This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Shenmue III.
Prologue: Last Day for "Limited Edition" Merch
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Shenmue is a franchise beginning on the Sega Dreamcast with a cult following that I'm fairly certain exists as an elaborate decade-spanning practical joke, and after this review, if you choose to buy Shenmue III, I will group you alongside someone who continues to try to sniff a clown's lapel flower after the third squirt of water to the face. Come on now, guys; I mean, this used to be funny, back when we were all pretending that Shenmue was a pioneer-y classic of interactive narrative and that we were all totally disappointed that it didn't get a third installment back in the day, but now the joke's getting cruel! I know the modern world has been almost totally infected by the fog of irony that the Internet generates the way a Renaissance-era European port city generates the Black Death, but let's at least try to put that aside; straight talk only, OK? Shenmue is, and always was, a terrible, terrible game, and I refuse to accept that any of you seriously believe otherwise. And if I sound particularly mad about it, it's because I literally just got too angry to keep playing, and I'm making sure to write this down now before I encounter a small animal and have to use up all this useful energy kicking it to death.
I wonder if the Shenmue fanbase only exists because of its close ties to the Dreamcast; like all less-than-successful retro consoles, there will always be a base of dedicated fans complaining to this day that it would've been so much more competitive, if only it had had the games. Yes, probably, and I could've been an Olympic sprinter, if only my legs weren't tiny, malformed stumps jutting from my pelvis like the last pair of wings in the KFC bargain bucket. So the Dreamcast fans will probably appreciate Shenmue III, 'cos it still looks like it belongs on the Dreamcast; if anything, a higher resolution has only further emphasized the way all the characters look and act like Captain Scarlet puppets.
Anyway, the story so far: Ryo Hazuki, a man with a permanent Band-Aid on his face that covers up the knothole giving away that he is made entirely out of wood, has sworn revenge on his father's murderer, and has chosen to pursue him by the principle of Brownian motion, leaving his house and then waiting for the natural ebb and flow of random particles to push him to his destiny. And by this crushingly long process, he has now arrived at a rural province of China to learn the truth behind the ancient mirrors that his father was killed for. The creator of Shenmue, Yu Suzuki, famously doesn't play video games, in spite of the fact that he makes them for a living, and by Christ, does it show!
So before I started Shenmue III, I appreciated Shenmue almost as a piece of outsider art, which is essential in any medium for getting us to think beyond the standard established methods and routines; is it really necessary to use oil paints on a canvas when we could use, say, ground-up teeth mixed with pus? The game boots up, and I'm greeted with a beautiful title screen that some artist must've been very proud of, and then the words "PRESS START" appear across it in massive, plain-white Arial font. And then you press Start, as instructed, and the fucking title menu is in plain Impact! See, these are the little things that a person might pick up from actually playing a video game now and then: that doing your title menus with overused default fonts make them look like they were made in Windows Movie Maker! Ah, but this is my point about outsider art, isn't it? It's because I'm so mired in the establishment that I'm getting sniffy about the fucking font choice, of all things; I need games like Shenmue to remind me of what's important and bring me back up to Real Street, man.
Unfortunately, one of the things that is actually important in video games is that they not bore the tits off me. It doesn't take long for Shenmue to settle into what might as well be its core gameplay loop: wandering around, bugging random passersby about whatever tangent Ryo's currently indelibly focused on like a cat to a laser pointer. He brought up his obsessive quest for revenge against his father's murderer maybe once that I can recall, and everything else was related to looking for the missing father of the main female character, this girl who got teased as important right from the beginning of Shenmue I and with whom Ryo has all the chemistry of two unacquainted coworkers in a malfunctioning lift.
Conversations in Shenmue are always a fucking surreal experience; as before, every line sounds like it was recorded in a vacuum, and most of the voice actors massively overact, with the significant exception of Ryo Hazuki himself, who needs a few hours' work on a lathe just to raise his eyebrows. The end result is that most conversations sound like two poorly-trained undercover police officers trying to sound nonchalant while keeping one eye on a suspected drug deal. "Hello, Mr. Hazuki!" "Hello. Do you know where to find... inexpensive prostitutes?" "Hmm, I think you can find some at-- ALL RIGHT, HE TOOK THE MONEY! GO, GO, GO!"
Let me talk you through the process that led to me descending the slopes of Mount Rage-Quit. After considerable bumbling, the plot led eventually to the inevitable gang of local scoundrels, which meant I was going to have to deal with the fucking combat, and the combat in Shenmue is like a wasp locked in your bathroom: you can get through most of the day without having to worry about it, but you're going to have to face it eventually if you ever hope to defecate with peace of mind, and like a wasp, it's best dealt with by flailing madly at the controls.
So I get to a plot-mandatory fight with the gang leader, and naturally, he hydrates his lawn with Ryo Hazuki's tear ducts because Shenmue III, up to this point, had mostly been picking flowers and humoring old people. But not to worry, 'cos one of the old people I can humor has a secret martial arts technique they will teach me if I beat up all the monks in the local dojo and bring him expensive presents, and there is nothing in Shenmue that cannot be achieved as long as you're willing to grind horrible minigames. Beating up all the monks wasn't too hard, after I spent several days grinding up my defense and attack stats by repeatedly punching a tree, practicing each combo 100 times, and having Ryo stand like he's about to do squats and then mash a button to make him very emphatically not do squats.
Making money was the real pain in the arse; I thought I'd figured it out: go to the fortune teller, ask which turtle's going to win the turtle race, and bet the farm on it, although you still have to mash like a bastard to sing songs of encouragement. (Trust me, it sounds a lot more interesting than it is.) This worked three times in a row, but then on the fourth, I mashed hard enough to spark a very awkward conversation with my orthopedic specialist and lost everything. Fuck me, at least Leisure Suit Larry gave you a quick-save! I ended up having to grind up the money chopping wood, which pays worse than giving handjobs to church mice, but finally, I did it; I ground up enough time in annoying minigames to learn the secret technique. And then I marched confidently up to the gang leader, who'd been courteous enough not to move, and he proceeded to hydrate his lawn with Ryo Hazuki's tear ducts again.
And that's where I said "fuck it"; whatever it is you want from me, Shenmue III, I've decided you can't have it, as it's probably one of the few remaining things holding back the massacre. Oh, Shenmue fans, do remember to post lots of comments advising me on what I should've done; I'm going to need a lot of kindling to start the bonfire!
- When I think about you I punch myself: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Don't miss the next three Shenmue sequels after which Ryo will have finally completed the first third of his character arc
- Why's this village got like nine dojos and zero dentists