Shenmue III has me torn in two. I spent 15 minutes with the game at E3, and on one hand, I was delighted with much of what I played, mostly because the little things—like having odd conversations with random townsfolk, buying peculiar items and trinkets from shops and capsule vending machines, and engaging in quaint, meditative mini-games—reminded me of the brilliance of the original titles and Yu Suzuki’s genre-defining concept of somehow making mundane, everyday tasks deeply fun and engrossing.
At the same time, I came away from the demo a bit concerned about the game’s presentation and combat system. There’s something nice about the fact that someone could potentially play Shenmue I and II and then jump into Shenmue III and find the characters and environments immediately recognizable aesthetically. Shenmue II came out 18 years ago, though, and I’d have preferred a higher level of polish.
It’s worth noting that the project’s Kickstarter didn’t generate nearly the amount of money necessary to develop a game as sprawling and graphically polished as some fans would have hoped (the budget came in somewhere around $10 million, a far cry from the original game’s $70 million). This was never going to be a true next-gen graphical update of the series. That said, the fact that the game looks like a Dreamcast title at times could hurt Shenmue III in the long run.
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The demo took place in the Chinese mountain village of Bailu, where I was tasked with tracking down a bookie with a scar over his eye by exploring and talking to villagers. Since I have a strong proclivity for Shenmue’s quieter moments, I chose to survey the town’s nooks and crannies before hunting down the bookie. I played a rustic version of Plinko in the town’s small gambling area, bought a health supplement at a nearby shop, and had a few stop-n-chats with the townsfolk. The dialogue is as bizarrely flaccid and awkward as ever, but for some reason, in Shenmue, I find the monotone delivery endearing.
The first few minutes of the demo were blissfully nostalgic and brought me right back to my childhood bedroom when I first loaded Shenmue into my Dreamcast. The density and detail of the exterior and interior environments are just as they were in the original games, with Ryo (voiced again by Corey Marshall) often picking up an inconsequential item and voicing a quick thought to himself before putting the knick-knack back on the shelf. Little moments like these are what make Shenmue special.
After I’d spent a few minutes moseying around town, I got down to business and went after the bookie. Once I found him (with considerable help from the Deep Silver rep), I had the option to either fight him then and there (I’d almost surely lose, the rep kindly informed me), or train at a nearby dojo first, which would help my chances in the impending fist fight.
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Weighing the demo’s time constraints, I opted to jump straight into battle and forego the dojo training. I indeed got my ass kicked, but what hurt the most was the fact that the fighting mechanics have been overhauled — and not for the better. The original games’ combat felt snappy and fluid and was heavily inspired by the mechanics of Sega’s Virtua Fighter series. It was challenging to be sure, but it looked and felt very cool. Shenmue III’s fighting feels rigid, a little button mash-y, and surprisingly unresponsive. I often felt like I wasn’t quite in direct control of Ryo, which was concerning.
After the fight, I had a couple of minutes left, so I headed to the dojo to brush up on my skills. First, I practiced doing a squatting martial arts stance, which was a fun one-button mini-game. Then, I sparred with the dojo’s instructor, which was more of the same fighting gameplay, with a quick tutorial on how to pull off a simple three-hit combo. After a couple of rounds, the demo timed out.
Shenmue III will without a doubt be a divisive topic of conversation leading up to and following its Nov. 19 release date. Die-hards are sure to find beauty in the game’s faithfulness to the series, but new players and those who prefer modern gaming conventions and presentation may be turned off by some of the game’s wonkier aspects. There’s still time for the developers YS Net and Neilo to polish up some of the rough edges, so we’ll see how it all shakes out when Shenmue makes its long-awaited return this fall.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.