"I'd like to talk to the Flower, Bird, Wind, and Moon bookie," says Ryo Hazuki. It's a lifeless conversation to endure—especially considering that at this point, Shenmue 3's revered protagonist has already discovered who the bookie is. Unfortunately, Shenmue 3 doesn't have any dynamic structures in place to account for the things Hazuki already knows, and this leads to its most fundamental flaw: it wastes your time, and there is no room for logic.
There are countless other examples worthy of mentioning, but for the sake of brevity I'll stick to one more. For those who don't know, Ryo Hazuki is a young man from Japan searching for his father's killer, Lan Di, in China. Shenmue 3 begins in Bailu Village, home to Hazuki's pal from Shenmue 2, Shenhua Ling.
There's been a lot of trouble in Bailu recently. A group of no-good thugs have been assaulting stonemasons and thrashing their houses in search of the Phoenix Mirror, a direct counterpart to the original Shenmue's Dragon Mirror. One such stonemason is Shenhua's father, who has recently been kidnapped. As a means of both helping Shenhua and furthering his own investigation into his father's killer, Hazuki has to search for clues around town.
Nobody wants to talk to him—at least not until Shenhua shows up and they realize he's mates with her. From then on out it's actually possible to get information from people, but it's like pulling teeth because the dialogue is regurgitated and totally detached from itself. "Take a look," an elderly lady says after you confirm she has a product you're looking for (spoiler: she doesn't actually have it). The interface to buy something doesn't come up, so you have to trigger a whole new conversation. That in itself isn't entirely awful, but despite the window between the two conversations spanning little more than a couple milliseconds, the woman says, "Why hello there, out shopping today?" Yes, we just confirmed that when you told me you had what I needed, and you don't even have that.
It's essential to carry out such exchanges. If you try to leave an area without having spoken to the correct person, Hazuki will simply turn around and say, "I should talk to more people first." He begins every conversation with the same sentence, acts out the same irritating cutscene every single time he knocks on a door with nobody behind it. The tedium makes the investigations necessary for progression less urgent and thoroughly unenjoyable. It's also a total waste of time.
So, clearly repetition is a problem, but it goes further. The game also doesn't account for the fact that you're capable of basic logic. At one point you're tasked with finding a martial arts master. Two candidates spring to mind immediately, but you've already sparred with and been stomped by one before, so he fits the bill more neatly. However, when you go to find him, he's not there, so you think, "sure, maybe it's the other one."
This other one, Grandmaster Feng, straight up refuses you, which is totally at odds with his character thus far. Feeling dejected, Hazuki has his Eureka moment—"wait... I know!" In a short cutscene, Hazuki recalls the aforementioned sparring session with Sun, the first martial artist I sought out who had mysteriously retreated into his inaccessible abandoned temple. This sort of anti-logical padding is yet another case of disrespecting your time, and in a game where you spend hours chopping wood, playing dice, and enduring poorly-framed cutscenes teeming with dialogue resembling the robotic deadpan of Text 2 Speech, you really don't need any more of your time wasted.
On the subject of poor dialogic delivery, allow me to point out the downright ridiculous amount of radically different pronunciations tied to the name "Yuan," belonging to Shenhua's father. It reminded me of the time Benedict Cumberbatch realized he couldn't pronounce penguin and, as he descended further into self-doubt, gradually went from penguin, to pinguin, to pingwing, to pingling, to something too preposterous to attempt spelling.
But Shenmue 3 isn't all bad. Although its narrative design is totally lackluster, its story is quite gripping when it's allowed to be. The characters are difficult to care about because of how poor the dialogue and voice acting are, but the plot is propelled at a decent pace. The main issues lie with obstacles to deduction—which is so rudimentary in this game that even "deduction" seems too strong a word—and the fact that the game fundamentally relies on your having grown up with Hazuki 18 years ago. It's nigh impossible to connect with Hazuki if you haven't played the first two games. Granted, in most cases a third installment should be considered as one part of a conglomerate whole, but given the 18 years and almost three console generations that have elapsed since Shenmue and Shenmue 2, that argument doesn't carry much weight here. As a new game in 2019, it's largely inaccessible, and it does precious little to bring newcomers up to speed.
Shenmue's strongest point is, without a doubt, its environmental design. It manages to create a world that is unwaveringly confident in its depiction of what could be an actual place. It's one thing to create an interesting space, but another thing entirely to make somewhere so believable, so accessible that its status as a place is both significant and irrefutable. I found myself enjoying Shenmue most as I wandered through sunflower fields, stood solemnly next to the lakes, sauntered slowly but surely homeward as the lights began to dim and Ryo's strict 9 p.m. curfew began to rear its overtly sensible head. The game's second location is similarly interesting to explore—and similarly horrible to speak to anyone in.
These wonderful places are almost codified vignettes; a temporary but unreal respite from the fact that they are inhabited by human-shaped walls of dry code. The beauty of these areas is betrayed by their nature as a sort of personality cemetery, where bodies move about, arms waving and faces contorting, but souls have passed on. You can enjoy them in solitude, but the second an NPC opens their mouth the illusion shatters into smithereens. Every time you find yourself immersed and invested, you're clocked in the head with an expositional hammer blow so forceful you're sent flying out of the world of Shenmue and into your chair opposite the television, wondering why a game so capable of eliciting a truly evocative place is also so hellbent on keeping you out of it.
To reinforce this gatekeeping, cutscenes are impossible to pause and impossible to skip, unless they're minor ones tied to repeat conversations you've already had to endure once before. This might not seem too major an issue, but there are cutscenes every 10 seconds, most of which suffer from the same repetitive anathema as standard dialogue. They're also largely unnecessary—consider this utterly redundant and annoying exchange between Ryo and Shenhua that takes place almost every single morning:
"Good morning, Ryo."
"Did you get enough rest?"
This padding makes immersion an unfortunately difficult state to achieve. On one hand you have sheer pointlessness, whereas on the other you have exposition so hamfisted it's near condescending. That combination would be inexcusable in any other narratively-driven medium, and the same should be the case for video games. It causes a potentially good story to eventuate in a wild goose chase steeped in pure tedium, where you look in 500 drawers in each building—each of which triggers a painfully slow and uninviting animation—just to uncover a clue you probably already knew. Early in the game, Hazuki finds a list of stonemasons and deduces, "that's it, the thugs are after stonemasons," after already knowing that said thugs have targeted exclusively stonemasons thus far and having been told by one of the victims, Zhou, "it seems they're going for stonemasons."
Combat, too, is dull. It initially appears as a sort of button-mashing foray into fighting, but before long you learn that you can just train certain moves to Master level and map them to the right trigger. Block, wait for the end of an enemy animation, mash R2 a few times, repeat. The same can be said of many systems—you could even make a case for relegating Bloodborne to such an explanation, although it would be very disingenuous. With Shenmue, it's far less fluid.
At the same time, training is similarly monotonous; the minigames for Horse Stance and One Inch Punch resemble something you might have encountered on a Game Boy in 1999, and the sparring is just boring combat minus the stakes. Also, you only have one bar for both health and stamina, so you grow weaker from both delivering and receiving hits. To account for that, you need to go into fights with expensive Snake Oil, a regenerative aid you can use mid-fight, which you need to work similarly boring jobs to even afford. It's a life simulator, sure, but it's completely devoid of life itself.
The world of Shenmue 3, at least, is so well-crafted it seems a bit much to label it as a genuinely bad game. Its narrative blockades prevent you from exploring the wonders of the environment here, and the most impressive structures in the game, such as the bell tower, are ruined by the way people talk about them. When Hazuki finds out that this tower actually holds strategically defensive value, he pauses for a second and says, "that's handy." Every point of interest is made to exist in opposition to established logic, or, in the case of the bell tower, stripped of all intrigue and buried in the personality cemetery.
But there was one good line, actually. When speaking about the thugs targeting stonemasons in Bailu, Shenhua says to Hazuki:
"They are the link to our fathers and the mirrors we've been looking for all this time."
Do you know what Hazuki's response to that was?
"Yes." And that sums up Shenmue 3.
Shenmue 3 suffers from hamfisted exposition, tedious repetition, monotonous grinding, and a heap of other fundamental flaws that are inexcusable in 2019. However, its environments are so confident in their sense of place that exploration is a capable redeemer, and the game is at times, on that ground alone, worth playing.