How Shenmue 3 Chased the Memory, but Lost Sight of the VisionMarch 30, 2020
Those shackles, mind, come wrapped in the siren’s song of a cashmere sweater. Shenmue 3 picks up directly where Shenmue 2 left off, going so far as to recreate the ending sequence in what feels less like an attempt to welcome potential new players than it does a gesture towards the existing fandom, reminding them that this is something they have waited a very long time for. It’s like Yu Suzuki had been keeping Shenmue’s final design document under lock and key since 2001. The final documentation, it turns out, and nothing else. Not that anything else was needed to effectively sell through to 66,282 people, once the simple existence of Shenmue 3 was revealed during Sony’s historic 2015 E3 press conference.
The story upon the game’s release is a little different. With almost every post-Kickstarter copy purchased going to someone more in need of convincing, and the odd scandal added to the mix, it might have behoved Shenmue 3 to put some effort into a flex during its opening moments, into finding a way to pique a new audience’s interest. And yet, in a move so brazen one almost has to applaud it, once it’s done with its short recap, Shenmue 3 opens with its two lead characters – Ryo and Shenhua – walking a bit, stopping to talk a bit, walking a bit more, stopping to talk again, walking again and… well, it’s unevenly paced and wholly uninterested in doing anything other than picking up directly from the next page.What is particularly astounding about Shenmue 3’s lack of compromise here is that Shenmue 4’s potential budget and scope, to say nothing of its very theoretical existence, is hugely dependent upon success at retail. It’s all well and fine to make the exact game that your most hardcore fans want, but it’s an awkward place to put yourself in if you’re a middle chapter in a franchise that was, at one point, the most expensive in gaming. Shenmue’s ambition, even today, isn’t something that can be pulled off on a shoestring budget.
A step forward…
To be clear, Shenmue 3 was my favourite game of 2019. It may not have been more, but it was still in most ways everything that I had reasonably been hoping for since I dropped too much of my own money on that Kickstarter. That said, it would be crazy to say that Yu Suzuki’s latest offering doesn’t have significant problems, even if they’re not as clearly related to simple datedness as has often been made out. Shenmue, while not really an open world game, still set down a potential path for the genre that would be. This path was swiftly left to the weeds the moment Grand Theft Auto 3 became a runaway hit.
Shenmue 3, then, irrespective of narrative continuation, dusts itself off and walks back to the road that it had tried to pave. Get past the awkward first day of gameplay, as well as some of the rust that may be the result of trying to do a lot with limited resources, and what is found within is a delightful alternative reality for what big-budget games could have come to be about. Shenmue 3, while lacking the visual sheen and polish of the likes of Spider-Man, Control or Gears 5, is nonetheless obsessed with detail. While most open worlds are littered with countless buildings and NPCs, Shenmue 3 has notably fewer, but they’re buildings that its individually-modelled and voiced NPCs actually live in.
Shenmue’s is a world of order, not of chaos; it’s a world in which one actually knocks on a front door to see if anyone’s home, rather than just barging in; where sleep is a necessity of daily routine, not primarily a way to restore HP. Contrary to most comparable game worlds, which ultimately exist for the whims of its players, Shenmue’s needs to actually function. This is literally the whole point. It’s the kind of design choice that fated Shenmue to be a divisive game, and it’s of little surprise that it has caused people to bounce off of Shenmue 3.
Even if Ryo were to be bestowed with a lock-pick and the always-rested superpower of your average videogame lead, it wouldn’t help much. Shenmue is fixated with martial arts to its very core, taking it to the point where discipline and training are just as important as – if not more important than – actual combat.
On top of that, the primary verb of Shenmue’s gameplay isn’t shoot or punch or jump or drive, but rather talk. It’s a game about gathering information from the world and, importantly, the people around you; people who do different things during the day and retreat to the respected privacy of their homes to relax and sleep at night. Shenmue has never been interested in putting convenience ahead of world-building, and doing so to bring itself up to modern-day quality-of-life design would be antithetical.
Shenmue 3 keeps the interaction through dialogue tradition very much alive, in some ways even building on it. Evenings during the game’s first half are largely dedicated to simply spending time with and getting to know Shenhua, a character who was the solo star of the original game’s intro sequence, but whom Ryo himself never actually encounters until right towards the end of Shenmue 2. These conversations are wonderful, if occasionally stilted (as is the franchise’s unfortunate want) little pieces of character building that also perfectly highlight Shenmue’s fixation on all of the details in-between the story checkpoints.
..and one back
It’s here that the cracks in the surface turn out to not all contain glimmers of revitalised vision and ambition. These conversations with Shenhua are a nice touch, but they’ve very much built upon the bedrock Shenmue 2’s final hours. When Shenmue first landed, the simple fact that you could talk to any and every NPC was (and is) a titlecase-worthy Big Deal. Sometimes people brushed Ryo off, asked him to bother someone else, but the scope was massive. Enter Shenmue 3 and the system is… exactly the same. Right down to the very specific way in which the voice acting is terrible should you choose to assault yourself with the English voiceover.
Despite the fussy inclusion of side quests, Ryo only ever asks the people around him about ways to make money or the main objective with nary a dialogue tree to be seen. Play for long enough and you’ll begin to notice that there are multiple NPCs that Ryo can’t even initiate a conversation with at all. Maybe this is a failing of finances more than anything else. Maybe doubling the budget would fix it. But the fact remains that the properly branching, reactive dialogue system that seemed so promising but also out-of-reach in the early 2000s didn’t seem even a hair closer in 2019. And the incidental dialogue that is present is no better-written.To be fair, Shenmue 3 has introduced a handful of logical advancements. Ryo’s diary, primarily used to keep track of objectives, is now organised by tabs; character control is finally analogue (directionally, at least; Ryo can no longer jog); martial arts training options are more varied, the fight system itself has been overhauled and made more accessible, if perhaps less deep; collecting herbs is methodical in a way that makes sense; and in general there are more and better options for keeping Ryo in the green, such as clever, in-world ways to game street gambling. And food has, finally, been taken into consideration.
Food and drink have had a strange relationship with Shenmue. Over a decade ago, Ryo could stop and take a fully-animated break at vending machines to enjoy a can of soda or coffee, but while he could walk into restaurants and talk to the owners, he could never eat in them. Statistically, the kitten in the first game ate 100% more food than its lead character.
Shenmue 3 finally absorbs eating – perhaps the most quintessential of daily activities – into its fixation with the mundane and manages to make an absolute mess of it. There were numerous ways in which it could have built upon the foundation of Shenmue’s fundamental identity, instead, eating in Shenmue 3 ties Ryo’s health to stamina in the most uninteresting, immersion-breaking way possible.
One must assume that, after stopping by a local vendor, Ryo has lined his pockets with pineapples, cola-flavoured sausages and (for some reason) bulbs of black garlic that are inhaled from within the menu screen. As for actual cola, and other vending machine purchases, much like everything else, they’re entirely handled in the menu system, a hard break from the series’ commitment to tangible world interactions. And the numbers are insane: it takes 54 apples to restore Ryo from his baseline regeneration to his maximum potential health and energy.
Elsewhere, rather than truly trying to build on its aged foundations, Shenmue 3 plays nostalgia like a get out of jail free card. At times this is on the nose – the prospect of something as simple as changing Ryo’s clothes loses its lustre once it becomes apparent that most of the wearable shirts are overpriced Shenmue merchandise. At other times, it takes the role of a subtle, knowing wink at fans about its technical shortcomings. Moving at speed through the world causes draw distance issues and NPCs that fade in to view, a trick that is something of a franchise staple.
Then, of course, there’s the aforementioned English voice acting, perhaps the best example of Shenmue 3’s confused approach to its own identity. It is, frankly, terrible, but clearly intentionally so. It’s a throwback to the first game, one done in spite of the fact that, surely, the Yu Suzuki of 1999 must have wanted the best performances he could get in his game. No fan in their right mind would have preferred this.
Elsewhere, QTEs (Quick Time Events) – short-bursts of cinematic action very much pioneered by the first Shenmue, manage to be, if anything, a step backwards from Shenmue 2, now containing absolutely unforgiving response times that ensure most players will be made truly aware of the total lack of even cosmetic branching paths.
Kept short and sensible, these sequences could have been fun and fitting, especially as a way to explore the aspects of Shenmue that don’t lean on languid pacing. Shenmue’s world has never been strictly realistic. It’s a martial arts wonderland, a fantastical spin on Asia in the 1980s. What it has been, however, is consistent with the routines of daily life, in keeping with its own internal logic and interpretations of the essentials of living within its areas, not just adventuring through them. Shenmue 3’s biggest challenge was finding a way to expand on this in a meaningful way that would keep pace with modern videogame trends. It’s safe to say that, by and large, it has failed.
A step to the side
Shenmue has always had a fixation on the ‘stuff in between’. For the faithful, it’s the time between appointments that opens up its world, that allows the actual narrative moments to matter, that gives real weight to something like leaving one’s home, something that is often a trivial detail in many video games.
Perhaps this is just as well. Shenmue’s story should never be mistaken for a masterpiece – it’s a revenge tale that does a handy job of spinning a few plates, nothing more. It’s never needed to be more. Somehow, Shenmue 3 manages to tread water, moving slowly even by its own standard and then, when it finally gets to the kind of moment that could be given added weight by the slow path leading to it, has a crisis of commitment, throws in a twist so forced it could cause whiplash, and moves the story sideways. Shenmue 1 and 2 were nothing if not self-assured. If there are tells of insecurity – the often too-meta fan service, in particular – breadcrumbed though the crust of Shenmue 3’s world and mechanics, then the final day of gameplay represents a full-blown meltdown.
It’s just as well that much of the focus was on building the relationship between (two) characters, because without this growth the events in Shenmue 3 may prove entirely inconsequential to the events of Shenmue 4, should it manage to emerge. It’s hard to imagine that this is the narrative development that Yu Suzuki has had nearly two decades to chip away at and refine, but it’s equally hard to believe that this was where he decided to compromise on things.
The greatest achievement of Shenmue 2’s writing had very little to do with key story moments, but rather with the way it moved Ryo around its setting, prodding players to explore different corners, with how it found ways to naturally expose them to a variety of characters. Shenmue 3 seems to lack the confidence to continue with this, and it comes at the cost not only of story pacing, but in limiting the way in which players explore the world and damn near ensuring that they don’t spend the time they’re clearly supposed to with key supporting characters.
This stings all the more because Shenmue 3 asks a lot from its audience. It’s a game to walk through rather than run, to take in the sights of while noticing the subtle improvement in Ryo’s technique while sharing repetitive martial arts training time with him. It’s an adventure that plays out by the day, that embraces routines and creates a sense of community around Ryo and his plight. It’s a game packed full with distractions, both practical and frivolous and, importantly, because it’s a game about the stuff in-between the big swells, it’s a game wherein indulging these makes its setting feel more complete, rather than reminding you that it’s actually just built from polygons. It’s actually fantastic at this. But it’s also complacent, and the audience deserves to ask as much from it as it does from them. In being too scared to step out of its own shadow, Shenmue is now in danger of becoming a shadow of the dreamer it once was.
And thus, the saga… continues?
In being so coy about developing upon its own ideas, Shenmue 3 has, it is safe to say at this point, struggled to attract a new audience and underperformed in terms of sales. By doing so, it has kneecapped its own potential vision, and by turn its chance to climb out of the hole that the franchise has languished in for so long. There may be a potential Shenmue game out there, in some alternate timeline, that is true to itself, to its fans, and that also took the world by surprise, but that game likely received greater resources than Shenmue 3 had. At this point, where’s the money going to come from? Assuming it gets to happen, Shenmue 4 will likely be produced with even less.
Perhaps launching in the quiet of the first quarter might have helped. Certainly, with Final Fantasy 7 pushed back, there’s a bit more room to breathe. At the very least, now that there is some time to indulge last year’s forgotten releases, and now that Shenmue 3 is selling at the kind of price it likely should have launched at, I can at least in good conscience recommend it to anyone who may be intrigued by its fixation on the day-to-day and the stubbornness of its design.
I’d especially appreciate it if around a million of you fine people were to buy a copy. Because, my word, I’d like for Shenmue to be a game of ambition and desire again, self-assured rather than timid fan-appeasement, again filled with hunger enough to pave its own way forward. And perhaps the only way to find out if that is still there is to throw an unreasonable amount of money its way. It is, in short, not the best place to be.
Or maybe I’ll just open up a new document and start writing fanfiction about what the hell I think Ryo Hazuki actually eats for lunch. Because it’s sure as all hell not raw cloves of black garlic.
Tim Henderson is a veteran Australian games journalist who is now based in Osaka, Japan. Read his feature on the resurgence of the Japanese games industry here and say hello on Twitter here.