There's only one thing you need to know about Shenmue 3 and that is that – somehow – it is actually Shenmue 3. Given this is 2019, a time where a universally loved series can be destroyed in the first five minutes of a gritty sequel (I'm looking at you, Terminator: Dark Fate), the chances of a new Shenmue being anything like the Dreamcast originals seemed impossibly slim. Well, incredibly, what I've found is the polar opposite. Shenmue 3 is so authentically Shenmue that if there was a way to go back in time to 2002, put all of this game's dialogue, voices, character designs, mechanics, and music into the Dreamcast's engine, nobody would have questioned it. They might have even complained that it's 'just more Shenmue'. For longtime fans of the series, this realisation is decades in the making.
From a newcomer's point of view, however, the game undoubtedly sucks. In the first hour of Shenmue 3 that I was able to play, precisely nothing of note actually happens. The game begins where Shenmue 2 left off, you are handed control as you begin to walk into Bailu Village. The next hour is spent there, talking to people with gloriously deep-wrinkled faces who spout utter nonsense, all fully voiced for every single line of dialogue. Corey Marshall who voices main man Ryo Hazuki sounds eerily similar to his self of 20 years ago, again lending to the feeling that somehow this is a game from 2002, just dressed up in Dreamcast 2 graphics. If that had ever happened, it would very likely have looked like this.
Even the 'quality-of-life' enhancements feel dated. Ryo now walks wherever you push the left stick, the zoom feature on the left trigger can be used while moving and now has different levels set on a click rather than based on analogue depression. Even Shenmue 2's 'wait' feature has been improved, allowing you to jump not only time but also space if you need to be somewhere at a set point in the future. It's a welcomed feature, but it isn't revolutionary. Given how dated everything – from the quest design, to the writing, and the world – feels, these improvements are small in the grand scheme of things. This is undoubtedly a game made for players that have been waiting for 18 years to continue the adventures of Ryo Hazuki, rather than an opportunity to bring new fans into the series.
Retaining the spirit of Shenmue
Other big new additions include herbs; these are found growing in certain locations, and can be picked and collected before giving them to a medicine man in the village who wants a set amount of various ingredients to cook something up. He also gives you a map for free so you have a better chance of finding more. Gloriously, there are capsule toy machines, some of which contain chibi versions of Shenmue characters. I got a Nozomi! There are also lures in another capsule machine, which can be collected in sets too, but does beg the question: will there be a fishing minigame in Shenmue 3? That's to be answered another day, sadly.
Edge Magazine interviews Yu Suzuki to see if, after two decades and a $7m kickstarter campaign, the long-awaited sequel can deliver on its promise.
There is a dojo in the village which plays host to a couple of friendly fights with people who want to test your abilities, the first of which features the only QTE I saw in the demo. This repeatedly flashes up a sequence of button presses, which teaches you how to perform a new move. Successful completions fill up a mastery bar at the bottom of the screen, so it looks like Ryo can grow as a martial artist, just as before. The fighting doesn't really feel like Virtua Fighter at all at this point, the game even going so far as to suggest you just 'push the buttons' and see what happens. But this being a game from the Virtua Fighter creator himself, it's very likely there's more depth to the fighting that will be revealed with time. At least it is definitely fully 3D as before, as you free-roam around the combat area before landing your hurricane kicks.
Your heart will leap with joy/horror as an NPC shouts: "How about a game of Lucky Hit?" I mean, it used to be so annoying but now it's been almost two decades, you'd better give me that damn ball-bearing right now, mister. But Lucky Hit is no longer the hottest game on the block. Oh no, prepare to lose your mind playing PAIL TOSS. Yep, you guessed it; you have three rocks and you have to throw them into pails (buckets) by pressing X when a FIFA-style trajectory curve hovers over the precise spot. If that sounds rubbish, that's because it definitely is. Shenmue 3's minigames – that I've encountered so far, at least – are ridiculously basic to the point of being incomparable to pretty much any other modern game's offerings. If you're expecting something like the fun and games found in the Yakuza games you're going to be disappointed but, then, in a way, that's also why they are so absolutely perfect.
One for the fans
Newcomers will undoubtedly wonder what all the fuss is about. They'll notice the slight hint of angular geometry in the bridge as you enter the village. The way the dialogue is so stilted and how Ryo repeats back everything he's just been told, out loud, so that it's obvious he Just Learned Something. Probably 25% of the dialogue is Ryo saying "I see". That may be a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. There's absolutely nothing in this first hour that panders to modernity, which is absolutely the right way to do this sequel.
Indeed, the only thing that is genuinely modern about Shenmue 3 is the visuals, which are looking rather lovely thanks to Unreal Engine 4. Ryo and Shenhua both look much more like they used to after those dodgy early shots scared everyone, and although there is a slight 'clean' feeling to everything now that the pixelly edges are gone, it definitely has that old Yu Suzuki beauty. Dialogue scenes feature a magnificent depth-of-field effect, and while the lip syncing looks pretty bad, there is more naturalistic body language now even in standard dialogue scenes. Visually, while this is still a preview – so it may be optimised for launch – there are some frame pacing issues when you pan the camera, and the grass does appear out of nowhere in the middle-distance at present. But that doesn't matter when there are so many butterflies. Shenmue 3 is beautiful, in its own little way.
So basically in this first hour, nothing interesting happens in the story. You go off asking after some thugs, in a manner very reminiscent to a certain Sailor-related episode which we won't get into here. Ryo moves and behaves like a sort of robotic man-child. It feels like a game from 2002. And that's exactly why I love it and cannot contain my excitement. Fans of Shenmue are about to get something else that pretty much nobody else is getting at this point in time: a sequel to a much-loved classic that doesn't destroy its legacy. I've no idea how this has happened, but I daren't question it. It's ALMOST HERE.
Shenmue 3 is set to launch on PC and PS4 on November 19, 2019