Shenmue 3 is a deeply strange game. It's been said more than once, but it's basically a Dreamcast game that's been airlifted out of 1999, given some quality of life improvements, and sent off into the wilderness of 2019.
It is in many ways the exact opposite of the original game. The original Shenmue was a technological marvel—an enormously expensive wonder that sought to create a living digital world. It wanted to push games forward in a way that no one had experienced to that point. Everything was hand-crafted; you could hang out and play games, or work odd jobs. Plenty found it boring, but many others found its dedication to realism—down to the inability to fast-forward time—fascinating.
Today, obviously, we have more sandbox games than we know what to do with. Many have long since surpassed Shenmue in the sort of granular day-to-day experiences they can provide. Shenmue is no longer a technological revolution—just a curiosity for the handful of hardcore fans who have fond memories of the original.
Still, it has its charms. I spent a bunch of time last week wandering a village from its early access demo finding every activity I could. I wound up taking a job chopping wood; racing turtles, and trying my luck at the local gashaphon games, among other things. You can find the highlights below.
Exploring the world of Shenmue 3, there are obvious parallels to Yakuza, another game with a surfeit of minigames. Mike even wrote as much a couple years ago. But Shenmue 3 moves at a much more languid pace, and its writing lacks the intentional silliness of Yakuza. I might have liked it if Shenmue had felt more like Kung-Fu Yakuza, rather than the version we're receiving that's faithful to a fault.
I didn't entirely hate my handful of hours with Shenmue 3. Playing what amounts to a Dreamcast game in 2019 is certainly novel. But I can't imagine putting in the hours required to play this game from start to finish. It's too leaden, too outdated, too... self-indulgent. In hewing so slavishly to the look and feel of the original Shenmue games, down to the incredibly bad writing and voice-acting, it's painting itself into a corner and in some ways betraying the franchise's spirit.
Where once Shenmue was awe-inspiring, now it's just a novelty that plays on nostalgia for the original. A handful of fans will love it; many more will buy Shenmue 3 out of curiosity, raise an eyebrow, then quit. It's a shame, because it feels like there's hidden potential here for a really different open-world experience. Instead, all we've got is a memory of what Shenmue once meant to games. Too bad.