Shenmue III is a perfect continuation of Shenmue II - in terms of story, gameplay, and franchise pillars - but it also doesn't belong in 2019. Screen Rant had the opportunity to go hands-on with Shenmue III at E3 2019, and the demo took place relatively close to the start of the game. In true Shenmue fashion, Ryo was tasked with finding a man with a scar on his face in order to uncover new information on his task. And in order to do that, players have to speak to people in the surrounding area.
Once Ryo confronts the scarred man, he has the option to either fight him for the information or take the advice provided by the game. For the purposes of our playthrough, we fought him... and lost. Combat in this sequel doesn't appear to have been given quality of life upgrades to make it comparable even to indie titles today; hits don't land as they should and defensive maneuvers are especially limited. Furthermore, the general perception of Shenmue III's combat is that it relies entirely on button smashing. This was particularly evident when Yu Suzuki walked into the demo room, pointed at the controller, and simulated single-button smashing during one of the fight sequences. It's clear that Shenmue III's development - and, therefore, its scope - is limited by its shoestring budget, hence why they've jumped publishers and signed exclusivity deals. Reportedly, Shenmue III's budget is only $10 million, which is much lower than the original game's $70 million budget (not accounting for inflation) and a far cry from a title like Grand Theft Auto V, which cost almost $140 million only to develop.
Even though the development budget is quite constrained, the progressiveness of the original Shenmue games, of course, echoes throughout the upcoming sequel, from extensive mini-games (such as turtle racing) to spending time to learn a new ability. Almost as an accidental antithesis to modern RPGs and action-adventure games, Shenmue III still forces players to practice and master a new skill before obtaining it permanently. You can't just open up the menu, switch over to the skill tree, and hold down A to unlock a new ability. Instead, you must learn how Ryo would in-universe.
For Shenmue fans, walking through a village like Bailu, as Screen Rant did in our demo, is a trip down memory lane. The unique art style, the caricature characters, and the music playing in the background all evoke a sense of nostalgia that's difficult to generate. A lot of it does work on a macro scale, especially considering that this is a third installment in a somewhat constricting series, but it doesn't feel like a game worthy of releasing in 2019. Rather, Shenmue III comes off as a remaster of a game that would've released in 2004 - and something that would've then been revolutionary at its time.
With its limited budget, Shenmue III tries hard to retain what made the original games great and provide a worthy story for longtime fans, but on the flip side, there's very little room for innovation or standardization; beyond receiving technical upgrades, Shenmue III suffers from wonky gameplay, which includes awkward dialog, poor character animations, and strenuous movements. In 2019, a game that requires players to stick to a pre-determined path in order to move between two objects isn't going to go over well with the general public. It's easy to get frustrated at the tiny things, and that doesn't mean taking time to check out your prize from a mini-game that you decided to try out.
Nevertheless, going hands-on with Shenmue III will be an emotional experience for fans of the original games. Despite its shaky gameplay, Shenmue III still finds a way to engross the player into its world. It's special because YS Net spent years using Unreal Engine 4 to make sure the unique aspects of Shenmue and Shenmue II carried over to Shenmue III with very few elements getting lost along the way. If you remember a specific sequence in which you had to uncover information, fight a series of bad guys, and then progress to a new area, those same set of choices are still there in Shenmue III. Again, it's as if YS Net designed the sequel as if little to no time has passed since the release of Shenmue II. While that can be a good thing for players who want a cohesive experience, it's detrimental to the game's accessibility on a larger scale.
Unfortunately, our demo was stopped short of the 15-minute mark due to a brief but widespread power outage at E3 2019, and there was no way to hop back in without restarting from the beginning. But from what we did play, Shenmue III appears to be precisely what fans wanted it to be - if they expected it to release in the early 2000s, not long after Shenmue and Shenmue II hit store shelves - just with very few quality of life upgrades to make it fit with other 2019 titles. And while Shenmue fans may be eager to get their hands on the sequel and see where Ryo's story goes from here, don't expect it to conclude the saga. According to Suzuki himself, Shenmue 1-3 only accounts for approximately 40 percent of the entire story. Whether they continue to chronicle the Shenmue saga in Shenmue IV or beyond will ultimately be dependent on how well Shenmue III performs.