Shenmue 3 preview: hands-on with the long-awaited sequel

Shenmue 3 has been a long time coming, and here are some hands-on impressions from our US chums...

Den Of Geek US spent 15 minutes with Shenmue III at E3, and a lot of it was very enjoyable. Mostly because the little things – like having odd conversations with random townsfolk, buying peculiar items and trinkets from shops and capsule vending machines, and engaging in quaint, meditative mini-games – recall the brilliance of the original titles and Yu Suzuki’s genre-defining concept of somehow making mundane, everyday tasks deeply fun and engrossing.

At the same time, the demo didn’t inspire complete confidence in game’s presentation and combat system. There’s something nice about the fact that someone could potentially play Shenmue I and II and then jump into Shenmue III and find the characters and environments immediately recognizable aesthetically. Shenmue II came out 18 years ago, though, and some people might prefer a higher level of polish.

It’s worth noting that the project’s Kickstarter didn’t generate nearly the amount of money necessary to develop a game as sprawling and graphically polished as some fans would have hoped (the budget came in somewhere around $10 million, a far cry from the original game’s $70 million). This was never going to be a true next-gen graphical update of the series. That said, the fact that the game looks like a Dreamcast title at times could hurt Shenmue III in the long run.

The demo took place in the Chinese mountain village of Bailu, with the player tasked with tracking down a bookie with a scar over his eye by exploring and talking to villagers. It’s nice to survey the town’s nooks and crannies before hunting down the bookie: you can play a rustic version of Plinko in the town’s small gambling area, buy a health supplement at a nearby shop, and partake in random stop-and-chats with the townsfolk. The dialogue is as bizarrely flaccid and awkward as ever, but for some reason, in Shenmue, that monotone delivery is oddly endearing.

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The first few minutes of the demo were blissfully nostalgic, and they’ll have long-time fans flashing back to the first time they loaded Shenmue on a Dreamcast. The density and detail of the exterior and interior environments are just as they were in the original games, with Ryo (voiced again by Corey Marshall) often picking up an inconsequential item and voicing a quick thought to himself before putting the knick-knack back on the shelf. Little moments like these are what make Shenmue special.

Once you find the bookie (with considerable help from the Deep Silver rep), you have the option to either fight him then and there, or train at a nearby dojo first, which would help your chances in the impending fist fight.

Weighing the demo’s time constraints, you might want to jump straight into battle and forego the dojo training. You might get your arse kicked, but what hurts the most is the fact that the fighting mechanics have been overhauled – and not for the better.

The original games’ combat felt snappy and fluid and was heavily inspired by the mechanics of Sega’s Virtua Fighter series. It was challenging to be sure, but it looked and felt very cool. Shenmue III’s fighting feels rigid, a little button mash-y, and surprisingly unresponsive. You don’t always feel like you’re quite in direct control of Ryo, which is concerning. 

After the fight, there were a couple of minutes left to pop over to the dojo and brush up on your skills: you can practise a squatting martial arts stance, which was a fun one-button mini-game; or you could spar with the dojo’s instructor, which offers more of the same fighting gameplay, with a quick tutorial on how to pull off a simple three-hit combo.

Shenmue III will without a doubt be a divisive topic of conversation leading up to and following its release date. Die-hards are sure to find beauty in the game’s faithfulness to the series, but new players and those who prefer modern gaming conventions and presentation may be turned off by some of the game’s wonkier aspects. There’s still time for the developers YS Net and Neilo to polish up some of the rough edges, so we’ll see how it all shakes out when Shenmue makes its long-awaited return later this year.

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Shenmue III launches on PS4 and PC on 19 November 2019.