The third game in the Shenmue series has been a long time coming. Two decades after the first game landed on the Dreamcast, I played a build of Shenmue 3 at E3 2019. Despite the delay, it was definitely a Shenmue game, so much that it almost feels like a game out of time.
In a timed 15-minute slice of the game, I guided Ryo as he and Shenhua searched the countryside for a bookie with a scar on his face. It's striking how familiar the movement and interactions feel to the first two Shenmue games; steering Ryo around shops, looking at objects like ornate skulls and maps, feels almost hauntingly nostalgic of the first game.
It didn't take long before I hit on a Shenmue classic: repeatedly asking nearby townsfolk about dudes I'm looking for. Rather than some sailors, I could ask around about the bookie with a scar, getting various clues or hearsay that would eventually lead me to him. Of course, I got sidetracked by tiny bits of fun like the capsule machines, where I got a sick miniature front-end loader.
Ryo's means of interaction are still mostly just talking, as there weren't many dialogue choices outside of opting to enter a fight or not. You do still have your handy-dandy notebook, which tracks your current objective as well as any notes you might have heard about them, like nearby landmarks. There is no map, so you're forced to use signposts and other physical objects in the world to understand where to go next.
When I finally found the scar-faced man, he said he would only give me information if I fought and defeated him. The combat in Shenmue retains its quirks and everything, feeling just shy of disjointed as animations can feel extremely deliberate, stiff, and jerky. While I held my ground fairly well, it became obvious that this was a scripted loss. The guy told me to head to Martial Hall to train if I wanted to beat him.
I made my way to the dojo and spent a few moments practicing my squatting Horse Stance before the demo ended, with Ryo on the cusp of new martial arts knowledge. It was an odd slice of game, trying to give me a sense of so many systems at once, but I walked away feeling like I had just gone back in time.
Shenmue 3 feels like a game made in a vacuum, like Yu Suzuki was in cryo-stasis for years and was woken up to make a new game. For some people, this is not a great thing. But for some folks, myself honestly included, it's a perfect pitch. You don't see the smoothing over of mechanics or interlocking gears of modern action-adventure games. Shenmue 3 preserves this smattering of game mechanics and features all bottled up in a single experience, in a way only the Yakuza games have been able to replicate over the last two decades.
I don't know what I expected after waiting so long, but to play a new Shenmue and feel transported back so far was memorable. If nothing else, Shenmue 3 is indisputably a Shenmue game, for all the benefits and faults that carries.
Want more hands-on previews of E3's biggest games? Visit our E3 2019 guide!