The E3 hands-on demo for Shenmue 3 is timed to 15 minutes with a countdown at the top of the screen, and I'm sat playing with creator Yu Suzuki, which feels like a big deal. Ryo Hazuki, the returning protagonist, is going around a village asking people the same thing again and again: have you seen a bookie with a scar on his face? Every time he asks this and with the countdown in mind, I want to skip the dialogue, but it somehow seems rude to do that in front of the developer, so I don't.
And so, Ryo asks NPCs the same ridiculous thing over and over again: have you seen a bookie with a scar on his face? Most of the answers are wasting my time, and the English voice-acting that delivers them is odd in a way I can't quite put my finger on. This is definitely a Shenmue game.
Shenmue 3 feels like a Dreamcast game, only released 20 years later, which I think you can get a sense of from its E3 trailer. If you've never played one before, it's an RPG/life sim series set in small open worlds where you occasionally fight people. The way it presents dialogue options is familiar from the previous games, and even your character's health during fights is depicted with similar coloured dots in the corner of the screen. Exploring and talking to people feels like classic Shenmue, and fighting definitely does, even without being built on Virtua Fighter's combat system.
At one point, a guy offers Ryo a game of Lucky Hit (Shenmue 2 players won't be able to forget this), to which he declines. Is that self-aware humour, in a Shenmue game?
I won't pretend there's a ton more I learned from the demo—15 minutes is slight, considering how much time you can easily waste with the languid pace of a Shenmue game. But it's endearingly similar to previous entries—and it doesn't feel overly polished in presentation, even if the characters and environments clearly look a ton better than the originals.
"I had to change the game to modernise it a little bit, and also at the same time, I want to make sure that the same feeling and the nostalgic feeling of the original games [stay] in it," says Suzuki via a translator. "I will tell you that the difficulty of the game is higher than the previous one." I get that sense at the end of the demo, when Ryo's ass is kicked in a one-on-one fight with a more powerful enemy (I won an earlier duel, so it won't all be that difficult). Progression systems sound like they'll play more of a part in Shenmue 3.
"One difference is that in the previous game, we used the basic fighting battle engine from Virtua Fighter, but now we made it from scratch," Suzuki says via a translator. "So it's a totally different system. This is a new battle combat engine that is made for this RPG style of game, so it's tuned for this kind of game. For this system, we have more training systems, and the way you progress, the skill going up—it's going to be more of a step-by-step growing experience."
There are two major areas in the game, with the second being much larger than the developers had originally planned for, so there'll hopefully be plenty to explore. "You can do some temporary jobs like wood chopping, and you can fish and you can sell those for cash to the store and you can earn money," Suzuki says. It wouldn't be Shenmue without part time jobs.
On PC at least, Shenmue 3 itself has been overshadowed as the game became mired in an easy-to-predict mess with its Epic Games Store exclusivity. Developer Ys Net has now explained it'll offer refunds, or a switch to another version—but it would've been easier if it'd followed Metro's route of having a limited window of preorders on Steam before moving across, so backers could've got Steam keys at launch.
I really hope Ryo finally gets his revenge on Lan Di in this game, but Suzuki threatens that his story is only 40% over as of Shenmue 3. If this ends with Lan Di getting on another helicopter and flying away, followed by a long wait for another game, I'll flip a table over. My first impression, though, is that fans of the original two games will enjoy what's here. Everyone else will almost certainly be baffled by what the fuss is about—and I think that's fine too.