon mirror and avenge his father’s death at the hands of the mysterious Lan Di continues in the third game without missing a beat, as if no time’s passed between the two games at all.
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Sitting down to go hands-on with the game on PS4 we feel almost transported in time. It’s as though those 18 Shenmue-free years never happened. Yes, the new
game looks more beautiful than its predecessors thanks to the capabilities of the new hardware, and, yes, we're definitely holding a different controller – but without even thinking about it, we’re able to wrangle the game’s obtuse controls and jump right back into playing as if a year had passed instead of nearly 20.
That sensation might just end up being Shenmue 3's greatest strength and biggest weakness all rolled into one. There are no two ways about it: even though Shenmue 3 looks fairly pretty, it feels like an old game in a lot of ways. The graphics, while nice enough, aren't cutting-edge like those of the original games were when they launched; the controls don’t follow the default standards we're used to these days; and animation and dialogue is stiff and rigid. But we can’t help loving the hour we spend with the game. It's not in spite of those reasons – it's actually because of them.
Shenmue 3 can get away with feeling like an old game
Shenmue 3 has always been in a unique position. For years, it's been the game that never was. It's been the fabled next chapter in an unfinished story that everyone always expected would remain incomplete. And that’s why in 2015 everyone lost their minds at the news that the third chapter in the series was even being Kickstarted (and the developers raised millions of dollars more than they asked for in the process).
Because the game's always been a bit of a 'what if', it makes perfect sense that even releasing now, it harkens back to how the original games were designed. Playing Shenmue 3 is a strange experience; in a way it feels like a remaster of a game from the early 2000s that never actually existed, made with the old-fashioned sensibility that such a remaster would entail. While it might draw in people unfamiliar with the series, it slavishly reproduces the details of the first two games in a way that fans will love.
From the way Ryo slowly moves between drawers as he explores houses to the way he crouches down and slowly turns the crank on a capsule toy machine, this game feels right at home next to the originals. That isn't to say nothing is new (beyond the colourful visuals); combat is similar to how it was in the first two games but now feels like more of its own thing, and when you explore little red marks identify objects Ryo can interact with rather than you having to guess.
There also seem to be more specific areas where you have to go to train certain moves (like a one-inch punch) or stances (such as horse stance). These require Ryo to repeat an action in a minigame, for example tapping a button to make sure he achieves the perfect squat.
While we don’t see too much of the plot in our hands-on, we have a good amount of time to explore the rural Chinese village Ryo’s ended up in. We play casino games, chop wood to earn a little pocket change, and slowly converse with villagers (Ryo's original English voice actor, Corey Marshall, returns for the dub) to learn more about a mysterious bookie with a scar on his face. It’s slow and clunky – but at the same time oddly decadent.
Having recently replayed both the original games in their PS4 remastered editions I was reminded of how unique and compelling they are as mystery games that really force you to explore the world to find answers. I just want more of that, and I’m glad Shenmue 3 knows not to overreach. Shenmue 3 feels old. But that’s exactly how it needs to feel to properly capture the spirit of the incomplete, once-thought-abandoned tale.
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