Shenmue III is like a pie from your favourite pizzeria, one that has unfortunately been delivered to your door, way past due.
Now, there isn't anything egregiously wrong with cold pizza, and in that regard, Shenmue III isn't a terrible game. Still, for a title that retails for full price, Shenmue III falls short of expectations, particularly in contrast to other modern games.
Shenmue III opens up literally right where the second game ended, and without skipping a beat, players soon find themselves back in Bailu village, investigating the origins of the Phoenix Mirror. As Ryo explores the quaint village with the help of Shenua, players will quickly come to realize that Shenmue III is very much a continuation of the last game, and not just in narrative and aesthetics, but gameplay as well.
Now, don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Shenmue III, at least from the perspective of a fan, but it would be wrong to praise the game just because I'm a fan of the series. Shenmue III sadly does very little in evolving its gameplay mechanics and approach to game design. Players looking for an action game with a rich story can look elsewhere, Shenmue III for its majority, is a game about exploring densely packed environments, talking to characters, and slowly and painfully piecing together clues to move forward.
Fans of the first two titles will surely enjoy the third instalment, as even as something as talking to NPCs feels special and nuanced when inside the world of Shenmue. Newcomers or those wanting a modern-feeling game will sadly find Shenmue III's pacing almost as slow as the 18 years it took for the game to release. Often, Ryo will have to talk to the same NPC multiple times before getting any tangible lead, which in itself will frequently lead to another stall.
Aside from talking to NPCs, Shenmue III also brings back some mini-games which were initially introduced in the second title, in addition to a handful of new ones thrown in for good measure. Mini-games themselves don't feel particularly exciting and are for the most part there for Ryo to generate income, in order to sustain his stamina, a new mechanic introduced into the game.
Of course, the fighting-game style combat mechanics are also present in Shenmue III and feel the most refined, primarily due to the higher fidelity graphics and smooth performance. Like the previous games, Ryo can acquire various scrolls that unlock new moves, which in turn need to be levelled up via training which can be done throughout different spots within the game world. For the uninitiated, all this might sound like a lot to micro-manage, but it really isn't, as Shenmue III, relies on a day and night cycle, which ultimately makes things easier for the player to allocate time towards, with free time going towards training, or making money when not advancing the story.
Speaking of time-management, one area in which Shenmue III aptly feels modern is in its ability to now skip-ahead to a specific time to trigger time-sensitive events. This small change gives the player the option to either explore or get straight to the point without resorting in having to stand around like a kid who lost his dad in the mall (or in this case, murdered by a crazed martial artist inside his family dojo).
Small quality of life changes are basically the only thing that makes Shenmue III feel even remotely modern, which again, for fans shouldn't be too much of an issue, but for the vast majority of players, Shenmue III feels like it belongs back in the 90s/ early 2000s.
Two areas in which Shenmue III does feel rather modern is in its visual presentation and soundtrack. The game looks stunning, going for a look somewhere between photorealism and anime, very much a faithful realization of its Dreamcast-era concept-art. One small nitpick I do have with Shenmue III, in terms of missing content, is the lack of any real references to SEGA, which makes sense as Deep Silver now publishes the game. Still, the lack of SEGA arcade titles and gashapon figurines were woefully missed during my time with the game.
The biggest fault Shenmue III is guilty of is the fact that the game chooses to prolong the story yet again. Ambition is one thing, but for a game that took almost two decades to come into fruition, Shenmue III should have been the final chapter to wrap up Ryo's revenge story. We can only hope future instalments going forward will release in a more timely manner if nothing else.
Shenmue III is the monkey-paw wish of videogames — it is exactly what fans have wanted, to the point where it feels like it belongs in a different era. To casual audiences, Shenmue III is a game best reserved for the curious or patient player, those who are willing to sit through its slow guess-work filled gameplay and archaic game mechanics.