Sunday, September 15, 2019

Hands-On Play of the Shenmue III Demo at TGS 2019

Through good fortune, and with the invaluable assistance of certain people behind the scenes for the arrangements, I was granted the chance to try out the demo for Shenmue III at the Tokyo Game Show. It's a game so many have been waiting for: one which represents years of hopes, disappointments and above all an undying belief from the fans that this game would one day come to fruition. And unbelievably, here I was about to guide Ryo around inside the world of Shenmue once again. This is a brief account of my experience.

Spoiler warning: this post describes some of the places and things that are encountered during the Shenmue III demo.


The Shenmue III logo was there on the screen with an image of Ryo and Shenhua standing together with the background of the cave. And these words were my invitation to enter the newly-realized world of Shenmue again, closing a gap of almost 20 years.

It was hard to believe I was there, in a room at the top floor of a hotel near the 2019 Tokyo Game Show event center, seated in front of one of four PCs in the room that were loaded up with the Shenmue III demo.

The set-up at my table consisted of a PC, screen, Xbox 360 style controller, headphones and a full-color guide booklet for Shenmue III of around 30 pages. Standing against a wall nearby there was also a large vertical banner summarizing the most useful actions (photography of this was not permitted).

I was informed that play time had been set to a 45-minute limit (the same as at the recent Gamescom), and without further instruction I was left to begin. I placed the headphones on my head, took up the controller and felt immediately at home as the notes of a piano playing the Shenmue theme over an orchestral accompaniment flooded into my ears.

The adventure is about to begin
And then I pressed a button and the screen faded out. The demo play had begun!

Yu Suzuki has mentioned elsewhere that the demo takes place on the second day after Ryo and Shenhua leave the cave, and it involves a small quest to find a man with a scar on his face. At the start, a short cut scene plays with Shenhua suggesting they split up - she will go on ahead while Ryo will investigate the current area. She runs off, at which point the cut scene ends and you are in control of Ryo (Shenhua is no longer visible).

In the demo room, three of the four PCs were running the demo with Japanese and the last with English. I was playing the demo with Japanese voice audio and the voices of both characters fitted perfectly. Masaya Matsukaze has brought the Japanese voice of Ryo back to life with a superb performance, and I didn't feel any hint of the passage of time in real life since the previous games.

At the demo's start, Ryo was standing on a path at the edge of a river, with masses of  colorful wild flowers along the river's edge. With the analog stick, Ryo looked about him, and I drank in the scenery - up at the sky where small clouds were moving lazily, at the flowers where numerous butterflies flitted about, and along the water's edge where the frames of small wooden dilapidated boats lay, overrun with vegetation. The graphics were displayed fluidly and responsively throughout the game.

Near the location where the demo starts, at Bailu village. Old wooden boats among the wildflowers at the side of the river.
The ambient audio adds significantly to the atmosphere. Near the river, the splashing and roar of the rapids flowing could be heard, and as Ryo walked along the sounds of insects buzzing, frogs croaking and birds singing create an amazing sense of the natural environment.

Although the path beckoned ahead, I wandered alongside the river. Ryo was able to walk freely through grassy areas, although he did not attempt to scramble over boulders or up rock faces. Further along, at the edge of the river, I came to a small sign, and used a trigger to zoom up on it just like in the original games. It had a symbol of a fish on it. Ryo made a comment that it looked like a good place to fish, although no option was given, presumably as he does not have any equipment.

An invisible boundary prevented me from guiding Ryo into the river, but I did come across shallow puddles of water in the grass that Ryo was able to walk through, his steps splashing the water's surface just as you'd expect.

Ryo moves through the landscape seamlessly, and I did not observe any of the full-screen style loading screens like in the first two games. Music also accompanies certain areas. Reminiscent of the way it is handled in Shenmue II, the music track changes as you traverse through different areas, gradually fading out and a new tune fading in as you move on.

I paid a visit to the riverside gambling enclosure that we have seen in released footage, and couldn't resist a game of Lucky Hit (one miss and one win) and Turtle Racing. The turtle racing involved tapping the indicated controller button as fast as possible - and this would change from time to time, so keeping an eye on the screen is important. Happily, my turtle gained a good lead and won by a wide margin! I didn't find my fingers were particularly tired by the effort, so efficient pressing may be the key here.

Following the path, up ahead I came across some cows in a fenced area, chewing away placidly on the grass around them. Nearby, some well-used farming tools lay on a low bench. While Ryo wasn't able to interact with these, this is the kind of attention to detail that really exhibits the Shenmue essence.

The Tao Get Store. I took some time to investigate the cows (they were more interested in the grass).
Before entering the "Tao Get" Store nearby, I wandered around the side, noting details such as the animal skins stretched out to dry in the sun. Around the back of the shop, I noticed some red markers among the vegetation. Zooming on these revealed them to be indicating the location of collectible herbs, and at the press of a button Ryo reached down to add them to his collection. I smiled to hear the familiar sound effect on obtaining a new item that players of the the original games will know well.

Back at the front of the shop, I bought a couple of capsule toys from the capsule machine (as usual, Ryo was not overly excited to score a tennis racket and a model excavator) and picked up a couple of maps which claimed to reveal the location of various herbs growing in the area.

Inside, I browsed the items on display and, as with the herbs earlier, objects that you are able to examine more closely are marked with a small indicator: Ryo remarked in surprise at finding a row of Russian matryoshka dolls here in Bailu village. Ryo also crouches down to open the doors of cupboards to see what is inside when you investigate them (strong Shenmue vibes here as well).

With the time limit always in the back of my mind, I spoke to the shop keeper (Ryo of course asked whether he had seen the man with a scar on his face) and enquired about the possibility of part-time work as advertised outside the shop on a banner. This led to the start of a wood-chopping mini-game, with Ryo turning from side to side as he holds an ax above, and attempts to cleanly split the chunk of wood in front of him. Having heard rumors of a way to "cheat" at this mini-game (mentioned by Huber on Easy Allies) by pressing the button as soon as the next block was set, I tried the technique, but it seems this loophole may have been fixed: Ryo now no longer always starts facing the block directly, so careful timing is needed. It is harder than I had expected, but it is rewarding to hear the music track that kicks in after several clean splits in succession and continues to play, dying away on your next miss.

Unfortunately the demo does not allow Ryo to visit most of these places yet.
I decided to hurry on (as Shenhua would say) up the path which led me to the Bailu village square, with the familiar houses, the village well, and a group of children training their martial arts movements. One seemed slightly annoyed when I interrupted him to ask about the man with a scar, and went back to training again. Being Shenmue, I had to try knocking at the door of a couple of houses, and in both cases the Shenmue feels continued as Ryo commented that it seemed no one was at home - I wouldn't want it any other way!

On the other side of the village square, the village's tall wooden bell tower can be seen, but the demo did not allow me to progress further. Later on in the demo, I retraced my steps and walked up a mountain path to reach the dojo where I tried the One-Inch Punch and the Horse Stance (I sent Ryo toppling over backwards a couple of times).

As the time went on (one hour in Shenmue III passes by in 4 minutes of real time), the light gradually grew dimmer and eventually fires appeared in the braziers standing around the village. And, to my delight, a short cut scene played, echoing the first two games, to mark dusk.

It was not too much longer before the screen faded out and a message came up to signal the end of my game play time. It seemed to pass by all too quickly, but from this brief demo play I was sure of one thing: this feels like Shenmue through-and-through. The attention to depicting items and animals that make the world feel lived-in is there; the graphics and sound are remarkably detailed and atmospheric, and there are several little nostalgic touches (such as the nightfall scene) that are sure to make Shenmue fans smile as they play.

However Shenmue III is not just a game that merely relies on the player already being a Shenmue fan. It has its own charm and attraction and it is careful not to assume prior knowledge. I think new players will also be drawn into its world and hopefully many more new fans of the series will be born.

Given the time-limit in place for the demo, it was necessary to choose which aspects to focus on while playing, and I decided to go exploring as much as I could, not attempting to complete the given scenario involving the man with a scar on his face.

As an example, with more time I would have liked to investigate the fighting aspect more. However this chance will be here soon for those who have backed a PC trial game reward tier. I cannot wait!

And, just for the record, I did successfully locate the man with a scar on his face, who challenged me to show him my martial arts skills - and as expected, I was beaten soundly despite following the helpful on-screen advice to mash the buttons. I'll seek him out again in the trial version (if he shows up there) once Ryo has had time to work on his "kung fu".

I hope you enjoyed this short write-up of my time playing the Shenmue III demo. 

While at TGS 2019, I was also able to interview Yu Suzuki himself. Watch out for it in a future post!

  • While waiting for Shenmue III, why not try out the recently-released fan-made app called Suka Pass. It recreates the original Shenmue Passport experience for mobile devices and can be downloaded for free (Android & iOS) from the Suka Pass website.

Become a Patron!


  1. Thank you so much, all this sounds awesome and amazing ! Can't wait !

  2. Great write up! I can’t wait to explore this myself too!

    1. Thanks very much! I can't wait to try the fishing in the full game too. :)

  3. As always a brilliant read Switch, I love the attention to detail in your post. What a memory you have there for all the small things from the experience. Fingers crossed the backer demo drops shortly and we can all have a pop at the man with the scar on his face :)

    1. I made sure to start writing it up as soon as I could, for fear of forgetting the details. Yes, the backer demo could drop any day now... exciting stuff!

  4. One detail I loved about the original Shenmue games is how Ryo shifts his weight from his right leg to his left once standing still for a period of time. Is this also mimicked in this demo? I understand it is still WIP and could be added later.

    Another detail I loved regarding this is even when you zoom onto a sign you see the camera pivot left and right to showcase this weight shift Ryo does. These are the type of details most won't care about but I believe it all adds to the level of immersion.

    Congrats on being able to try the demo btw :)

    1. Thanks Jc! That's a great question. I'm trying hard to remember whether he does the weight-shifting in the demo. I don't recall seeing it, but that's probably because I was always looking around or moving around and may not have left Ryo standing still for more than a second or two!

  5. I can't wait to play this for myself!!