Playing Shenmue 3’s recently released demo is like coming across some strange relic, unearthed and polished off by curious digital archaeologists looking to understand turn of the century video games. The pace is stately to the point of being somnambulistic, its voice acting feels like it’s been phoned in from half a planet and a couple of decades away, and the scope is limited in the extreme. I could not be any happier with it all.
I’m getting ahead of myself a little. The first thing that takes a while to comprehend is that Shenmue 3 exists, is playable, and is something I spent several happy hours playing over the weekend. The second thing that takes a short time to process is that, after all its various trials, Shenmue 3 actually might be good. As a fan who’s been waiting eagerly, at times impatiently, for nearly 20 years, I am not disappointed in the slightest.
It’s probably worth setting some context, though – I am most definitely a fan, a backer on Kickstarter and outside of that probably up to stalker-tier level when it comes to my support of Shenmue. I’ve made a pilgrimage to Yokosuka to see the setting of the original Shenmue, and have followed Yu Suzuki around the world to trace the project from its first seeds through to its eventual development.
And as such I’ve got my own quite personal take on what makes these such fine video games. Shenmue was always a modest game – I think that’s so much of its charm, really, as well as the exciting contradiction at the heart of the Sega originals given that they’re miniature, naturalised worlds delivered with boundless ambition and budget – so it’s to this follow-up’s credit that it remains equally modest, and even more so that it has that same ambition with a fraction of the original budget. It’s an experience about the gentle chatter of a playground soundtracking your slow stroll through a humble lived-in village, gathering stories from NPCs with lived-in faces.
Back in the day – and long before Hideo Kojima was getting up to similar shenanigans – Suzuki dubbed the nascent genre he was helping create as Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment. We’d probably call it open world these days, but that feels like it’s missing the point – instead, Shenmue is about drinking in detail. Back in the day it was about observing the routines of the citizens of Yokosuka, or heading to the local convenience store to pick up some cat food for the kitten you found in your care – it was about the everyday being brought to life.
In Shenmue 3 that’s as true as ever. The small village that’s in the demo picks things up, in a way, from where they were left at the end of Shenmue 2, and it’s all done faithfully. Ryo’s character model looks as close to spot on as I could have hoped for, while the villagers are all drawn with overstated character, just like the originals. It looks like a Dreamcast game – a trait you might take as a slight, but the perfect approach, I think, for a follow-up like this.
There’s a Sega vibrancy to the village – with its flower-filled meadows it looks like something you may have sped past in one of Out Run’s Testarossas – and a new precision to how it all feels. The controls retain some funkiness – sprint is mapped to the right shoulder button, a free look of sorts on the left shoulder, just as it was back in the day and has never really been since – but there’s a more modern snappiness to them. The world is now seamless too, with no loading screens as you step into buildings or explore the outer reaches of the village, while dynamic weather can see showers roll across the Guilin hills.
Such things would have felt like wizardry back in 2001, and in context of how faithful every element of Shenmue 3 is to the originals – from the menu system, now expanded but still told with the same fonts and with artefacts and photos from the first two games in Ryo’s inventory – they feel a bit like wizardry today. There’s good, old-fashioned magic here too, and in the various new mini-games you can see Yu Suzuki still has something of the old arcade showman about him. The fighting also shows pedigree, and is as close to a new Virtua Fighter as we’re likely going to get for some time. It’s obviously not as tech-heavy as a dedicated fighter, and there’s a fair amount of funkiness to its implementation too, but there’s also the same fluidity, grace and impact that Suzuki displayed in the first three Virtua Fighter games.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how fresh eyes take to Shenmue 3 once it’s finally released, as it’s a seriously strange game, with pacing and production that feels totally alien to modern sensibilities. For fans, though, it’s sure to be mana, and it’s heartening that not only have the development team held onto that strangeness but that they’ve managed to stay faithful to the density of detail that made the original Shenmue games so beloved. This is digital tourism at its finest, and it suggests that Shenmue 3 can be the follow-up Yu Suzuki’s majestic series deserves.