Against all odds, here it is. 18 years on from the last episode, and well after most had given up hope that Ryo Hazuki would ever find his way out of the Guilin cave where Shenmue 2 so abruptly ended, the most remarkable thing about Shenmue 3 is that it exists at all. Even more remarkable, then, that director Yu Suzuki – himself an absentee from the frontlines of games development for almost two decades – has delivered a worthy successor to what many consider an all-time great. Shenmue 3 takes the template of those age-old Dreamcast games and refines it in small, numerous ways – delivering a game that’s both faithful and finessed.
What this is not, though, is a reimagining. This isn’t the game to make a Shenmue devotee of the doubtful, and the curious circumstances behind Shenmue 3’s development have made for a curious game; completely ignorant of modern trends in open world gaming, or indeed trends of the last 20 years, it’s as if it has been developed in a sealed bubble, emerging as a relic of the past. It is archaic and arcane, as its predecessors often were, though it now no longer has the allure of being at the vanguard of video games. From being one of the medium’s most expensive productions, Shenmue 3 is explicitly double-A; it’s a straight-to-DVD follow-up to an old blockbuster.
Yet it still has that cinematic sweep, and manages to stay true to the aesthetic and ambience of the originals. Shenmue was one of the original open worlds, and you may well point to other open world games that came in its wake that have evolved almost beyond recognition since back then; Grand Theft Auto, which had its first 3D outing a month after the launch of Shenmue 2, or even Yakuza, the series formed from Shenmue’s ashes. Shenmue exists in its own bubble, though. It always was, and always will be, its own thing; a softer, more stately thing that moves with the urgency of a 70s wuxia film and cares not for more modern action flourishes.