Friday, December 6, 2019

Shenmue III Review by Daniel Mann

Guest contributor Daniel Mann gives his thoughts and verdict on Shenmue III.

⚠Potential Spoilers!⚠

This review has been carefully written to avoid any major story spoilers, but be aware that there are brief references to some of the characters, locations and activities in the game.

If you had told me twelve years ago that I would finally be playing Shenmue III in 2019, I would have looked at you sadly and said “stop yanking my chain already.” But incredibly, here we are in 2019 and not only have I played it, but I have also completed it. Days removed from witnessing the final cut scene of Shenmue III and here I sit processing the journey I’ve just taken. After 45 hours with the game, I confess that I’m left with far more questions than answers but the one thing that holds true in my heart is this: even after 18 years of waiting, Shenmue III still retains the same charm and ambition that made me fall in love with the first two games way back when.

After 18 years dormant, Shenmue returns to prominence thanks to the help of Kickstarter and over $6 million dollars raised by an eager fanbase who wouldn’t let it die. Despite the long 18 years of waiting, the story literally picks up mere moments after the end of Shenmue II.

We rejoin our unlikely heroes Ryo and Shenhua as they (finally) depart the cave and head straight into Bailu village. Here we are immediately informed by the local villagers that a group of thugs known only as the Red Snakes have been ransacking the village in desperate search of the Phoenix Mirror. We also discover that the same group of thugs have kidnapped Shenhua’s father -- Mr. Yuan -- in their desperate search. What follows is a fairly simple yet compelling search and rescue mission that spans across the rustic yet utterly charming Bailu Village and the sprawling port-side town of Niaowu.

Along the way, Ryo once again seeks out the help of various martial arts masters including the likes of a charming drunkard known as Mr. Sun, a man whose only concern in life is that of a hot meal and a bottle of plum wine to go with it. For any Virtua Fighter fans out there, one can’t help but look at him and instantly be reminded of Shun Di, which is only fitting considering the Virtua Fighter RPG roots of Shenmue.

Unfortunately, though, most of these side characters fall on the underdeveloped side: some of them are a little too one-dimensional while others show great promise but are left unexplored.

While none of these new faces hold the same gravitas as Xiuying from Shenmue II, they are none-the-less charming in their own right and fit right into the Shenmue universe with ease.

The story of Shenmue III is a surprisingly simple one that doesn’t really do too much to explain some of the burning questions that fans have speculated on for 18 years. Come the end of the story, it does set up a potentially epic Shenmue IV, but still, I was rather surprised by just how little the story actually develops certain details regarding pre-existing questions.

The real heart and soul of the game, though, lies with Ryo and Shenhua. During our stay in Bailu, we are privy to a host of optional nightly conversations shared between the two. These optional conversations evoke the conversations shared in the long walk from Guilin to Bailu near the end of Shenmue II, where the player can choose to respond to Shenhua’s line of questioning with an array of responses, allowing the player to shape Ryo in their own vision.

For the most part, we’re used to seeing Ryo as a rather stoic hero whose one goal has been to take vengeance in the name of his father. Yet if you choose to engage in these conversations then you will get to see a whole other side of Ryo as he brings up topics such as his childhood, his strict upbringing under his father's watchful eye, his friends in Yokosuka, the many cultural similarities and differences between Yokosuka and Bailu Village, his deceased mother and so on. If you keep engaging in these nightly conversations, you will eventually even get to play a very charming and amusing game with Shenhua that is well worth it.

Most of these conversations are of the simple “getting to know you” type of chit chat with only a few story-related clues sprinkled within, but I was very much taken by them. I was completely captivated and left eagerly awaiting my opportunity to engage with Shenhua on a nightly basis. How many games allow you to simply sit back, relax and chat mindlessly for hours on end with another NPC about mostly trivial things like cultural differences? It’s yet another example of what makes Shenmue so completely and utterly unique in the first place.

Shenmue III plays exactly the same as the previous games. The player will engage in long stretches of detective work hunting down clues usually by talking to the various residents of either Bailu or Niaowu. When you’re not wearing your detective hat, you will occasionally come across an action beat that will either be a standard QTE event or a free form fight.

Being that Shenmue III was developed using Unreal Engine 4, gone is the Virtua Fighter engine that once powered the first two games and in its place is a brand new fighting engine developed from the ground up. This fighting engine is slightly different but somewhat familiar.

As opposed to the simple punch, kick, throw and evade setup that the original games implemented, Shenmue III now ties jabs, uppercuts, knee strikes and kicks to the four face buttons with block on the left trigger. Moves are now pulled off by inputting dial-a-combos on the face buttons. Players also have access to a hot-key on the right trigger which they can use to assign a certain move to allow for quicker input.

Beating Gold Tiger

Familiar fan favorites such as Tom’s Roundhouse Kick and Delin’s Brutal Uppercut have all returned alongside some impressive new move scrolls that can be obtained from the various stores found across Bailu and Niaowu. Other changes include locking the camera behind Ryo and allowing for full 360 movement on the analog stick. You can also side step with a flick of the analog stick.

Unfortunately throws and counters have been sacrificed due to budget constraints so familiar favorites such as Swallow Flip and Machine Gun Fist are sorely missed. Without the Virtua Fighter engine powering it, the animations are rather limited to say the least. It all relies on rather simple ragdoll physics for impact and canned animations for movesets. Since there are no throws to break guard, YS Net has wisely implemented a guard meter in place to prevent spamming the guard button.

The minuscule tutorial at the beginning of the game doesn’t really explain any of this and instead encourages the player to simply “mash the face buttons” in hope of something good happening, which I feel was a bit of a mistake on the developers’ behalf considering the AI actively blocks and punishes button mashing more often than not. The game’s combat is at its very best when you approach it with a bit of tact and mindfulness instead of just aimlessly mashing and spamming big moves.

Virtua Fighter purists will no doubt be disappointed with the changes, but the new system is not without its charms either. It’s something of a mix between Yakuza, Virtua Fighter and Jade Empire. It’s surprisingly challenging and rewards looking for openings and chances to punish, especially on harder difficulties. Despite its shortcomings, the foundations for something greater are here and hopefully the development team will get another opportunity to refine it even further.

Alongside the new fighting system is a strong emphasis on daily training. Keeping in line with the Wude principle of GON (train every day without neglect), the game encourages you to train on a daily basis in order to raise stats for the newly implemented RPG-like leveling system.

The interesting thing about this is the way in which the game deals out XP. In most games, you typically battle and earn XP by winning said battle; Shenmue III, on the other hand, completely subverts this philosophy and instead puts a strong emphasis on training. You only gain XP by training. Training in the game equates to a handful of mini games and sparring matches.

An example of one such mini game is the horse stance, where you mash a button to keep Ryo from falling over while practicing the physically-punishing horse stance in order to raise endurance stats. Or you can spar against the various martial artists you meet in your travels in order to level up your individual moves and attack stats. It’s a fascinating subversion of game mechanics that keeps in line with the narrative philosophy of the Wude.

When you’re not playing detective or fighting, you’ll no doubt be out in the open world earning or spending money. Shenmue III is certainly not lacking in things to do. For a smaller budgeted game, it is genuinely impressive just how densely packed with detail its world is.

Familiar fan favorites such as the Pachinko-inspired Lucky Hit make their return. They are also accompanied by some new mini games such as the cute and surprisingly addictive turtle racing. If gambling isn’t your thing, then you can simply make money by collecting and selling the many herbs growing throughout the habitat of both Bailu and Niaowu. If that isn’t your thing, then why not spend a lazy afternoon by a water hole fishing for a couple of hours? Or why not go and help the local shopkeep chop some wood to pass the time? There’s no shortage of things to do in the open world in order to earn money to spend at your own leisurely recreation - whether it be to complete your capsule toy collection, buy new moves or what-not.

The biggest overall change is the way in which the game handles its economy. Everything is centered on integration. For instance, if you collect an entire set of capsule toys this time around you are free to walk to a pawn store and exchange that collection for either cash or a new move scroll..It is openly encouraging you to interact with every last inch of its world in every way. The words “take your time” have never been more applicable than they are in reference to Shenmue III. You will only get as much out of this world as you put into it.

Much like the previous games, arcades also make their return. Unfortunately, Space Harrier, Outrun and Hang On are absent, presumably due to licensing issues, but in their place is an abundance of new arcade machines made specifically for Shenmue III. Some are mechanical in nature -- such as a simple driving game that is a clear nod to the 1969 electro-mechanical arcade game Grand Prix -- to a fully-fledged parody of Virtua Fighter that is surprisingly addictive and fun to play..

Chobu Chan Fighter

The locales of Bailu and Niaowu are surprisingly gorgeous given the limited budget. Bailu embodies a simple communal charm of residents who will gladly scratch one another's backs to make life work. Life here is simple as the village folk go about their day-to-day lives. Kids play in the sun-meadows under the traditional hyper saturated AM2-style blue skies or casually sit on the dock of a river with their feet dipped in the water chatting away with friends while the adults chip in to help one another out by either farming or attending to livestock.

Bailu is brimming with attention to detail. For instance, at one point I found myself wasting at least half an in-game day just reading the various Ema (wishing plaque) messages at a local shrine. It’s all very tranquil and lived-in.

There are moments throughout where I was in awe at the ambiance on display. A simple downpour of rain is actually a rather beautiful sight to behold in Bailu, especially when it is accompanied by a hazy orange glow in the air. It really goes a long way to convey a sense of humidity. Then there was the simple joy of just casually watching the falling blossoms of the Shenmue tree float gently in the wind while departing Shenhua’s house each morning. It all adds to a rather nostalgic and almost melancholic feeling that Bailu has going in spades.

Niaowu is the polar opposite of Bailu: a sprawling port side town that at first glance gives vibes of Wan Chai but, on closer inspection, plays host to some rather beautiful traditional Chinese temples. It’s a real looker at times.

Unfortunately the rough edges rear their literal ugly heads in some of the truly unique NPC designs. There’s a bit of an inconsistency in character design. Some look rather realistic and almost lifelike. Meanwhile, others border on caricature. I can’t say it bothered me too much, but it is noticeable and it does stand out in contrast to the beautiful environments at hand.

The defining statement I would apply to Shenmue III as a whole is that in many ways it is punching way above its weight. As strong as the opening half is, the latter half of the game doesn’t quite maintain the same charm or momentum, at least until the very end (which has proven rather divisive among fans to say the least). I personally fall more on the side of kind of loving it as a whole though, even with its many notable shortcomings.

And yet, despite the shortcomings, I am still pleasantly surprised by just how much Yu Suzuki and his team have managed to pull off with the limited funds. Through and through, this is very much the full-on Shenmue experience I’ve been dreaming off for all those years. The wild ambition still remains. Sure, I have my issues with the game: it’s story gets bogged down with too much filler and not enough killer. In some ways though, I believe our true long held expectations for Shenmue III could probably never have been fully met. But I am genuinely pleased as to just how much it has lingered on my mind since completing it.

How many games can you honestly say have the guts to simply let you talk to another character as if they’re a real person with real hopes, real dreams and real ambitions? How many games have the guts to be as ambitious as to present the mundane and sometimes boring in-between slices of life that accompany the action beats? How many games out there have the strength of their own conviction to present an epic saga that is still in no-way close to being done even under the threat of financial failure?

Just as much as Shenmue 1 and 2 were, Shenmue III continues to be a journey with grand ambitions at its core. This chapter is a solid continuation in a martial arts epic unlike any other seen in gaming today. But the real strength of Shenmue has always been in its world building and even if the story of III may waver at times, the world building remains as consistently-strong as it ever was. Every locale has a reason to be and a story waiting to tell in the detail alone.

This series has always been about retracing the footsteps of your fathers past and piecing the puzzle together bit by bit from the many unreliable sources that come your way. While its overall narrative may still be nowhere near completion and even though this chapter never quite manages to reach the heights of Shenmue II, it still has a lot going for it. It’s less focused on action and more focused on looking inwards. Even with the lack of budget, those grand ambitions still remain and its heart is most definitely in the right place.

Even if you don’t like Shenmue or find that Shenmue III simply isn’t for you, I think it warrants applause none-the-less. It’s a passion project through and through.

Playing Shenmue III is literally a dream come true for this long-term fan and all I can say in closing is “Bring on Shenmue IV!” Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 18 years to catch up again with Ryo and his friends.

-- Daniel M

About the Author

Daniel Mann has been studying Japanese for a little over 5 years and since, has been occasionally flexing his new-found muscle with various translations and scanlations. 

Daniel is also an avid Shenmue fan and has been following the series since the game first released on the Dreamcast back in the year 2000. A long time lurker of the Shenmue Dojo forums, he finally registered an account in 2018 (under the handle danielmann861).

He has previously contributed a Yu Suzuki interview translation at TGS 2019 to the blog, and watch for more submissions to come!

Become a Patron!

1 comment: