I’ve just finished Shenmue III.
In some ways, I find the game’s determination to walk the path it originally laid out quite charming. It often feels like the only cultural touchstones Shenmue III has touched during its creation was Shenmue I and Shenmue II, which is kind of extraordinary, if you think about it. I do think there is value in a game that is willing to take its time; to baste in its pecadillos, and to slow roast in the juices of its jank. Part of me is completely absorbed by the process. I embrace the slow routine of it all, I breath in a facsimile of China in the 80s that I have no personal ability to authenticate but that lives solely in these games. Often I feel like the game is telling you off for wanting to go quicker, in the same way its characters chastise Ryu’s impatience to go avenge his father. Your frustrations are Ryu’s frustrations. It’s kind of neat. It’s definately not intentional, but it is neat.
I mostly enjoyed my time with it, but Shemue III is a game that’s impossible to recommend for fear that you might accidentally be torturing someone by doing so. It is a gleefully turgid game, the central draw of the main story isn’t really there, as the entirely game only moves it forward by the smallest thimble of degrees. Nostalgia, Stockholm Syndrome, and a particularly resolute state of mind fuel this game; I can acknowlege that I like this game, or this series. I can acknowledge that it isn’t a game that is ‘for everyone’, whatever that means. Every positive thought is tinged with barbed wire, and the understanding that this might just be one of those crap games you love.
In fairness, a lot of the frustrations come from the DNA of it’s predecessors, which means they may not matter to people like me who are already ‘in the ecosystem’. It does contribute a few new irritations; the main one being a Stamina system which depletes over time and is meant to represent your need for food, but it’s also your health meter, which means you can run into fights with barely any health if not prescient, plus being on low stamina stops you from being able to run at all, slowing you to a crawl when you’re trying to go buy some food to sort it out. It’s not fun mechanically, and it doesn’t even really result in realism, as I don’t know about you, but if I get hungry (possibly due to a beating), I might choose to eat one banana - I certainly wouldn’t try to down six; as the only fight you’d be prepping for after doing that is one with your own bowels.
Towards the end of the game (no spoilers; as there is nothing to spoil), Ryu turns to someone and says ‘Please, if you know something, tell me.’ I think this is an extremely efficient sentence, as it both distils the central premise and mechanics of the game to its absolute core, and could also double as the subtitle for the series. This made me chuckle and also feel sad at the same time. Such is the power of Shenmue.
Also, while it has no real bearing on anything, the art design of the characters is massively inconsistent, with some people looking like God’s first clay drafts. Things that could only approximate being labelled humanoid by the most generous of reviewers. It’s a deeply weird game to look at. Sometimes capable of surprising beauty, sometimes shockingly ugly. That could be a plus or a minus depending on how curious you are.
So yeah, if you’re new to the series, probably don’t play it. Or don’t go and play the old ones and then play this, which would make more sense to a sane person - though also seems insane because you’d have to invest serious time in two decidedly ropey and hilariously old-fashioned games before getting to this one. If you’re a fan, then sure, maybe Shemue III will work for you, but it really doesn’t actually matter to the main story. If Yu Suzuki gets to make Shemue IV, there is a 75% chance you could just start there and not even notice the jump from Shenmue II. Saying that, if you are a fan of the series, as I am, then there’s probably no point telling you to play it or not, as you’re probably already planning to regardless. You absolute nutter.