The Sega Dreamcast is one of my favourite consoles of all time. It was Sega’s last attempt at hardware relevance after the catastrophic failure of the Saturn - they were the plucky underdog taking one last shot at the console scene. It failed shortly after its anti-piracy system was cracked wide open and the Playstation 2 landed with more hype and more powerful hardware. But for a few short years the Dreamcast was home to a rich library of innovative games.
Sega hoped that Shenmue would help save the Dreamcast by introducing a new genre made possible through the cutting-edge power of the system. Shenmue’s creator, Yu Suzuki, christened the genre as FREE, an acronym for “Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment”. The idea behind FREE was to fully immerse the player in a believable, living world. The name FREE never stuck, but Shenmue was instrumental in pioneering the genre that we now call ‘open world’.
I was enthralled by Shenmue when it came out - I spent several days playing through it and didn’t mind the awkward voice acting, strange control scheme, and long spans of time where the game didn’t really give you much of anything to do. I actually found the dead time fun - it was one of the first times in a game that I was encouraged to pass time doing whatever I wanted to do. This is pretty standard with sidequest heavy games nowadays, but at the time it helped the world feel more real. Having to spend time in the arcade playing Hang-On because I had to wait for a certain time of the day gave an air of authenticity to being a Japanese teenager named Ryo Hazuki in 1986.
Shenmue II came a few years after Shenmue, and I liked it even more than Shenmue. The setting of Hong Kong provided an expanded version of the crowded urban spaces seen in the first game, making the world feel even more alive. Also, some of the more abrasive edges in the first game were ironed out, such as being forced to wait for extended periods of time. You still could wait if you wanted to have the full experience, but it was nice to have the option to skip ahead. Shenmue II pushed the Dreamcast even harder than the original. The graphics, music, and locales were incredible for their time.
In preparation for the release of Shenmue III I picked up the recent re-releases of Shenmue and Shenmue II. I was worried that they would have not aged well and feel clunky. I was pleasantly surprised as I ended up having a really good time playing through both of them; however, I can’t truly say whether that’s because of good game design or nostalgia. There were definitely some rough edges, but nothing felt as rough as trying to play Shenmue III.
Disclaimer: I did not complete the game as I got too fed up with it.
An uninteresting world
One of my favourite parts of the original Shenmue games were how they made the world feel alive - the cities that they took place in felt like they could exist in the real world. Shenmue III starts off where Shenmue II ended, near Bailu Village in mainland China.
Bailu Village is a sleepy place filled with uninteresting people. There really isn’t anything interesting around it - sure you can roam the countryside picking up herbs and then head to the gatcha machines to buy some toys but none of it feels interesting in any way. And while it may have been acceptable in 1999 to have Ryo insist he couldn’t go a certain direction because he needed to do something else, in 2019 it feels lazy to limit a player’s movement like this. If the world is supposed to feel alive then why is the player being restricted by their own character instead of real world impediments?
Also most people in Bailu Village are one of the following:
- A cranky geriatric
- A martial artist
- A middle aged woman hinting that she wants to bang Ryo
The last one is amusing the first few times, but it quickly loses its charm. A large part of the Shenmue games’ appeal is the weird way they try to tell the story, but this falls flat in Shenmue III. I didn’t feel there was any meaningful connection to any of the townsfolk - everything felt ‘go here, talk to this person, now go talk to this person, and then give them something.’ In a game where you spend most of your time interacting with other characters you’d think that it’d feel more polished, but it’s tedious as can be.
In the original games you could skip dialog at the press of the button. I like to do this as I prefer to read the subtitles and then skip ahead instead of waiting for the voice acting. For some reason the ability to do this has been removed from Shenmue III, so every conversation felt like a slog to me. This was another example of a feature that worked in the other games being removed.
Fighting and training is boring
I’d describe the Shenmue series as a saga of revenge based around kung-fu. The first game opens with Ryo’s father being killed by the mysterious Lan Di while Ryo watches, powerless to help. Lan Di far too powerful for Ryo to fight - he needs to train and become stronger in order to avenge his father.
Shenmue III suffers a regression from the earlier games with a simpler fighting system. The fighting in the first two games felt like lightweight versions of the Virtua Fighter games, which makes sense as Shenmue’s original design docs called it the Virtua Fighter RPG, so while they didn’t have the best fighting game engine they were capable enough to add some action to the story. The fighting in Shenmue III feels like nothing more than an exercise in button mashing. An exercise in button mashing that doesn’t have any throw moves.
While Ryo could practice his moves to train in the earlier games it wasn’t necessary and the main way he would improve his skills was through meeting other martial arts experts. To get through the tedious fights in Shemue III you’ll need to level up your skills. This is accomplished through sparring, which is done with the tedious fighting engine, or through practicing your hits and stances. Hit and stance training are minigames that involve pressing a button at the right time so that Ryo aquats just the right way or he slaps a pole with as much force as he can. They’re both as much fun as they sound.
It’s the economy, stupid
Earning money in order to progress in the story has always been a cornerstone of the Shenmue games. Shenmue I had you driving forklift and Shenmue II allowed you to work several odd jobs including moving cargo at the harbour. With Shenmue II you were also given the opportunity to play gambling games or street fight if you wanted to earn more money. Both of these were nice additions, but you didn’t need to spend much time doing them if you didn’t want to.
Shenmue III has decided that having a real job makes too much sense, so now if you’re going to earn money without gambling you’re going to pick up herbs or chop wood. Although the world of Shenmue III looks great there isn’t much to discover. This makes rounding up herbs feel like a chore. How about chopping wood? It’s a minigame with the depth of a foot bath. Ryo slowly rotates from side to side with a raised axe and you need to press a button when the axe lines up with the cord of wood. If you time it just right the old man watching cheers you on and music from Afterburner starts to play.
Wood chopping is not fun. It’s a grind.
Hope you enjoy chopping wood while old men cheer you on
If you’re tired of earning money in a legitimate fashion then you can exchange your money for tokens that will let you gamble on games like Lucky Hit, frog racing, and one where you roll a ball around in a bowl hoping to land on the colour you’ve chosen. (The bowl game is as exciting as it sounds.) Most guides online suggest that you save regularly while gambling so you don’t lose your money. This means that Shenmue III has effectively borrowed the save and reload pattern so common in games in the late 90s. Even the original Shenmue games didn’t make the player do this.
The worst part? Half of the time I went to save the game would freeze and I’d need to close and reopen it in order to continue.
It’d be bad enough if you just needed to rely on luck in order to earn the money that you need to progress - but that’s not all. In order to get money from the tokens that you have earned gambling you need to go to a prize booth and select the items that will be worth the most money. The game won’t directly tell you what something’s actually worth, but if it’s not cheap or expensive it’s probably an alright deal.
Now that you’ve done this you’d think you have your money back, right? Wrong.
From there you need to go to a pawn shop to sell the items that you just traded for tokens. You might get a good deal on what you’ve chosen, but if you chose the wrong prizes then all of the tokens you’ve painstakingly earned won’t convert to very much money. This means you’ll need to go convert the money that you just converted from tokens back into tokens so you can do the whole thing again.
Accurate depiction of how the Chinese economy worked in the 1980s
I was nearly ready to give up at this point, but I read online that if I bought a drunken master the 2,000 yuan liquor that he wanted then I’d be able to leave Bailu and head to the big city. What happened afterwards ended up being the slog that broke the camel’s back.
You’re done for the day? I’m completely done
Once I had finally earned the money for the above guy’s liquor it was later in the day, so after I gave it to him he told me it was too late: I should go home and see him tomorrow. I figured this sounded fair enough, so I went to bed and slept until the next morning.
At the start of the next day I went back to him and was treated to a cutscene in which Ryo asked for the master to teach him a powerful move. The master said he might if Ryo catches a few chickens running around the temple. So of course this results in a minigame about chasing chickens around the temple and pressing the proper button at the right time to catch them. (This was also about as exciting as it sounds.)
Once I had completed this task he told me yet again it was too late and that I should go home and see him tomorrow. In the game it was 10AM and in the game you can’t go to bed that early. If I wanted to continue from there I would have had to kill time around a boring town that I don’t find interesting at all. There aren’t even any SEGA arcade games to play in the arcade. (Speaking of which, what is an arcade doing in a rural Chinese village during the 80s?)
At this point I looked up a walkthrough. It said if I returned the next day he would have made me catch more chickens before sending me away for a third time. On the day after that the story progresses. But there won’t be a next day for me in Shenmue III - I’m done with the boring tasks that this game kept throwing at me.
Even if you’re a die-hard fan of the series I’d say to skip Shenmue III.
As soon as the Kickstarter campaign went live I backed it, as I’ve been waiting since 2001 to play this game. Most of the early reviews I read said it was great and that the developers didn’t try to fix something that wasn’t broken. I don’t agree with those reviews - pretty much all of the deviations from the classic Shenmue formula have made this game significantly worse than its forbears.
Looks like it’s time to quit playing this game
The worst part? I’ve read several reviews that say that if you stick with the game it doesn’t even wrap the story up. I’d probably put up with the game if I knew there was a satisfying resolution, but from what I’ve read there isn’t, so what’s the point?
For me Ryo’s adventure ends with him chasing chickens around the grounds of a temple while some drunk old guy spectates. It’s not the ending I wanted or expected, but I’m willing to accept it if it means that I don’t need to play any more of this game.