Review: Shenmue 3 Brings Philosophical Depth to Video Game Action

The game fulfills a vision of steadfast humanity within the framework of a martial arts revenge tale.

Shenmue 3
Photo: Deep Silver

Today’s most popular video games don’t lack for comprehensive in-game instructions, waypoint-ridden maps, and streamlined actions, all of which can make players feel at ease and in control. Ignoring such conventions, Shenmue 3 often avoids explicit detail about its functions—one amusing line of combat tutorial text simply reads, “Just hit the [face] buttons”—and encourages the player to talk to individuals to get directions. This stripped-down approach recalls, to some extent, the way video games used to be made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the time period when the first two Shenmue entries graced the Sega Dreamcast. But it’s also representative of the artistic conviction of series creator Yu Suzuki, who uses deliberate pacing, down-to-earth character interactions, and mundane activities to fulfill a vision of steadfast humanity within the framework of a martial arts revenge tale.

Shenmue 3, which went through well more than a decade of planning and development, picks up where Shenmue 2 left off, with Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man hunting his father’s killer, joining forces with a Chinese woman named Shenhua Ling, whose own father is missing. In a departure from its predecessors, a large part of the game takes place in a rural area, specifically a Chinese village called Bailu. It’s there that Ryo and Shenhua learn how their fates are intertwined as they track down criminals responsible for attacks on the village.

It’s a straightforward setup, but it’s one that’s enriched by Suzuki’s unhurried style. As Ryo, the player very gradually visits every part of Bailu. A new section can only be accessed when the plot calls for it. In other games, this type of restraint on freedom of movement can be frustrating, but Suzuki’s laser-like focus on characterization and theme make the slow journey beautiful to undertake. Every aspect of the village is distinguished, from the settlement near a grove of sunflowers to the marketplace, and full of the most compellingly human-like NPCs since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The villagers vary significantly by age, appearance, and personality, and the most notable include Mao Yuefang, a middle-aged woman who can be generally helpful but makes inappropriate suggestions about and to Ryo and Shenhua; Jiang Ming, an old man who sits on a bench and comically misinterprets what Ryo says; and Shen Wei, a driven young woman who pours out thanks to anyone who will spar with her.

Like prior entries in the series, as well as the open-world games they’ve inspired, Shenmue 3 utilizes a day-night cycle. But whereas some developers seem to include this feature in their games just to fit under a particular umbrella of realism, Suzuki also sees the passage of time as the key ingredient for deeper relationships. Every night before Ryo sleeps, the player may initiate revealing conversations with Shenhua. The two can trade histories, remarking about the disciplinary styles of their fathers, their different childhood games, and the absence of their mothers. A flute melody, both wistful and utterly sincere, accompanies these talks, reflecting the scenes’ (and Suzuki’s) emotional maturity and unassuming B-movie sensibility.

Thematically, Shenmue 3 is fixated on the significance of patience and dignity, both in its mechanics and its story. Fighting as Ryo isn’t easy and can be quite awkward, so the game nudges the player to keep going to the dojo to build strength and technique through stances, timed attacks, and sparring. There’s a marked sense that Ryo feels shame when he loses a battle, as the people around him, including his opponents, will bluntly suggest he needs more discipline. In a rejection of popular video-game norms, Shenmue 3 doesn’t allow Ryo to barge into homes with closed front doors. It’s telling that Ryo refuses to even walk into Shenhua’s open room, and the game’s emphasis on respect is so great that when Ryo, in a moment of frustration, uses the mild profanity “hell,” you may find the moment genuinely surprising.

Just as Ryo is rewarded in the story for applying himself, your commitment to Shenmue 3’s mechanics over a period of time can bring greater appreciation for their design, as well as the philosophical relevance of those mechanics to the game’s narrative. In an understated masterstroke that prevents you from rushing through the game, Suzuki combines the protagonist’s health and stamina into one bar that can be refilled if Ryo eats. But food requires money, which means Ryo has to take work to get cash. One might sneer at the idea of having to split wood to subsist, but Suzuki turns the activity into its own spectacle of timing and judgment, with an upward-facing camera on the ground to emphasize Ryo’s crushing swings of the axe. An ode to the idea of careful diligence, this mini-game demands one to closely observe Ryo’s eyes so that the wood can be perfectly halved.

Anything Ryo does in Shenmue 3 entails hardship of a sort. In most 3D games of this vein, items can be grabbed with a quick touch of a button. In Shenmue 3, picking a plant requires a conscious change to first-person perspective before Ryo can be commanded to gather the resource. Clunky, perhaps, but in Suzuki’s hands, this layered action more effectively simulates the minor toil of having to bend down in real life in order to pick something up, further amplifying our perception of Ryo as a human being. Like the monks who urge Ryo to take his time developing his talents as a martial artist, Shenmue 3 asks a modern audience accustomed to instant gratification to contemplate the virtues of humbleness and persistence, regardless of whether Ryo’s task at hand is crucial or incidental to his ultimate quest for justice.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tinsley PR.

 Developer: Ys Net  Publisher: Deep Silver  Platform: PlayStation 4  Release Date: November 19, 2019  ESRB: T  ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence

Jed Pressgrove

Jed Pressgrove's writing has appeared in Game Bias, Film Quarantine, and Unwinnable.

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