The moment when Shenmue 3 was finally announced to the world will forever be etched into my mind. Yu Suzuki’s ill-fated ambition was finally going to be finished, although fans would have to contribute millions and front the bill to make the journey a reality. Now, it’s almost here, with E3 2019 offering one of the very first opportunities to go hands-on with the upcoming narrative adventure.
Sadly, it’s undeniably rough around the edges, seemingly put together with a shoestring budget that seldom feels like it belongs in this generation. Yu Suzuki evidently has one specific experience in mind for Shenmue 3, and it’s one that happily maintains all the qualities of its predecessors, and that includes all the negatives.
Ryo Hazuki is a slow, prodding protagonist with a stylish jacket and tight-fitting jeans, determined to find the man who killed his father and bring him to justice. The original plan was to tell Shenmue’s epic story across multiple games, but its troubled creation, extraordinary budget and relatively obscure game design kept it in the realms of obscurity.
I can’t help but admire what Shenmue 3 is going for, trying it’s very best to continue a story that started so many years ago despite the odds being set against it. But having spend 15 minutes with the game, I’m not impressed.
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My timed demo of Shenmue 3 begins with Ryo Hazuki and Shenhua Ling walking across a bridge into a small village, laying out their plans to find a man with a scar on his face known as ‘The Bookie.’ From the first line of dialogue it’s clear this is Shenmue, lines delivered with an identical monotone awkwardness as our two heroes stare dead-eyed at one another. It’s almost unsettling, and does not look good. Well, their hair is kinda nice I suppose.
Once our plan is set in motion, I’m given free reign to explore the village. A shop is located right in front of me, so I step forward and try the capsule machines sitting outside. Just like the old games, Ryo kneels down, twists the dial and inspects the prize that pops out. Mine was a miniature tennis racket, which he doesn’t seem to be impressed with. This whole process takes forever, and that was fun, and potentially groundbreaking, twenty years ago, but now it’s slow and frustrating.
You could also opt to chop firewood outside the shop, one of many everyday activities in Shenmue 3 that attempt to make it feel like a living, breathing world. There were side-activities I didn’t have time to try, such as practicing stances at the Dojo or idly chattin away with villagers. Down by the river I found local merchants offering me the chance to compete in Lucky Hit and Turtle Races, the latter forcing me to press buttons as fast as possible for far too long. By the end my hands hurt, but at least I had some pennies to show for it.
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After failing hard at the village attractions and awkwardly flirting with the Lucky Hit girl, I venture back across the bridge to the Village Dojo. This is where I catch my first glimpse at Shenmue 3’s mediocre combat. Much like what came before it, there’s a combo system where stringing together the right button presses will devastate foes, but any feedback to your strikes is non-existent beyond a tiny health bar in the bottom-right corner of the screen.
My opponent looked stiff and uncomfortable, moving strangely from side to side desperately trying to fight back, and when they do every animation is incredibly awkward and stilted. In most combat encounters, you’ll be faced with a brief quick-time event which unleashes a more powerful attack, but you wouldn’t know from how it looked. Eventually I emerged victorious, earning a few levels worth of experience from my time at the Dojo. Now, it was time to face The Bookie.
Within seconds, I joined the other E3 attendees who faced The Bookie’s wrath and didn’t live to tell the tale. The scarred fellow did obscene amounts of damage, cutting down my health bar with vicious blows, but the fight was made tedious when he started ragdolling awkwardly onto the ground after each combo. It made this presumably epic battle into an exercise in comedy, which is a shame since there’s so much potential here.
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Despite my criticisms, Shenmue 3 still has a beloved charm to it. Ryo can pull out his diary with the touch of a button to scan through objectives and catch up on the day’s events, creating a tangible sense of progress outside of bland, complicated menus. The dialogue is bad, voice acting even more so, yet for some, it’s the exact kind of over-the-top silliness they’re hoping for. But if you’re hoping for a major advancement over what came before – this is definitely not it.
It’s clear that YSNet is trying desperately to create Shenmue 3 on a lacking budget, failing to truly deliver on the vision they hoped to present so many years ago. It’s a grand, ambitious effort that I’m keen to see come to fruition, but nothing I’ve seen here paints a pretty picture.
Fans will likely adore the continuation of Ryo Hazuki’s passionate hunt for Longsun Zhao, eating up all the stilted dialogue, quirky minigames and unconventional approach to combat. But for me, this feels like a time capsule from decades past that might’ve been better off staying closed. Guess we’ll find out later this year.
Shenmue 3 trailer
Shenmue 3 release date – when is it coming out?
Following a recent delay, YSNet has confirmed that Shenmue 3 will launch for PS4 and PC as an Epic Games Store exclusive on November 19, 2019.