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Shenmue 3 is passable as nostalgia, but not as a game

You really can’t go home again

When playing a game like Shenmue 3, a sequel that has almost two decades of expectations, hype, and pressure riding on its shoulders, it’s rare for the end result to be exactly what one would expect. Usually there’s some gimmick added, or an aspect of the design modernized, but there’s almost always something unexpected to shake up the formula, to add something to our understanding of what the series can be.

Shenmue 3 is, for better and worse, exactly what I expected it to be, based on the original two games in the series. Faithful to a fault, Shenmue 3 feels like a time capsule of a game, flooding me with nostalgia while also reminding me just how far games have come since the original two Shenmue games.

What it doesn’t do is move the series forward, nor does it seem interested in looking to the future to see what Shenmue might become. It’s a game that spends all of its time looking backward.

A mystery that still isn’t solved

I play as Ryo Hazuki, a teenager living in Japan whose father was murdered. Ryo takes to the streets with his martial arts skills, and a willingness to move crates with a forklift to pay the bills, and tracks his father’s killer across the world to get revenge. Shenmue 2 ended with the revelation that Ryo was part of an ancient prophecy, possessing one half of a pair of mirrors which, if united, might cause the end of the world. It was a hell of a cliffhanger, especially when you consider how many years it took for there to be any payoff.

Shenmue 3 begins literally the moment after Shenmue 2 ends, with Ryo and his new partner Shenhua Ling, a young woman also tied into this prophecy, trying to discover where Ling’s father has been taken after a kidnapping that seems tied to the murder of Ryo’s own father. The two characters wander into a nearby rural village, and suddenly I’m back in the world of Shenmue, a world that has apparently not been touched by any of the past 15 years of mechanical advancements in game design.

The environments look fairly beautiful and detailed, but the faces have the nostalgic familiarity of a Shenmue HD remaster with slightly smoother edges. While it looks nice enough, other aspects of the game don’t hold up as well.

The basic rhythm of Shenmue 3 is the same as it always was: Ask everybody you meet a question until someone knows the answer, get an entry-level job to make money, buy toys from gacha machines to complete sets of collectibles, maybe get into a fight, and then return to slowly plodding around, asking people questions. This much busy work with these many repetitive tasks hasn’t grown easier to recommend with age.

Most of my time is otherwise spent running back and forth around the world, trying to find leads, and occasionally getting into fights. Sure, you’re not police, but you are both the children of people who crimes happened to, so apparently that’s enough for most people to let you snoop around for answers.

Investigations involve talking to basically every person I see until someone happens to know the information needed to proceed, which gives the entire experience the feel of a wild goose chase. You’re basically just running up to strangers, telling them your dad was murdered, asking them about vaguely described criminals, and moving on to the next possible lead. The trick is just to go everywhere, and talk to everyone, until I find a crime scene.

But crime scenes are no less methodical, and they’re certainly no more enjoyable. I’m usually stuck in a room with dozens of interactive objects to slowly open, look through, and close again, searching for clues. It’s hard to know where to start, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The best way to continue to move ahead is to check literally every single possible option for information, which is quite the chore.

Combat in Shenmue 3 is also essentially unchanged from previous games in the series, despite the increased resolution and frame rate. I’m still taking part in third-person combat with a light and heavy kick, light and heavy punch, and combos you can pull off as you progress. The combos however are initially limited, and to unlock more means doing more busy work for money to spend on combo books.

Ryo and an enemy fight
The fight scenes are some of the most fun you can have in Shenmue 3
Ys Net

The fights are a lot of fun, but are relatively rare in the early hours of the game. This isn’t an action game, although combat does heat up a bit as the game continues. Toward the end in particular there is one very impressive fight scene that’s a highlight of the entire game.

And despite the promise of ancient prophecies and supernatural powers, Shenmue 3 is surprisingly banal. I have one meter that describes hunger, health, and stamina, and keeping that meter full by doing odd jobs for money that I use to buy food takes up a hefty percentage of my time. The meter constantly shrinks with time as I get hungry, which means that I have less stamina with which to run and less health if I get into a fight.

To stay strong I need to mash buttons to chop wood, use the money at a shop to buy a few dozen bulbs of garlic to eat, and then get back onto my quest to see how the story ends up. It’s not the most enjoyable aspect of Shenmue 3 but, again, this focus on mundane tasks is true to the spirit of the original two games.

It’s that dependency on the original games that makes Shenmue 3 such a disappointment. Shenmue paved the way for games like Red Dead Redemption 2 by introducing a world that at least tried to feel real, forcing you to hold down a job while seeking revenge on your own time.

Shenmue tried to show players what happened between the exciting parts of most action or role-playing games, and the slow pace was part of the point. Life is slow, and you don’t always get to rush to the good stuff. Those games felt like a major step forward in design and goals, and they inspired the dedicated fans that have waited so long for a third release.

At times, Shenmue 3 does manage to recapture that rhythm. It’s less a game about actually getting the revenge you seek, and more a game about experiencing places and people far away from where you began. It’s a game about cycles, routine, and getting ever-closer to the day the case breaks open and you can go save the day. That may sound contemplative, but the hours of drudgery and characters who seem to be answering questions I never ask keep the game from ever feeling very enjoyable.

The technology caught up with Shenmue, and then some

Part of the problem with Shenmue 3 is that it isn’t that technological masterpiece that the original games were, and the design decisions which made those games feel broad and huge make the same ideas feel like padding in 2019.

The investigations of crime scenes is a good example of this issue. Opening or searching through so many items felt like a demonstration of realism, or at least complexity, back in the day. But opening 30 drawers in 2019, while Ryo repeats the same few lines about not finding anything, feels disrespectful of my time. I’m not being asked to solve a puzzle or think through a problem, I’m just brute-forcing my way through a lot of stuff, none of which adds anything to my understanding of the world or my place in it, or the mysteries I’m trying to explore.

It’s just hours and hours of dead space, without even the novelty of technological achievement to help make it tolerable. Not everyone could have made a Shenmue game when the first two were released, but that’s no longer true, and there are good reasons why developers have left this design behind. Shenmue 3 is a game from a team that doesn’t seem to have learned much, or evolved much, since the release of Shenmue 2. It’s stagnation, disguised as fan service.

The script is just as bad

One of the most baffling elements of Shenmue 3 is the writing. It’s hard to believe that the script was ever read in its entirety by a native English speaker, due to the large number of awkward interactions and conversations that just don’t make much sense in English.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Each of these dialogue snippets includes what I said, combined with the answer given to me by a character in the game. They never quite match up, and this happened all the time in the course of playing.

“I’m looking for someone called Yuan”
“No, I haven’t”

“Could you help me? I’m looking for someone”
“No, I didn’t”

“How do you know Yuan?”
“I guess so”

The poor translation and often impenetrable dialogue combine to give the entire game a sense of jankiness, and comes across as a lack of care and polish. And this is long before I’m introduced to characters that seem locked into harmful — not to mention ridiculously outdated — stereotypes.

The numerous visual glitches, including people floating off the floor, or seeming to sit down on chairs that don’t exist, create the somewhat surreal feeling of a game that’s both been rushed, but also hidden away for a decade without any meaningful lessons learned from the maturation of gaming as a whole.

Ryo watches an old man blow into the air
The characters are certainly higher resolution, but they still look like they came out of a much older game
Ys Net

Games have moved on since Shenmue 2, and my tolerance for games that disrespect my time is a lot lower. The game’s structure has aged more like milk than cheese, and I was left wondering what Yu Suzuki might have done with a larger budget, in a development environment in which he might be able to once again guess about what the future might be, without being forced by external constraints to just repeat the game’s design while only somewhat moving the story ahead.

Which brings us to the last point: Shenmue 3 was also an amazing chance to wrap up the game’s story in a conclusive way for fans who are likely ecstatic to be able to revisit the world at all, but sadly the temptation to set up yet another sequel that may never come proved too great.

It’s not the lack of elegant dialogue or the glitches that make this game so disappointing, but the idea that a series that was so obsessed with what would be possible from gaming in the future has turned into a way for people to attempt to revisit the past.

Shenmue 3 is now available for PlayStation 4 and Windows PC through the Epic Games Store. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PS4 download code provided by Ys Net. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.