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Shenmue, an Experience: A Game Review – Part 3

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SHENMUE, AN EXPERIENCE: A GAME REVIEW – PART 3

By: Matthew Lee

Written March 30th, 2020

“Where ten years ago, many people, including myself, would have thought certain things to be impossible, we are now seeing these things become a reality.  Now, when I am asked about how likely something that is implausible will happen, however improbable it may be, I’ll say, ‘Stranger things have happened recently’, and point to Shenmue III as an example, right up there with Donald Trump being President of the United States and Wushu becoming an Olympic sport.” —Quote taken directly from the write-up

Abstract: This write-up is a follow-up of a two-part segment entitled “Shenmue, an Experience: A Game Review – Part 3.”  The two-part segment was originally dedicated to a specific game series, Shenmue and its sequel, Shenmue II, both of which hold a special place in my childhood memories.  With the release of Shenmue III, it now serves for me to continue the segment.  As the name suggests, the segment will focus on games relevant to Chinese martial arts in some way, given that this is a Wushu site, or other fighting/martial arts-themed games of potential interest.

I just finished Shenmue III (シェンムー III).  Five years ago, if you had told me that I would get to say that sentence, I would not have believed you.  Yet here we are.  Part of me finds it hard to believe but also funny.  As a fan who grew up with the Shenmue (シェンムー) series and donated to the Kickstarter campaign, I was personally invested in the progress of the game’s development.  In anticipation of this game, I had replayed the Shenmue I & II rerelease ports on Steam.  After many delays, I had finally received my backer copy of the game on March 13th, months after the release date, something I have long waited for.  And given the fact that most of us are under lockdown due to the current coronavirus situation, I had plenty of time to play through the game.

It’s been five years since I wrote my two-part segment, “Shenmue, an Experience: A Game Review”, where I wrote about the eponymous unfinished game series and the impact it had on me, at the time writing with the impression that Shenmue III would never see the light of day.  Well, now Shenmue III is a reality.  And with that reality comes quite a few thoughts, so it is only right for me to continue this segment and resolve some long unfinished thoughts and feelings about this experience.  This is the third part of “Shenmue, an Experience.”  This is “Shenmue, an Experience – Part 3.”

Background History

Shenmue III is the long-awaited sequel to Shenmue II (シェンムー II; Shenmū Tsū), and this statement is no exaggeration (for reasons of which we will get into shortly).  Originally, the Shenmue series was developed by the Sega Corporation, designed by the famous veteran game producer Yu Suzuki, and released for the Dreamcast.  However, with no direct support from Sega, clearly due to the series’ lack of success at the time of its releases, Yu Suzuki would develop Shenmue III as an indie (independent) game, by his own indie game studio, Ys Net.  As stated in the previous parts of this segment, Yu Suzuki’s career achievements come from designing many of Sega’s other games, such as the Virtua Fighter and Virtua Cop game series.  But it is the Shenmue series has become Yu Suzuki’s most well-known work, given its long history and cult following.

This game would begin to see the light of day with the announcement of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) 2015 on June 16th, 2015 (ironically, one of my best friends would be the ones to inform me about this news while I was training for the 2015 US Wushu Team Trials, which I initially did not believe due to hearing so many rumors about a sequel that were debunked).  The campaign received overwhelming support, immediately passing its initial $2 million goal within hours (of which I donated a total of $500, you may proceed to judge me now, especially since I didn’t have a regular paycheck at the time—and I would happily donate more for another game now that I have more money).  However, the project would be delayed time and time again, until a final release date of November 19th, 2019, a whopping 18 years since Shenmue II’s original release in 2001 (17 if you count Shenmue II’s release on the Microsoft Xbox a year later in North America in 2002), and 20 years since Shenmue’s initial release in 1999.  Given that the Sega Corporation would quietly and sadly stop making consoles, the game was released for the PS4 (PlayStation 4) and PC (personal computer).  Because I primarily play games on the PC (although I would never consider myself an avid gamer), my review will be based on the PC version.

Story

To someone who has not played games of the 2000s past two decades or so, the story of a game might seem unimportant.  But contrary to this ignorant perception, the complexity of a plot contributes a lot to the enjoyment of many interactive games.  One could even say that the plots of games nowadays are even done better than that of most movies and television series today.

For the Shenmue series, the story is one of the primary reasons why fans are so invested in the series, and why this second sequel was so widely anticipated; the fandom wanted to know what was going to happen after the end of Shenmue II, one of the biggest cliffhangers of all time.  True to the spirit of the series, the plot of this game continues the theme and motif previous game, which is that of an investigative adventure (think The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 movies) with clear overtones of martial arts and kung fu movie feel to it, more so now than in previous installments.  As before, the player takes control of Ryo Hazuki, who is seeking revenge over the murder of his father, in China.  Just like the previous part of this segment, I will only be summarizing the main plot of the game and may overlook specific details or encounters that are even considered mandatory to the plot, but ultimately considered unimportant to the big picture.  Also, though this might be obvious at this point, this summarization will naturally contain spoilers; you have been warned.

The game begins where the previous game left off in Bailu Village, Guilin, China, with a recreation of Ryo and Shenhua reaching the stone pit, finding Shenhua’s stepfather missing, a cryptic letter written by him, the mysterious Sword of Seven Stars, and large stone designs of the Dragon Mirror and the Phoenix Mirror each carved onto the cave walls.  Ryo and Shenhua resolve to find Shenhua’s stepfather Yuan Yunshen in search of answers behind the mystery of the Phoenix Mirror and what they saw in the cave.  Their trail starts with the lead of some thugs led by Yanlang, a burly man who Ryo is unable to defeat in their first fight, and are searching for and interrogating stonemasons like Shenhua’s stepfather, leading to one young stonemason by the name of Ye Yanxin, and unfortunately reaches a dead end when he refuses to openly come out and talk, out of fear of the threat that the thugs pose.  In a turn of serendipity, Ryo discovers that his late father Iwao had trained in Bailu Village from Grandmaster Feng Chengxu, who directs Ryo to visit Man Yuan Temple for more clues.  There, Ryo finds a photo of a Chinese imperial envoy arriving in Bailu Village with banners matching the symbols of the Dragon Mirror and the Phoenix Mirror, leading to a search of village elders that might remember more about the event, and ending with the drunkard bum Sun Jiusi, informing that the envoy arrived to get the mirrors made by the greatest stonemason in China, which was of Yuan’s ancestry.  Upon hearing that the thugs are closing in on Yanxin, Ryo and Shenhua go to confront them, only for Ryo to lose again to Yanlang.  Following this, Ryo resolves to find a way to defeat Yanlang, by learning the “Body Check” move from Sun.  After meeting Sun’s various demands of providing him with 50-year-old laojiu (spelled “lao jiu”) and defeating White Tiger of Martial Hall in exchange for teaching him, Ryo finally undergoes training of chasing chickens, horse stance and the “Rooster Step”, and learns the “Body Check.”  With this move, Ryo is finally able to defeat Yanlang, but is briefly attacked by Chai again.  With Yanlang captured, Ryo is initially unsuccessful interrogating him for answers, but after some unseen “persuasion” by Shenhua, he reveals that the thugs have captured Yuan, and that the blind herbalist Elder Yeh is in danger of being threatened by Chai.  Ryo and Shenhua then go to Elder Yeh, who instruct them to find the six tokens in her house to enter the bell tower.  After doing so, they find a wheel repository at the top of the bell tower, containing a scroll revealed to be a map to hidden treasure.  Chai again ambushes Ryo and Shenhua, but Ryo subdues Chai long enough for him to reveal that the two stonemasons Yuan and Xu Guowei were taken by the evil Chiyoumen (spelled “Chi You Men”) organization to the port town of Niaowu.

The pair travel to Niaowu to continue their search for Yuan.  During their stay, they encounter a mysterious but seemingly kind woman, Li Feng.  Ryo’s first clue is a finding a photo of Yuan in Niaowu, where he tracks down the surroundings captured in the photo, leading him on another search for the thugs, who Ryo discovers are named the Red Snakes.  After various encounters with them, Ryo also runs into Ren, who is on the trail of the hidden treasure.  Along the way, Ryo encounters a yuppy couple, the shrine maiden Lin Shiling of Liu Jiao Shrine, which was wrecked by the Red Snakes, a fellow martial artist Hsu Qiu who fought off the Red Snakes, and the cormorant fisherman as well as Hsu’s master, Grandmaster Bei Xianzi.  Ryo’s search eventually leads him the Golden Goose casino, but he learns that for any hope of encountering the Red Snakes, he must obtain VIP (Very Important Person) membership, which he gets via a personal referral from the yuppy couple as a favor in return for saving their purse from a thug.  After a fight and interrogating one of the thugs, Ryo learns that Yuan was taken to the Red Snakes’ hideout, where he meets and is beaten by their leader, Ge Longqi.  Ren decides to assist Ryo in raiding the Red Snakes’ hideout again, but to no avail as they are both easily bested by Ge Longqi.  Ryo resolves to defeat Ge Longqi by figuring out his fighting style, which he finds out based on the various animal movements observed and learns that it can be countered by the “Reverse Body Check” move.  Learning this move with the help of Grandmaster Bei, Ryo goes with Ren to the Red Snakes’ hideout once again, only to find the Red Snakes gone and only Li Feng present there, who slyly tells Ryo that Shenhua has been captured, though it is quickly revealed later that Li Feng aided in her capture, where she was taken to the old castle across Lijiang River.  Enlisting the help of Grandmaster Bei to ferry them across with his boat, Ryo and Ren are also accompanied by Shiling and Hsu.  At the old castle, Ryo finds and frees Yuan and Xu, quickly defeats Chai again, and encounters Niao Sun, revealed to be the alter ego of Li Feng.  After exchanging Shenhua’s life for the Phoenix Mirror, Niao Sun tells Ryo that Lan Di awaits.  Ryo and Ren fight through a multitude of thugs and defeat Ge Longqi on the way to Lan Di.  After quickly dispatching more fighters, Ryo finally faces off against Lan Di, but is soundly outmatched, as the castle is set afire by Niao Sun who attempts to leave Lan Di for dead and take over the Chiyoumen for herself.  Ren saves Ryo’s life by diverting Lan Di’s attention with a counterfeit Phoenix Mirror, allowing all the heroes to safely escape the castle.  Afterwards, Yuan reveals that Lan Di’s father and Iwao’s longtime friend Zhao Sunming was entrusted with the mirrors to protect them from those that would use them for evil ends, but died under mysterious circumstances, leaving his son Zhao Longsun to be raised by the Chiyoumen as Lan Di.  The game ends with Ryo, Shenhua and Ren continuing their journey in pursuit of Lan Di and the hidden treasure…

Like the previous games, there is the existence of a “bad ending”, which can occur if the player takes “too long” in the game, specifically if the time in-game reaches July 31st, 1987, but again, like the first game, I have never come across it.  And like the previous games, a warning will trigger before this ending, where Elder Yeh, whose role was previously occupied by Shenhua in the other games, says to Ryo, “The dragon…The dragon shall block the path” in one month, and tells him to hurry.  In the “bad ending” itself, Elder Yeh declares, “The path shall be sealed, and all hope will be lost.”  Lan Di then appears and delivers a killing blow to Ryo, as Shenhua cries out his name.  The game will then fade to a black “GAME OVER” screen.

As far as the plot goes, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed at how little to no new details were revealed, and how little the story progressed.  Rather, many previously established pieces of information are repeated multiple times throughout the game, as if to remind players of prior details from the previous games.  Certain details from previous games are also changed or “updated”, such as Shenhua’s wardrobe being redone from her original woodland brown to a bright yellow, and the Sword of Seven Stars being noticeably shorter than it originally was in Shenmue II, being the size of a large knife than an actual sword, though I don’t take any real issue with these.  While the story continues to be quite grounded in a realistic environment and feel, Shenhua still appears to have an otherworldly and supernatural aura about her, though very little of this is revealed or expanded upon, only briefly hinted at, when the player can engage in optional dialogue with her to reveal that she can communicate with animals, and has visions of her ancestors.  The scope of the story in Shenmue III seems closer in proportion to the original Shenmue game compared to the much larger Shenmue II, although it replicates beats of the stories from both games.  Ryo travels to two distinct places, must solve a puzzle related to the Phoenix Mirror, rescue a captured female love interest, and is aided by multiple companions with a huge climactic battle at the end fighting through multiple and various enemies.  In a way, it’s almost like Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, where the creators intentionally repeat elements of the previous storylines to remind diehard fans of the franchise that this was still the same product they were experiencing.  The only difference here is, the characters introduced in Shenmue III do not feel nearly as significant as those in the previous games, where Ryo either already has preexisting relationships with them in Shenmue, or develops friendships with them through multiple encounters over time—here, Ryo only meets each character at least two or three different times, and the interactions are not fleshed out enough for them to earn any significance to the story.  Parts of the plot even appear to be formulaic of a kung fu movie or anime, repeating a sequence of events where the protagonist must learn a new technique to beat a stronger opponent.  Some of these elements even appear to be rushed, which I can only speculate is due to the limitations of the production, however of all things to cut corners on, the story in my opinion should not be compromised at all.  In comparison to the escalating story of Shenmue II, the plot of Shenmue III can be said to be lackluster.

What is most frustrating about this is how little the progression of the story means in the whole of the series.  In an interview with Yu Suzuki titled “Yu Suzuki Says Shenmue 3 Will Get Us 40 Percent Through Ryo’s Story” by Eric Van Allen of USG (USgamer), where Yu Suzuki’s took out a water bottle to describe the progress of the story, Eric wrote “‘Whole story of this bottle, about here [sic]’, Suzuki said via translator.  I asked if he meant halfway.  ‘40 percent’, Suzuki responded.”  Not only are fans of the series being denied a conclusion, it is revealed that we are far from one at all.  As established in previous segments, the story originally consisted of sixteen “chapters”, though Yu Suzuki later stated that it consists of eleven chapters; Shenmue tells the first chapter of the story, as suggested by its original Japanese title, “シェンムー 一章: 横須賀” (Shenmū Isshō: Yokosuka; Shenmue Chapter 1: Yokosuka”)and Shenmue II is comprised of chapters three to five, with the second chapter being told in one of several side comics.  If we were to follow the then-current plan of eleven chapters, this would mean that any chapters (if it is even plural) that Shenmue III covers are so small in comparison to others; if Yu Suzuki has gone back to his original vision of sixteen chapters, assuming that each chapter is equally proportionate, Shenmue III would have only covered two chapters, and this only further highlights the minuteness of Shenmue III in the big picture.  Yu Suzuki has gone on record to state that the complete Shenmue series would have consisted of four or five games total.  Although this is not fresh news, it leaves open to discussion how much more plot that future games would have to proportionally cover, and it is another discussion entirely if this is even feasible.

As with Shenmue, the game was dubbed in both the original Japanese and English, with both voice actors Matsukaze Masaya and Corey Marshall reprising their roles as Ryo’s Japanese and English voice actors, respectively.  At the time of this writing, I have only played through the game once with the initial setting of the English dub.  And as expected, like the other games, it is hilarious and stilted with awkward dialogue (this part may be more the fault of the script writers), but this has undeniably become part of the Shenmue series’ nostalgic charm internationally.  To the game’s credit, the English dub is much closer to the translation and subtitles of the original Japanese dub, which is an improvement over the previous games.  That being said, based on what little I have heard of the Japanese dub, I can definitely say I prefer it over the English dub, as is the case with many foreign works, despite mainly experiencing the English dubbed version.

A longstanding aspect of the Shenmue story is the interpretation of Chinese culture, including and most prominently Chinese martial arts, which I will address later in the write-up.  First, the spelling and pronunciation of Chinese words by the English voice actors has improved immensely from the previous games, since a clear effort was made by the crew to achieve this, and is something that I really appreciate as someone who learned and speaks Mandarin (although I am by no means a linguist).  In terms of the plot, Elder Yeh explains that the imperial envoy arrived to Bailu Village in 1910, the second year of the Xuantong Emperor aka Pu Yi, the last emperor of China and the Qing Dynasty (on an interesting note, the bodyguards of Pu Yi were known to have practiced Bajiquan, hence Bajiquan being known as the “style of bodyguards”), “to command the greatest stonemason to make a set of mirrors of Phantom river stone”, where “the dragon is the emperor and the phoenix is the empress, [and] the treasure is the hidden treasure in their palace”, which is corroborated by Zhu Yuanda’s explanation in Shenmue II that the two mirrors paired together form “A key to treasures hidden away in order to revive the Qing Dynasty.”  This game appears to expand a bit on this detail, where the hidden treasure of the Qing Dynasty now appears to become an endgame, replacing the significance of mirrors that led to it.  However, in the first game, Master Chen said that Zhu Yuanda once told him, “…when the Dragon and the Phoenix meet, the gates of heaven and earth will open…”, resulting in the resurrection of Chi You (蚩尤; Chī Yóu), a figure of Chinese legend (who is involved in the cultural history of 摔角; shuāijiǎo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling, then known as 角抵; jiǎodǐ, literally “butting horns”, and 角力; jiǎolì, strength skill), and is called “a legendary Chinese monster.”  As stated in the previous segment, it is still not clear whether the Dragon Mirror and the Phoenix Mirror will be used for this purpose as well.

Of course, this discussion of Chinese culture in the game would not be complete without mentioning the motif of Chinese martial arts, which has become more overt and is now at the forefront of the series, having a vastly expanded role in the plot since Shenmue II, where it had already notably become more prominent compared to Shenmue.  Since Ryo is a martial artist, it is only natural that the presence of martial arts is integral to both the plot and the gameplay.  The influence of Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist) continues throughout the series, this time being mentioned and featured multiple times as Ryo learns two new moves, the first being tieshankao (铁山靠; tiěshānkào, iron mountain bump with the upper back), called “Body Check” in the game, and yaozichuanlin (鹞子穿林; yàozǐchuānlín, hawk threads [through] forest), called “Reverse Body Check” in the game, and traces the roots of the style and its techniques back to Yu Suzuki’s previous creation, Virtua Fighter, where Ryo is a parallel to Akira Yuki; Ryo Hazuki’s preexisting moves clearly include Bajiquan movements, and he explicitly states that he learned from his father and Grandmaster Tao Lishao, when Grandmaster Bei asks who taught him Bajiquan moves and comments that he has a knack for Bajiquan.  The “Rooster Step” (鸡步; jībù, literally “rooster/chicken step”) that Ryo learns is in fact “circle walking” (走圈; zǒuquān, walk circle) or “walking the circle” in Baguazhang (八卦掌; bā​guà​zhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm).  Yanlang appears to be a Bökh (ᠪᠥᠬ; Mongolian wrestling, literally “endurance”) fighter, specifically the Inner Mongolian style, given the studded leather wrestling jacket he wears being indicative of that style.  In Ryo’s first meeting with Grandmaster Bei, Bei explains the history of how Nanquan (南拳; nánquán, Southern Fist) was secretly passed on despite martial arts being banned for a time (multiple times actually) in China, and appears to use movements from traditional southern Chinese martial arts styles with a smaller frame, such as Wing Chun (永春; Yǒngchūn, literally “eternal spring”) and Wuzuquan (五祖拳; wǔzǔquán, Five Ancestors Fist).  When investigating Ge Longqi’s style, it is revealed to be Xinyiliuhequan (心意六合拳; xīnyìliùhéquán, literally “heart-will six harmonies fist”), based on the reference of its animal movements of Snake (蛇; shé), Monkey (猴; hóu), Dragon (龙; lóng) and Bear (熊; xióng), and is a style that shares the same roots as Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíng​yì​quán, literally “shape-will fist”) as an “internal” (内家; nèijiā, literally “internal family”) style of Chinese martial arts, which characters in the game clearly state, where “internal” refers to the training of qi (气; qì, vital energy), intent, spirituality, deeper skeletal musculature and tendons closer to the bones over the larger muscle bellies, and literal internal organ health, as opposed to “external” (外家; wàijiā, literally “external family”) arts, where “external” refers to the training focused on purely physical techniques.  Chen (陈; Chén) Style Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) is also prominently featured, particularly in Bailu Village, where Su Zixiong declares himself a “Chen Taichi master”, and is seen teaching children, where other character models appear to be going through movements of Chen Style Taijiquan forms as well.  Certain character models in the training halls appear to be demonstrating Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; Praying Mantis Fist) in their opening cutscenes, when initiating fights with them.  Yet other character models appear to be going through Baguazhang movements, and children appear to be training Xinyiliuhequan in Niaowu as well.  But this is not the extent of all the Chinese martial arts featured in the game.  In the montage where the game transitions from Bailu Village to Niaowu, Ryo can be seen practicing “Fourth Road” Chaquan (四路查拳; sìlùcháquán), arguably the most popular and most widespread form of the Chaquan (查拳; cháquán) style (which is strange, logically there is no stylistic connection for Ryo to know or practice Chaquan, so they must have gotten a motion capture actor that knew Chaquan).  The Wude (武德; wǔdé, martial ethics) which was introduced in Shenmue II also makes an Easter egg appearance written on the back of Man Yuan Temple, where “GON” is in fact “gōng” (功; achievement) in Chinese, and is part of the term “gongfu” (功夫; gōng​fu), better known, or rather mistranslated, as “kungfu” or “kung fu”, the popular name for Chinese martial arts, but is in fact the idea of skill or effort achieved over time and hard work.  “DAN” in Chinese is “dǎn” (胆; bravery/courage), “JIE” in Chinese is “jiè” (戒; to warn, caution, admonish), and “YI” in Chinese is “yì” (義; righteousness).  Near the end of the game, one of the fighters standing in-between Ryo and Lan Di appears to be a blatant and poor imitation of Bruce Lee (although he looks nothing like him), which is reduced to a joke when gets knocked out by a head kick from Ren.  The staff behind the game clearly did their research on Chinese martial arts (although I am upset that the word “hall”, which is the correct literal translation of the term 馆; guǎn, literally “building” for a place of operation, is used interchangeably with the word “dojo”, a Japanese term, to refer to the training halls of Chinese martial arts).  Of all the aspects of the game, I am perhaps most happy with this one, as a fan of Chinese martial arts who recognizes the diversity of styles that have been included in the game.

There is of course the music as well.  The music of the Shenmue series is very memorable and has cemented the distinct identity of the series with the sounds and motifs of Chinese orchestra.  However, Shenmue III lends perhaps the least amount of new additions or arrangements to the series.  Instead, it reuses tracks from previous games, as well as the derailed Shenmue Online (シェンムー オンライン; Shenmū Onrain) MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game).  But this does not necessarily make it a bad thing.  It is good to see all that previously unused material being put to good use.  And as someone who enjoys these tracks, I am happy to finally hear them in an actual completed product of Shenmue.

Gameplay

Of course, no game is complete without gameplay.  After all, gameplay is what defines a game as an interactive form of entertainment.  Without defining gameplay, a game fails to be good or distinctive in any way.

Because Shenmue III was produced by a studio separate from Sega and built on the Unreal Engine, used for such games as the Batman: Arkham series, Borderlands series and Gears of War series, which was not previously used for the first two games, the gameplay mechanics are noticeably different from the previous installments, albeit with the same basic structure and a few updates and variations.  However, like the previous parts of this segment, because the gameplay is largely divided into similar categories as the previous games, I will separate the review of gameplay into sections of “FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment)”, “QTE (Quick Timer Event)”, and “Free Battle.”

FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment)

Going back to the game’s development on the Unreal Engine, the physics of movement and visual appearances in FREE are vastly different from those in the previous games.  An example of this how the game leans more towards the over-the-shoulder camera view that is popular in more modern games, as opposed to the traditional third-person perspective that the previous games used.  Aside from the much smoother visual graphics, the vast difference between this game and the previous ones is most noticeable in this aspect of the game, as this is where the bulk of the gameplay and game design was clearly was aimed at, and you can tell.  For one, movement is much smoother.  The first notable improvement from previous games I noticed, even from the playing the Kickstarter exclusive backer trial demo, was the fact that 360º camera control was now possible and allowed the player to have 360º directional movement independent of the camera.  Previously, the other games’ traditional third-person perspective meant that the camera view was restricted primarily to Ryo’s back, meaning the player could only move “forward” relative to where they were facing, and would have to switch directions using the D-pad (directional pad); pressing “down”/“back” meant that Ryo would turn 180º, which would consequently cause the camera to rotate and adjust.  Like the second game, there is a small layout of the main controls according to the game controller, making the understanding and playing of the game much easier for a new player.  And in a similar vein with previous games, here, the player has the freedom to engage in many features of the game, such as conversing with nearly every character in-game, buying sodas and toy capsules, playing mini-games, and physically examining many items within the environment.  On this last feature, all objects that the player can interact with are now highlighted by emanating red circles when switching to the first-person view, which objectively makes the game much easier, but also takes away from the pure exploration aspect that players would have experienced from the previous games, and is also not as extensive in scope, though this may be due to the limitations of the production.  An additional feature of this aspect of the game is that of food, where the player must use food items to restore Ryo’s constantly depleting health throughout the day, which is only exacerbated by running.  This addition has become an inconvenience, as it makes it more difficult to prepare for fights.  The player also has the option to change Ryo’s wardrobe by buying clothes, though since I’m a creature of habit and stick to what I already know, I haven’t tried this.  For the PC, something that is very frustrating is the fact that the directional controls are not consistent between WASD keys for general movement and FXCV keys in-game menu choice selection during interactions.  From this part of the game, the player also has access to a notebook, where Ryo jots down the details and clues of his journey as he goes along, and has notably improved with the compartmentalization of information into categories or tabs on the notebook, as opposed to the previous games where the player would have to flip through many pages just to find one piece of information.  As with the story, the scope of the world in Shenmue III is closer in proportion to the original Shenmue game compared to the much larger Shenmue II.  Again, this may be due to the limitations of the production.  Essentially, this is really designed like any sandbox style game you would see today.  But due to all the features mentioned that are consistent with the other games, it is perhaps this aspect of the game that makes Shenmue III truly feel like an authentic experience and part of the Shenmue series.

QTE (Quick Timer Event)

Also known as “Quick Time Event”, QTE consists of any interactive event, where the player is prompted to press specific buttons that appear on the screen within a small amount of allotted time.  During a first time playing though the game, QTE can seemingly happen at any cutscene, without warning or prior notice.  If this sounds familiar to gamers today, it should.  This is a gameplay feature that is present in many games from the previous decades, such as certain Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, Resident Evil 4, Tomb Raider: Anniversary and the God of War games, and Shenmue was certainly one of, if not the first, to implement this.

Like the second game, the third game makes full use of all four primary action buttons/keys of the controller interface, though this is not the case for the directional controls (objectively, this may have something to do with how the QTE sequences were scripted, not necessarily the limitations of development).  Again for the PC, the issue of inconsistency between general movement and menu choice selection comes back here; I was very frustrated and confused playing though the first QTE sequence of the game when I initially thought that I was successfully responding to the onscreen prompts for the directional keys using the WASD keys, only to find out on my own that they were in fact meant to be the FXCV keys used for in-game menu choice selection.  This may have something to do with how the game controls are mapped to certain keys for the PC, and the possible limitations therein (I had experienced similar issues playing the Shenmue I & II rerelease ports on Steam).  Objectively, console gamers may not have an issue with this due to having the D-pad (directional pad), and this is perhaps most telling of the fact that the Shenmue series was originally meant to be played on consoles and not on PC (it even states on the opening screen of the game that “Playing Shenmue III with a controller is recommended”, but then if the game is also going to be on PC, I don’t understand why more of an effort wouldn’t be made to properly map the controls more conveniently for PC gamers).

This game also makes use of a recreation of “Command QTE” originally introduced in the second game, where the player is prompted to press a certain order of buttons the within an amount of allotted time, though again, this is restricted to the four primary action buttons/keys.

Free Battle

Again, because the game’s development on the Unreal Engine, the physics and visual feel are vastly different from the previous games.  Fights can range from a singular opponent, to multiple opponents surrounding Ryo, like the previous games.  One of the biggest observation in difference is that the fighting mechanics in the game, seem “smoother”, but therefore may appear slower and not as fast as previous games, and also don’t seem as sensitive and responsive to the controller (although this may be due to the limitation of possible combinations, which I will get into).  Fighting techniques and movements are categorized into hand (and elbow) moves, leg moves and guarding, with two buttons/keys reserved for the first two, and one for the third; every movement is either one, or a combination of two of these, all of which are real martial arts moves taken from real martial arts styles.  A huge regression in this game is the lack of throw (and grappling) moves, which takes away an entire dimension of fighting possible, though it was stated that the inclusion of these was not feasible due to the limitations of the production.  Because there exists more than one move for certain combinations, moves are interchanged after successive combinations from the “Skill Books” screen.  Of course, like the previous games, it is impossible to be able to talk about the fighting in the game without bringing up its content of martial arts.  There is again the presence of Bajiquan, as well as Taijiquan, just like Shenmue II.  The former has always been a testament to the Shenmue series’ Virtua Fighter roots.  It is notable that the game even credits Wu Lianzhi, master of his family’s Wu (吴;Wú) Style Bajiquan, which Yu Suzuki originally used to create the Virtua Fighter character Akira Yuki, who would in turn serve as the basis for Ryo.  Opportunities to learn real martial arts moves from specific characters in certain events, or buying “Skill Books”, is also an aspect shared with the previous games.  One improvement to the combat system is the progression or training aspect, where the player can spar with various characters throughout the game and participating in street fights.  The progression of “skill” is much more clear-cut than the previous games and is designated by the level of “Kung Fu” they can increase and is separated into two categories of “Attack” and “Endurance.”  The player can spar with various characters throughout the game, and successfully using and completing the QTE prompts for a configured move during these sparring sessions, will directly increase the “Attack” aspect.  There are also multiple ways to increase the “Endurance” aspect, by training horse stance (马步; mǎbù), one-inch punch (寸拳; cùnquán) and “Rooster Step”, where training horse stance consists of pressing one button/key to maintain Ryo’s squat level in relation to an artificial horizontal line against a Wing Chun style wooden dummy (木人桩; mùrénzhuāng, literally “wooden man post”), training one-inch punch consists of timing the pressing of the same button/key to strike a wooden post, and training “Rooster Step” consists of controlling an artificial line to maintain within a specific range as Ryo walks the circle.  However, these aspects have a cap, which is very limiting.  There is also the option to fight at training halls, where the player can increase Ryo’s rank at each hall, employing a duan (段; duàn, formal rank or level) ranking system, which is similar to the formal dan ranking systems of Japanese and Korean martial arts system and is an accurate depiction of how ranking systems in Chinese martial arts are, though this does not gain the player anything in terms of leveling up their “Kung Fu.”  Although as I stated before, my favorite part of the game is the martial arts content, personally, I find this game’s combat system to be much shallower in comparison to the previous games.  Most martial arts techniques that can be learned are much more limited and are in fact simply variations of moves from previous games, round/roundhouse kicks and backfist strikes (although in all fairness, this is probably how real fighting techniques are distilled and used).  In terms of physics, every time someone gets hit, they simply stand there and take it or are knocked down, and are no longer knocked back with a classic sound effect, which in my opinion lacks the charm of the “Free Battle” from the other games.  In a way, the physics are very much like Jade Empire, where the movements appear “smoother” but also slower and not as fast as actual fighting games.  The control strategy of the game and the tactics in actual sparring or fighting is very one-dimensional, from hitting and guarding, to sidestepping the opponent’s attacks and hitting while they are open.  The enemy AI (artificial intelligence) is also very simple, where the opponent will simply come forward, attack and occasionally guard.

So that is the complete summation of my review of the game.  Although I am aware that there is DLC (downloadable content) for the game, I have not yet played these, and will not include them in this write-up, as I’m more interested in judging the base product as a standalone game.  It is no secret that this game has been very divisive and polarizing to those who have played it, though the Shenmue series has always been this way.  The consensus of reception for this game is that Shenmue III is a faithful adaptation for better or worse.  Ultimately, as I stated in the previous segment, this game would only appeal to a niche audience, specifically loyal fans of the Shenmue series, and not something of the mainstream or popular market or appeal, but rather an artistic one.  Is this game as good as Shenmue or Shenmue II?  No, I would say that it certainly isn’t, but it is hard to top the original experience of those first two games, especially when it’s something from one’s childhood that they grew up and hold a lot of nostalgia for, and again, this is only my opinion.

The reason for the continued lack of overwhelming mainstream success goes back to Shenmue III sticking to the authentic Shenmue experience, which is both its distinctive brand and its curse.  This is because this experience, while still having a strong fanbase, is not without its shortcomings and criticisms which, and remain with Shenmue III.  The first is and has always been the pacing; previously, the pacing of the first two games was criticized for a lack of clear direction and consistent action.  Shenmue III improves on the former, which I can attest to as seeing the game’s primary objectives being straightforward to figure out and complete.  The player also has the option to choose between “game modes”, from “Easy”/“Story Mode”, “Normal”/“Recommended Mode”, “Hard”/“Challenge Mode” and “Hardest”/“Nightmare Mode”, to tailor to their own gaming experience, similar to the most recent God of War game (personally, I chose the Easy”/“Story Mode” on my first playthrough, since I’m admittedly not a very good gamer).  One of the improvements carried over from Shenmue II was the addition of a “Wait” option at certain points during “FREE” gameplay, allowing the player to choose to advance directly to the next part of the plot, or simply play around with no direction.  However, the latter still poses a problem of action.  While there is still plenty of opportunity for martial arts training, there are still very few actual fights in the game, and not enough for a player looking for consistent or constant action.  At this point, it seems clear that the Shenmue series is not that kind of game series; while martial arts is an integral part of the premise and story, fighting and action is not the primary appeal of it.  The third game also now has a direct exit feature during gameplay, which the first two games did not have.  And there is now an in-game “Save” mechanic, allowing the player to save at any point during the game, which Shenmue II had but Shenmue did not, though this is to be expected as a basic feature that is required for games nowadays.  Where the first two games were groundbreaking, Shenmue III offers more of the same and does not necessarily add anything completely new, which is okay for fans like me.  But even as it is, the Shenmue series still does not have much hope of appealing to modern gamers, even to those that consume other more successful open world games.  So, while there are some miniscule improvements to the gaming experience, Shenmue III does not give the Shenmue series the mainstream success that it has always lacked and is certainly not the saving grace of the series.

Another important thing to note is that as previously mentioned, this game was an indie game, not a game with major studio support.  So, for whatever the game could have offered but ultimately could not deliver on, this can be attributed to the limitations of the production, which was primarily from fan support.  This fan support of Shenmue III amounted to a total of seven figures in millions of USD (United States Dollar).  This is nothing compared to the original Shenmue and Shenmue II, the costs of which were eight figures, so Shenmue III could not possibly compare to the scope of the original two games.  With all these things being considered, I would say what we got was amazing.

The other related question is whether this game lived up to all the hype.  This is ultimately a matter of opinion, and again, many people are divided on this.  There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this game.  Firstly, the news coverage of this game has been fraught with a lot of naysaying from multiple news sources on the prolonged development of the game, as it was delayed multiple times.  Yet another issue was the fact that the game’s release on PC would be an exclusive for the Epic Games Store, which has received a lot of backlash when it was initially going to be released on Steam.  But in terms of the big picture, the game had become an actuality after all these years of the impression that it would never happen.  I am glad this game got made, and for the first time in a long time, it made a believer and a child (in more than ways than one) out of me again.

Yet another question is the future of the series.  Yu Suzuki has certainly made it clear that he wants to work on a Shenmue IV.  But with fans left wanting more, any future games would have to provide that which Shenmue III was lacking, which again, goes back to more story and the expanded gameplay of the original games.  Only time will tell whether this will happen or not.  This of course also depends on the support of the fans, without which Shenmue III itself would have never happened in the first place, and as I stated before, I will gladly continue to support the series, even if it means donating more money.

No matter what, the existence of Shenmue III and the journey of its creation is a testament to how passions and dreams really can come true, as long as there are people that really are willing to support them and want them to happen.  Things like this are what really change my perspective of the world.  Where ten years ago, many people, including myself, would have thought certain things to be impossible, we are now seeing these things become a reality.  Now, when I am asked about how likely something that is implausible will happen, however improbable it may be, I’ll say, “Stranger things have happened recently”, and point to Shenmue III as an example, right up there with Donald Trump being President of the United States and Wushu becoming an Olympic sport.  If you are interested in these games, I do encourage you to try them out.  With the Shenmue I & II rerelease, it is now possible to experience the entirety of the series on recent gaming platforms.  Revisiting this series, this time with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, has been a great exercise, and I am ultimately happy I got to resolve my nostalgia.  For those of you that have taken the time to read this, thank you!  I hope reading this has gotten you interested, or at least to understand, the impression of these games.

To share the experience of Shenmue as much as I can, I have included links that are educational to what Shenmue is like.  This includes game reviews and both versions of the original Japanese dub and English dub of the Recap Movie included in the game, which is a quick narration and summarization of the original two games’ main plot and cutscenes.

Recap Movie (Japanese):

Recap Movie (English):

YouTuber HappyConsoleGamer’s Shenmue III Review (First Thoughts):

YouTuber HappyConsoleGamer’s Shenmue III Review (Final Thoughts):

Enjoy!

Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.