Shenmue III preview – I SEE

Seeing Shenmue III actually running as a real game is a surreal experience – a dream realised yet uncanny all the same. Perhaps it was always going to be this way, given that it’s a sequel that picks up right where the second game left off: with 18-year-old high school dropout Ryo Hazuki’s quest for vengeance seeing him arrive in rural China.

This was all before its host console, the Sega Dreamcast, came to a premature end, leaving the series suspended in time – at least until now.

In 2001, Yu Suzuki’s ambitious vision was ahead of its time: the most expensive video game ever made, and paving the way for interactive open worlds with a day and night cycle, and characters going about their own schedules.

But the genre has since evolved into ever more expensive and sophisticated worlds. Despite also being the most-funded Kickstarter video game, what hope does Shenmue III have of measuring up to a modern audience’s expectations on what is a comparatively shoestring budget?

Despite earlier criticisms of how characters look, NPCs really are quite expressive and detailed, especially the wrinkly old men.

As it turns out, none of those things matter much to Suzuki, a designer who doesn’t take any influence from playing other video games anyway, and certainly hasn’t paid any mind to what open-world games have been doing over the past 18 years.

In that respect, despite running on Unreal Engine 4, Shenmue III looks and feels like a continuation of the Dreamcast series, warts and all, and with an HD sheen.

Part of that continuity is Corey Marshall as the English voice of Ryo, who remains as wooden as the apparatus you can practise your martial arts on. It may prove endearing for old-school fans (personally, I’ll be switching to Japanese audio) though it’s something of a stark contrast to the professional quality of the voice acting elsewhere, including leading lady Shenhua, voiced by Brianna Knickerbocker (Catherine: Full Body, Astral Chain).

That’s similarly reflected in the character models themselves. For all the fuss over the more stylised appearance of its characters, NPCs are more detailed and expressive than they ever were before – it’s actually Ryo’s dead-eyed stare and robotic walking that makes him look so jarringly different from the characters around him.

When you’ve been gone for so long they’ve made gachapon toys of your loved ones.

Playing as this stiff and oblivious Ryo, it’s business as usual, as you go about speaking to the locals to track down a bookie with a scar on his face. He’s not that hard to find though, so it’s mostly an excuse for you to explore the village’s wonderfully realised surroundings, which manage to capture the intimate details of Yokosuka from the original game, as NPCs go about their day.

As in past games, that exploration involves being able to open drawers and cupboards, and examine seemingly useless objects, though in one store I also came across a shelf containing technique scrolls that you can buy and learn moves from. Highlighting objects with a red circle makes it considerably easier to know what you can interact with.

As expected, gachapon machines are in plentiful supply for you to waste your time and money on, and there’s even a Lucky Hit stand, albeit with some ludicrous physics – one attempt saw my ball missing its target by bouncing over multiple gaps at the bottom.

But there are also new activities, such as being able to chop wood for a shop owner. It’s an extremely rudimentary minigame compared to driving a forklift or that tricky QTE-based crate-carrying job in Shenmue II, but it’s a quick way to make money that doesn’t result in you using up a good chunk of your day. (Incidentally, the game still includes an in-game clock, although it was still daytime by the end of my 45-minute session.)

Minigames aren’t merely for killing time like they used to be, though. When it comes to martial arts training, they’re actually more important, as Shenmue III has inherited some RPG mechanics. Talk to the bookie, who then challenges you to a fight, and you’ll quickly find your kung fu skills no match for him.

Instead, you have to train and level up your stats, which you can do by practising against other martial artists at a nearby temple or training with a wooden puppet. Your health bar also slowly depletes over time, doubling as stamina, so you need to eat regularly to stay strong.

There’s more emphasis on fighting other martial artists in competitions, as well as training through minigames.

What I was less prepared for was the change to the combat. While the names of old moves have been retained, I was disappointed that pressing forward, forward, kick doesn’t unleash Ryo’s Tornado Kick – the Virtua Fighter-inspired mechanics have been done away with (the animations had to be remade from scratch) and replaced with a system that, while purportedly more accessible, feels a bit too much like button-mashing, not to mention stiff and unresponsive.

These are just one-on-one bouts where you’re automatically strafing around your opponent, too, so I’m wondering how it will handle in fights with multiple enemies.

After all this time, seeing Shenmue III gearing up for release is something of a miracle. It feels in all manner of ways like Shenmue, both in its charming details and awkward execution, but this may also mean only old-school Shenmue fans will come to this time capsule of a game with realistic expectations.

Global effort

> While its creator has taken the spotlight, there are other key players involved in realising Shenmue III. Chiefly, there’s the less publicised co-developer Neilo, whose founder Takeshi Hirai, lead programmer on the original games, actually serves as the game’s creative director.
> Shenmue III also features an impressive 500+ characters, which wouldn’t have been possible without the outsourced work of India’s Lakshya Digital. While Sega isn’t involved, its frequent collaborator Deep Silver is handling worldwide publishing. Finally, extra funding was secured late in development from an exclusivity deal with Epic Games – a deal that stoked a fair bit of controversy online.

Genre: Sailor hunting sim
Format: PC / PS4
Developer: Ys Net / Neilo
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release: 19 November

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