At long last, Shenmue III is finally in the home stretch of development. The revenge saga of Ryo Hazuki, who witnessed his father's murder at the hands of Lan Di in 2000's Shenmue on Dreamcast, is finally ready to continue. Announced at E3 2015 as a Kickstarter campaign, Shenmue III picks up after the events of 2002's Shenmue II, meaning that by the time the game launches, it will have been 17 years between releases. I had a chance to play a brief demo of Shenmue III and speak to series creator Yu Suzuki about how development is going.
At the onset of my demo, Ryo says he needs to find a bookie. Obviously, this would be a part of a story mission. However, I'm not here for that. I'm here to see how the side activities – the updated versions of the ones that kept me glued to my screen in middle school, much to the confusion of any onlooking friends – feel in this new entry in the Shenmue saga.
I immediately go to an area that loosely fits the definition of an amusement park. As I enter an area full of small games, I decide to sample what the local game masters are offering. Ryo approaches a woman, who pitches him on playing peg-based marble-drop game Lucky Hit. After a few rounds of watching the marble narrowly veer away from the jackpot slot at the bottom of the board, I decide to move to something else: dice. Watching my demo intently, Yu Suzuki eggs me on to bet higher with each successive roll. I take the bait after winning a couple of consecutive rolls, but this method isn't sustainable in games of chance, and soon Ryo's pockets are much lighter and he's expressing his disdain in his trademark dry voice delivery.
After depleting a good chunk of Ryo's funds in luck-based minigames, I decide to try and build his bankroll back up through something only the most skilled of players can win: turtle racing. Believe it or not, the turtle racing minigame is a test of endurance for the player. As the turtles make their ways down the course, you're responsible for mashing the button that appears on screen. Doing so builds up the radial meter in the upper right corner, which provides a boost for your turtle upon filling. After a long, tiring race, my turtle comes out on top, giving Ryo a good chunk of change. Following my hard-earned victory, I decide to quit while I'm ahead and see what else I can do with my spare time.
Yu Suzuki points at the monitor and instructs me to go up a slight incline to a dojo. This sounds like a more exciting way to spend the remaining hands-on time I have with the demo. While at the dojo, I'm given the chance to train, spar, or fight one of the monks. Training is done by completing minigames. The one-inch punch, for example, has you strike a training dummy in a timing- and rhythm-based game. After that, I move on to horse stance, an Asian martial arts posture where the practitioner maintains a low squat. In this minigame, I must press a button to keep a meter marker within a small range.
After wrapping up my training, I head into the dojo and challenge the Red Tiger monk. Fighting in Shenmue III is much smoother than that of its predecessors. Ryo moves with more fluidity and his attacks feel much less stiff. After trading blows with the monk, I come out of the encounter victorious, and my skills meter rockets as Ryo ranks up. Next, I decide to spar, which gives me specific button commands to use in battle in order to learn new combinations and moves.
Despite various modernizations to the Shenmue formula, the third entry feels faithful to how Shenmue was for players in the early 2000s. "My team was not necessarily trying to provide innovative things," Suzuki says. "Because it was created through Kickstarter crowdfunding, my main focus was to make Shenmue III to make fans happy to play a sequel to Shenmue. That was the first thing I wanted to make sure. Probably nothing I'd call innovative, but there are many, many new elements."
As mentioned before, fans waited many years for the announcement of Shenmue III, and then additional years for its release. However, Shenmue III was delayed from its original August 27 release date to November 19. Suzuki tells me this is delay isn't indicative of any problems, but rather necessary time to make sure the game is in a good state when it launches. "With the title very close to the end, I'd like to brush it up as much as possible for the fans in order to make sure it's as good as possible," he says.
With fans having to wait so long for release, Suzuki says he has a mix of feelings, which seems to include a little anxiety, as launch nears. "I not only feel relief because the game is very close to release, then I also started wondering how the people are going to think and particularly how the new players are going to think," he says. "As such, there is some other feelings I started feeling."
While players have often thought of Shenmue as a trilogy, Suzuki tells me Shenmue III will not conclude the story. In fact, we may have a ways to go. "For Shenmue, I have 11 chapters in the story," he says. "My problem is, of those 11 chapters, how much do I want to put into Shenmue III? In other words, it's not the end of the story; it will continue. It's still going. Shenmue III comes out of chapters three to six."
When I ask Suzuki if that means more games or if the story will continue in other media, he says, "Whatever I can do, I will."
The first two games were published by Sega, and the influence of the publisher was inescapable. In Ryo's travels in those first two games, he encounters all kinds of references to other Sega properties, including capsule toys of characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog universe, and arcade machines like Space Harrier and Hang-On.
Since Sega isn't the publisher of Shenmue III, you likely won't find as many references to Sega in this game. However, all hope is not lost for fans wanting to see some nods to the publisher. "You can find some," Suzuki says. "There is one cabinet called Astro City, which is from Sega, and you can find some of the posters in it. I'll say that for the Sega fans, you will find some things you can appreciate and will smile."
Sega also published HD versions of Shenmue I and II on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC last year. While Suzuki didn't have anything to do with those games coming to modern platforms, he does feel as though that Sega release probably helped him to build excitement for the release of Shenmue III.
My time with Shenmue III is likely representative of how I'll play the game when it comes out later this year: delaying story missions in favor of the many diversions scattered throughout the world. That's alright, as that's how players have experienced the Shenmue games for years. This sequel to Shenmue I and II has kept fans waiting for nearly two decades, but the wait is almost over, as Shenmue III hits on November 19 for PlayStation 4 and PC.