To say we’ve waited long enough for this third instalment, is an understatement to say the least, but finally towards the backend of last year, Shenmue III finally released.  Even some weeks after its release, as a loyal fan since the very beginning and as a full disclosure, someone that backed the Kickstarter, it’s still a little hard to believe that it’s finally here, but here we are with the third instalment of this beloved saga a good 18 years later.

If you’re new to this series and thinking about playing Shenmue III, then I would strongly recommend playing the first two, which are available on current-gen systems.  They haven’t aged all that well, but if you can see past its issues; there is a certain charm, which has importantly carried over into this release.  That said, while it is an improvement in a lot of respects, and so it should as it’s been 19 years since Shenmue II first release, Shenmue III isn’t without its flaws and if you’re new going into this series, then you might not warm to it quite as much.  There is a catch-up video via the main menu, but again, if you want in on this series, then I very much recommend starting where it all began with the two remasters of Shenmue and Shenmue II (here’s our review).

Now that little introduction is out of the way, how does the long-awaited Shenmue III hold-up?  In truth, it’s a mixed bag and much like the originals, it’s not the smoothest of games to manoeuvre, especially as protagonist Ryo Hazuki exploring the world, because even to this day, he moves in a very clunky manner.  Granted, it’s not as tank-like as the originals, but when getting used to the Shenmue series spiritual successor with the fantastic Yakuza series, Shenmue III certainly takes a little getting used to.  However, while the bare basic such as simply walking around feels somewhat heavy, the combat in Shenmue III feels far superior (and so it should) over the originals.  To be fair, the combat in the originals, which was based upon the Virtua Fighter series was great for its time, but even so, it still needed to be modernised and that certainly has been achieved here.

The combat while not perfect, feels much more free-flowing and it’s easier to pull-off combos and it feels quite satisfying when you flaw an enemy or even a sparring partner.  As with the previous games, you can learn new moves by picking up move books, whether their acquired from an NPC or purchased from a shop.  You can also select a set of moves, almost like a loadout, which can come in handy when up against challenging foes that might need a change of strategy.  You can also power-up your moves, as well as levelling-up Ryo’s capabilities, whether it’s sparring or via the many training polls throughout the game, where you can practice your stance, balance or one-inch punch.  These factors are welcomed RPG additions, which in my opinion, helps you feel more invested in Ryo, as you progress not only in his story, but also Ryo himself.

A returning feature in Shenmue III, which is well and truly in the “love it or hate it category” is the QTE’s (Quick Time Events).  Personally, I hate QTE’s, as they can take you away from enjoying a cut-scene, I’ve never liked QTE’s and I don’t think I ever will.  But that’s all down to personal preference, as there will be many that won’t agree.  In my opinion, it would have been ideal to have had an option to turn QTE’s on or off, depending on your preference.  However, a new feature in Shenmue III is a stamina bar mechanic and again, much like QTE’s, you’re either going to love it or hate it and I fall into the latter category.  For me, stamina bar mechanics are just an inconvenience and are not at all fun, as you’ll be required to constantly top-up your health with food, as you’ll always be depleting, regardless of whether you walking, running or fighting.  Naturally, you’re health will deplete at varying levels depending on your current activities, but I found it to be an annoyance then anything else and just like QTE’s, I would have appreciated the option to turn off this mechanic to cater for personal preferences.

In terms of visuals, I don’t quite know what I was expecting, but I was surprised to how fantastic Shenmue III can look at times, whether your exploring the countryside, a nearby village or the more populated towns, Shenmue III is brimming with life with its population and activities.  One of the many elements that fans loved about the originals was with all the activities in which you could partake and Shenmue III is no exception.  There are more NPC’s to interact with, some of which will give you side-quests, there are more arcade machines to play, more vendors and more jobs.  And yes, Folk Light driving is back, which you will be grateful when it arrives as trust me, you’ll soon get sick of the chopping the wood job to earn money, which oddly seems to be a high demand job, no matter where you visit in the game.

It’s also worth noting that while some of the main character models such as Ryo and his companion Shenhua look good, as well as some of the other leading characters, some of the more generic NPC’s are a mixed bag.  I know visually, this series hasn’t been about realism, as they’ve always had a somewhat of a cartoony approach, but some of the children, especially within the opening Bailu Village, they have comically large craniums, which just makes them look incredibly odd once you notice it, while some of the adult NPC’s can have very emotionless facial expressions.  It’s nothing too off-putting and in truth, I found it all quite funny, in a charming kind of way.

Speaking of emotions, and being a mixed bag, the voice-acting is very inconsistent.  Again, I know this was the case in the originals, but in this day and age, I think it’s fair to expect somewhat of a leap in improvement.  Ryo has always been fairly static when talking and with the returning English voice-actor Corey Marshall, Ryo either sounds sarcastic, overly surprised or totally uninterested and his emotions don’t always match the current conversation or predicament, and sometimes NPC’s will seemingly say a line of dialogue during a conversation that doesn’t always make sense to the situation at hand.  I don’t want to sound overly harsh, but the English voice actors across the board are just so unenergetic, and this perhaps began to put me off the game as I progressed.

However, it dawned upon me whilst playing, I remembered how I preferred the Japanese voice-acting in the original Shenmue (which I changed to English for some reason in the sequel), so I reverted back to the Japanese voice acting in Shenmue III, and I found it to be far more passionate, energetic and ultimately, more enjoyable.  So if you think you can put up with Japanese voice-acting with English sub-titles, I recommend playing Shenmue II this way.  While on the subject of audio, even though I adore the main theme of the Shenmue series, the in-game soundtrack can get a little repetitive, so much so that I tried playing it without the soundtrack, before settling on just having its volume set to 1.  I believe any game is better with a soundtrack in the background, I just wish Shenmue III offered a little more variety in this respect.

All in all, it would be too easy to go into Shenmue III with expectations blown through the roof; after all, we have been waiting nearly 20 years.  Shenmue III is by no means perfect, in-fact it’s far from it, but if like me, you’ve been a fan since the beginning, you might very well find this to be the exact game that you’ve dreamed off, however in my humble opinion, it might be wise to go into Shenmue III with lowered expectations.  It has some issues and much of those issues, comes from the game feeling rather dated.  However, much like the two games that came before, Shenmue III has its own signature charm, which is quite hard to explain, unless you’ve experience it yourself; equally, Shenmue III might not be your cup of tea.  But if you can find that charm, regardless of its issues, Shenmue III is full of personality with an enticing world that might just have you full head-over-heels as I did, 18 long years ago.