I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Shenmue III, yet typing this, I am filled with an empty, unfulfilled feeling left by its anticlimactic cliffhanger ending, compounded by its glacial pacing and tediously slow approach to gameplay.
Sadly, I surmise that this is the general consensus of most of those who played Shenmue III. Eighteen years is a long time to wait for a release, something that series creator Yu Suzuki should have considered, opting to end the game rather than forcefully cripple its ending to make room for sequels.
Shenmue III is a faithful interpretation of the FREE or Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment system, which in essence was SEGA AM2 and Yu Suzuki’s attempt in creating a 3D, interactive, semi-open world experience. Surprisingly, even after eighteen years, the FREE system holds up better than it has any right to, however, what doesn’t hold up, is Shenmue III‘s insistent need to pad out story sequences through mind-numbingly stiff and compulsory fetch quests.
A good example of this can be found right before the final act of the game, during a sequence in which Ryo must infiltrate the enemy stronghold, but for no apparent reason, before this, a random NPC informs the player about stolen goods from his storefront (which for some reason is inside the enemy fortress). Thankfully, the NPC only requires Ryo to recover 3 items which doesn’t take very long to find but ultimately ruins the pacing and crescendo built up thus far by the narrative.
Situations like the above pepper the world of Shenmue III, dangling its story elements like a carrot behind menial tasks, inflating a game that should realistically maybe take 10 hours into one that goes well over the 20-hour mark.
Now, maybe due to some pseudo-Stockholm syndrome induced by prolonged game sessions — I eventually started to appreciate the quirkiness of Shenmue III. I felt Ryo’s anguish at having to repeat himself to NPCs, trying to find leads that would point him in the right direction, only to be forced to go back to his hotel for the night.
Naturally, a disappointing ending, following a 20-hour journey filled with tedium left me with a sick feeling that can only be described as what it must have felt like to fans when they realized Shenmue II wouldn’t see a sequel anytime soon.
Going forward, I would still like to see future entries into the Shenmue series. I feel Ysnet, and Yu Suzuki must reformulate the structure in which Shenmue is crafted, in order to survive. The first thing that jumps out to me when thinking about how Shenmue should evolve is by releasing the game in a piece-meal schema, ala Telltale Games or Dontnod Entertainments’ Life is Strange series.
Episodic releases would allow Ysnet to create smaller but denser locations, filled with the usual curios and oddities found in Shenmue, while still having room for more significant and meaningful story events. Staggered releases would also make cliffhanger endings feel more appropriate, as fans wouldn’t have to wait as long for the next chapter.
Another benefit in adopting an episodic release structure is the fact that Shenmue’s combat sequences are, by 2019 standards, a little loose, perhaps even clunky. In other words, the fighting in Shenmue could be pruned down into smaller sequences, to make room for more story beats. An emphasis on more story would allow each episode to feel worth it, instead of having one large game that does very little in moving the overall story forward.
Conversely, Shenmue could go the Yakuza route and focus on revamping the combat, while removing some of its investigatory elements in the process. A shift to pure action would make sense, as this point in the story, Ryo has already overcome a staggering number of thugs and honed his skills considerably.
Additionally, like everyone’s favourite eye-patched nutball, Goro Majima of Yakuza fame, who eventually becomes playable alongside series staple, Kazuma Kiryu, mirrors in my mind, Shenmue’s Wuying Ren, a character introduced in Shenmue II. Shenmue II and III already feature sequences in which Ren and Ryo team up, so by making both characters playable, would allow future entries to better pace themselves without resorting to uninteresting fetch quests or more obvious forms of padding.
Finally, another way Shenmue may be able to continue is by just being a smaller game, something released on mobile devices, stripped away of its more complex button inputs, replaced with a focus on gesture and timing. This wouldn’t be the ideal way to adapt future entries, but at this point, I would rather see something like a Shenmue mobile than having to wait years for new releases that feel like they belong on legacy hardware. Smaller mobile versions would also grant a wider audience, which in turn could generate more revenue and perhaps help in cultivating proper full releases in the future.
At the end of the day, I still love Shenmue and would like to see it succeed, or at the very least, have some kind of proper closure. Hopefully, we get a Shenmue 4 that critically looks at the faults of the third entry and changes enough to become something that can last while pleasing both series veterans and those willing to give the series another chance.