Game review: Shenmue 3 is a uniquely sedate experience

For better or worse, Shenmue III is almost exactly like what came before.
For better or worse, Shenmue III is almost exactly like what came before.PHOTO: DEEP SILVER

The first Shenmue, released in 1999, was quite unlike anything that came before.

It was then the most expensive game ever made, with an estimated US$70 million (S$94.8 million) budget that allowed creator Yu Suzuki to pour an unprecedented amount of detail and dialogue into the story of teenage martial artist Ryo Hazuki.

Along with the 2001 sequel, Suzuki made the Shenmue games an exercise in stopping to smell the flowers with long cutscenes, mini-games and lots of walking around, essentially forcing gamers to absorb all that detail at an exceptionally languid pace.

This approach went down well with some gamers and backfired spectacularly with others.

For better or worse, Shenmue III is almost exactly like what came before, doggedly disregarding the fact that video games and video gamers have evolved significantly in the intervening 18 years.

The game picks up where the second game left off, in the 1980s as teenage martial artist Ryo Hazuki continues to search for his father's murderer in order to exact vengeance.

He does so in exactly the same manner as in the first two games, namely by a lot of walking around and talking to people to find out whom he should talk to next.

For a game purportedly about martial arts, this humdrum monotony is broken up only intermittently by fight sequences.

Along the way, Ryo also has the option to complete his capsule toy collection, learn new martial arts moves, gamble, play carnival games and arcade games, chop wood for money and, yes, chat for no perceivable reason.

Plenty of things are done for no perceivable reason in Shenmue III, a signature quirk that is as likely to endear as it is to enrage.

For example, the game will occasionally require Ryo to cough up a significant sum of money for an item to advance the story.

 
 
 
 

There is no short cut to getting that money. Players will have to earn it the long and hard way by putting Ryo to work, chopping wood or driving a forklift, putting both the player's and Ryo's haste to track down his father's murderer into perspective.

But by wading through the morass of inconsequential conversations and actions, I found myself becoming more familiar with and warming up to the game's non-playable characters, as they too warmed up to Ryo.

This is how Shenmue III patiently and subtly rubs its charm off on you. While there are many modern games that offer far bigger, sprawling open-world environments, Shenmue III retains the convivial intimacy of its predecessors that I have not seen in any other game.

It is also more of an acquired taste than any other game I have played.

As a gamer, I already lean heavily towards the "relax and take my own sweet time" side of the spectrum.

Even so, the glacial pace of Shenmue III managed to grate on me at times.

And for all the busy work that the gamer has to do, the plot moves forward only incrementally from the previous game.

Players will have to wait for Shenmue IV for any kind of resolution to Ryo's story and perhaps further than that.

The voice work, done by Ryo's original voice actors in both English and Japanese, remains of a comically wooden vintage and by design, I suspect.

Graphics, while obviously a step up from 18 years ago, are also not up to scratch by modern standards.

This makes Shenmue III hard to recommend, going by the conventional metrics of a good game, to anyone new to the series.

All the same, with its insistence on staying faithful to its roots and its message of slowing down when all the world wants to speed up, Shenmue III is an experience well worth trying out.

FOR

• Has a unique charm, like no other game on the market

• Faithful sequel to previous Shenmue games, fans will lap it up

AGAINST

• Game's sedate pacing may not be for everyone

• Can feel dated in terms of graphics and game mechanics

SPECS

PRICE: From $54 (PC, version tested; PS4)

GENRE: Role-playing game

RATING: 8/10