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Shenmue III is the most wonderfully enigmatic video game of 2019. It's a title perfectly of its era, of this era, crowdfunded as it was by fans of its SEGA Dreamcast-period predecessors and produced unashamedly with them, and only them, in mind. It's the product of an exclusively 21st century way of making video games: asking if there's any demand for it, and answering the call.
But Shenmue III is also completely, hopelessly, unforgivably out of time and place. It continues the story of 1999's Shenmue and its 2001 sequel, then-ambitious adventure games directed by SEGA legend Yu Suzuki, and makes exactly no concessions to late arrivals, save for a strangely unsatisfying recap movie. Unlike most modern games, which would more comprehensively set the scene before dropping you into the action, it simply begins where the last game ended. Didn't play Shenmue II? Too bad.
Naturally, the argument can be made here that if you've not played the past two Shenmue titles - which received HD releases last year, making them accessible on modern consoles - then you've no business picking this one up. It's not a game for you - it's for them, the players who fell in love with protagonist Ryo Hazuki's glacially paced quest for vengeance, his slow-motion pursuit of the man who murdered his father. It's a game for me, someone who's already spent tens of hours in the company of this monotone martial artist, this sullen teenager in a rad jacket who's desperate to find himself some sailors.
And yet, I can't decide if Shenmue III is exactly what I wanted in a third entry, or actually sort of terrible. It certainly doesn't shift through the gears to bring Ryo's journey of revenge closer to a climax, its story unfolding - across two locations, the rural Chinese village of Bailu and the bustling city of Niaowu - at such a slow pace that five hours of play can seem like twice as many. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, as what Shenmue III does provide is the same escapist immersion that the SEGA games achieved.
Shenmue III might not look as photo-real as other (semi) open-world games of its generation, but by doggedly sticking to the aesthetic of games one and two, albeit rendering its sometimes strangely stylised characters in Unreal 4, it captures a comparable magic. Wandering its fields, its streets, its markets and waterways, it's like a dream come to life; an echo of a memory of those turn-of-the-millennium titles, materialised in striking colour and becalming beauty.
And it really is beautiful. Look beyond the faces made of clay, the stiff animations and the repeated assets found in houses and shops, and you'll catch the sun on cherry blossom, the rush of a ripple of water racing past a rickety bridge. You'll see lights and life, hear the sounds and damn near sniff the smells of these fantastic palaces of escapism.
The real world getting you down, this glum winter season? Take a trip to Bailu and feel the peace wash over you. Everything's slower here, and you've all the time you need to poke around in shops, pick herbs and go fishing. Apart from when there are thugs to beat down, of course - this wouldn't be Shenmue without some studious pugilism, and when Ryo has to hick high and elbow hard, he delivers. Assuming, that is, you get to grips with a combat system that does its damndest to appear opaque, introducing itself to players by simply inviting them to button mash and burying its intricacies in menus.
Eventually, Shenmue III's various systems begin to click. Ryo must practise his poses, and spar with partners, to level-up his kung-fu - which is necessary for getting the better of certain enemies. Eating and sleeping is essential - you will get hungry and lose health, which is a shock at first. Whenever a room needs to be searched for game-progressing clues, you quickly realise that you needn't open all the drawers - or any of them, usually. But that you can, if you like, it another callback to the original game. So too are the menu sounds, the little tone, the hum, that you get when you buy a new capsule toy.
And the acting. Oh, the acting. So wooden you'd swear this was a second-reading am-dram interpretation of the real thing, rather than, y'know, the real thing. And it's exactly what I want from a Shenmue game. I don't want Ryo to sound shocked, excited or concerned. I don't want this magnificent marionette that I'm pulling the strings of to be a real boy. I want him to be all, "I see"; I need him to half-question himself with a familiar, "Is that so". That's my Ryo. And if you've played Shenmue before, be it at the end of the '90s or just last year, he's your Ryo, too.
But the anachronistic nature of Shenmue III, its dedication to bringing the fans the old experience in a new gaming landscape, can't pass without criticism. This game is rubber to the glue of each and every newcomer that dares to give it a chance. Its stunted conversations will be such a confusing feature (not a bug) that many who want to see what the fuss is about will never make it to the quiet, revealing and delightfully sweet exchanges that Ryo has with friend and temporary housemate Ling Shenhua. Its creaking mechanics and the awkward edges on everything will present such a strain to players weaned on slick gameplay-to-cutscene transitions and motion-captured energy that they'll just tune out, turn off, and forget.
Credit where it's due, then, to those who refused to forget. Those who hoped and wrote and campaigned for another game. Those who now have it, after Suzuki and his Ys Net studio answered, and will love it, I'm sure. They won't care about the score beneath these words or those published elsewhere. To them, and anyone else who loved Shenmue and Shenmue II, this third game is a blessing. Give it maximum marks, and get excited about Yu Suzuki saying he's every intention of making a fourth one.
And to everyone else: let the fans have their game, and direct your miss-the-point criticism elsewhere.
Shenmue III was tested on PlayStation 4, using code supplied by the publisher. Read a guide to our review scores here.
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