Clumsy, awkward, and stiff. Those are some words you can use to describe Shenmue 3. Rustic, charming, and cozy. Those are also words to describe Shenmue 3. The long-awaited third entry in Yu Suzuki’s adventure epic has all the quirks of the 1999 original, good and bad. You will either love it or be left asking: “What the hell is this?”
It’s hard to explain how much of a step forward the original Shenmue was. Released on the Sega Dreamcast in 1999, it had one of the most meticulous crafted game worlds for the time. You could open drawers, call friends on a pay-phone, and waste an entire afternoon at the arcade. It was one of the most expensive productions in video games at the time, with a fully orchestrated score and tons of voice acting. At the helm was Sega’s pioneering director Yu Suzuki. It was both a console defining epic and a flashy vanity project. As time has gone on, and other video games have caught up, the luster has worn off. Shenmue is slow by modern standards. The voice acting is both mocked and remembered with bemusement. Most modern games have pieces of Shenmue in them, and many of them do those things better, like the surging Yakuza series. Something has lingered in the hearts of fans though, enough that Shenmue 3 became the most well-funded video game Kickstarter of all time when it was announced at E3 in June of 2015.
I have a deep personal connection to the Sega Dreamcast and Shenmue. It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be writing about video games professionally without Sega’s experiments in the sixth console generation. I grew invested in Shenmue’s story, a sweeping revenge tale in which protagonist Ryo Hazuki chases his father’s murderer from Japan to China. I was a Kickstarter backer, the type of person Shenmue 3 was made for. That was back in 2015. Shenmue 3 is finally here and, for good and for ill, is exactly what fans wanted.
If you’ve never played a Shenmue game, the gameplay experience will seem remarkably quaint. The last game, Shenmue 2, ended with Ryo still on the hunt for his father’s killer, Lan Di. Shenmue 3 continues that story directly. After following Lan Di to a rural Chinese village, Ryo finds himself caught up in an almost mystical struggle involving two lost artifacts: the dragon and phoenix mirrors. To unravel their history and find Lan Di, he mostly wanders the village following a trail of breadcrumb-like clues and fighting thugs or martial arts masters. That means lazily stumbling through each day, talking to townsfolk, and seeing what happens next. Shenmue 3’s opening hours are slow and the stakes are low. Hey, Ryo. Maybe you should ask where Yuan the mirror expert is. Okay, I guess he was involved in a bandit attack. Can you find someone who knows about the bandits? The bookie at the gambling tables? Fight him to learn where to go next. Ah, yes.
Viewed cynically, Shenmue’s brand of adventure gaming is little more than a string of miniature games of hide and seek as you search for the right person to talk to or house to visit. There’s not much going on here that can compete with the explosiveness of modern AAA narratives. That sleepiness can be comfortable, however, and it mixes well with Shenmue 3’s more limited graphics and old-school voice work. It feels like watching a stage-play. There’s a broadness here that calls attention to the artifice but also has a lot of charm. You might be able to succeed in fights by button mashing, but you can also find an intricate system of combos and special techniques under the surface. It might seem pointless to collect gachapon mini-figures until you stumble upon a friendly child looking to complete their set. Shenmue 3’s complexities take some work to find. Engage with it at the proper pace and there’s an enjoyable experience to be had.
For some players, that’s going to be difficult. Shenmue 3 is not a game made for a modern audience; it’s made for players expecting a late nineties experience. This is a game for history buffs, Sega freaks, and fans eager to see another chapter in Ryo Hazuki’s story. Even if you’re curious to see what the fuss is, leaping into Shenmue 3 without knowing what you’re getting into will feel like diving into cold water. You might get used to it in time, but it will be a hard process. Whether that’s the strange pacing of the dialog, the extremely limited mini-game collection, or the fact that you’ll sometimes need to wait hours (in-game) to speak to the right person—sometimes you can skip right to the next plot beat but not always—Shenmue 3 is incredibly inconvenient. There is no right or wrong response. You will either be on board with Shenmue 3’s meandering sloppiness or you’ll hate it. I can’t imagine a middle ground.