* Before we get into the article, we must give our thanks to everyone who helped during the trip to Cologne, including YSNET, Shibuya Productions, Koch Media, Deep Silver, IGN Japan and our friends in the Shenmue community. None of the events from the trip would have been possible without any of their help & contribution.
With just over 90 days until the release of Shenmue III, the 2019 Gamescom event in Cologne, Germany, opened its doors. Expecting up to 500,000 visitors to attend over the coming days, exhibitors packed into the world’s largest gaming event, to present their upcoming games and latest products to the world. With heavy hitters such as Cyberpunk, Death Stranding, Modern Warfare and Final Fantasy VII Remake taking centre stage, tucked away in Hall 9 of the Koelmesse exhibition centre was a small but dedicated area to an upcoming release, which many fans have waited for, for almost 18 years.
Shenmue III has its first Gamescom presence in 2017, following the announcement that the project had signed a global publishing contract with Deep Silver, the game division of the German company, Koch Media. That year, Yu Suzuki attended the event, giving the press interview time, as well as 2 meet and greet sessions with fans. The following year, Suzuki-san sadly could not make the trip to the event in person, but Shenmue once again appeared at Gamescom 2018, with a video message and a new trailer revealed by Yu Suzuki himself during the Gamescom Opening Presentation.
This year, Yu Suzuki once again returned to Gamescom and this time, not only were press interviews and signing sessions planned, but also the chance for journalists and media to actually sit down and finally play a small demo build of the long awaited title. Over the past few days, various impressions and articles had been written by the press, and being lucky enough to try the game ourselves, we can join these outlets in bringing you our impressions, albeit from a little bit more of a fan perspective.
In the interests of complete transparency, I had not scheduled a booking in advance, to play the demo. As far as I seen it, we are a small fan site, dedicated solely to this franchise. We are not a major publication such as IGN, Eurogamer, or any of the other professional gaming media outlets. Despite being dedicated, there are other outlets that exist, with a greater reach than what we have, as well as better skills to convey their message. I had no intentions of playing it before I arrived, and it wasn’t until speaking with Rémy (ShenmueMaster) and Alfonso (SegaSaturno) that I began to wonder if I had made the wrong decision. Later on that day, I had a very quick meeting with Yu Suzuki, just to say hello, and his very first question to me whilst shaking hands was, “what did you think of the demo?” I embarrassingly admitted that I had not tried it yet, and it was at that point, I knew I had to speak to someone about making it a possibility. I had indeed, made the wrong decision.
After speaking with Koch Media’s marketing manager, she kindly arranged for me to try the demo in a couple of days, and until then, I could focus on taking pictures of the Shenmue signing sessions, as well as the Gamescom event itself. The signing sessions are always great fun, meeting so many Shenmue fans, and there’s also an odd excitement in seeing what items they have brought with them to sign! A fun highlight was spotting a fan in the queue for the signing who had taken a lot of care and attention into making himself look a lot like the real life Ryo Hazuki, with which, even Yu-san was extremely happy to see.
After the Thursday signing session in Hall 9 was when I was scheduled to finally try the demo. Already the tension was rising, and my heart was beating faster. I know a lot of info had been made public after numerous journalists were able to play the demo at the 2019 E3 event back in June, but… it’s very hard to convey into words, something that you are about to do something which you have dreamed about for almost 20 years. The majority of people who will have tried the demo until that point will be doing so to critique it, or describe it from a neutral standpoint for their relevant articles. But the Shenmue Dojo has, and will always be a fan site dedicated to supporting and believing in Yu Suzuki’s most ambitious video game series of his career. We see past the minor flaws and criticisms the games may have, focusing on the positives, and how these games reinvented open world gaming back during the turn of the millennium. Yu Suzuki is an icon in gaming history, reinventing the industry numerous times over, and with the arrival of Shenmue III, the gaming public once again have a rare opportunity to experience what new ideas and innovations Yu Suzuki has implemented in this new instalment to the Shenmue franchise.
As I walked back to the Koch Media business area, I had a rush of random memories, from the old Shenmue Dojo forum theme, Adam Doree and his “Shenmue III for next gen article”, all of the times Sega renewed a web URL, when we had glimmers of hope in the form of Ryo appearing in Sonic and Sega All Star Racing, the E3 2015 announcement, all of the highs and lows of Yu Suzuki’s career within the industry, as well as the highs and lows we have experienced as Shenmue fans… all of these years gone by had led to a single moment of finally holding a controller in my hand, and actually playing Shenmue III. My mind just could not deal with the magnitude of what was about to happen, and the walk back from Hall 9 felt like it took an eternity.
The interior of the Koch media business area was a lot better than their setup from 2017. Gone were the cold wooden walls and barren nature of the area, replaced with a full café bar, catering service, comfortable seats, decoration, and multiple rooms for interviews with developers. At the back however, was a very noticeable door with a circular window, and below that, the YSNET and Shenmue III logo emblazoned in white, indicating that behind that door, would be were the demo was held. I took a seat and after a brief chat with some of the Koch Media staff, I was called towards the room. This was it. After all this time, I was finally going to sit in front of a monitor with Shenmue III. How do you sum up that emotion? How can you vocalise something which you have waited for, for almost two decades, becoming a reality? Just… how?
I walked slowly into the room, trying my best to set my brain and eyes into some sort of “record” mode. This was something I truly wanted to remember for the rest of my life, and to be honest, it worked. Sitting as I type this a few days later, I can remember every second of entering that small room, no bigger than a storage closet. To the left sat 3 separate terminals, each displaying the Shenmue III demo screen, with inviting text asking the player to “press any button” to begin. Each monitor looked super sharp, running on ASUS hardware across the board, from the desktop, monitor, keyboard, mouse, sheath pad and ROG Delta headset. The only other peripheral I could see was the white Microsoft Windows Controller, obviously used to play the game. Unfortunately I did not get the specs of the hardware that the demo was running on, so the jury is still out on how accurate the current PC requirements are, as recommended by the developer.
After taking a seat alone in the room, a kind gentleman from Koch Media began to speak about the demo itself, but upon noticing the Shenmue Dojo logo on my shirt, he immediately smiled and said, “Do I really need to explain this to you?”. We laughed, and as I said no, he gave me a very brief rundown of the key points, such as the demo was 45 minutes in total, there was a guide book on the table if I got stuck with any of the controls (which he laughed again and said I wouldn’t need), and to take my time. Just have fun. This ironically, was the plan before I had even sat down.
With adrenaline pumping and my heart racing, I slowly put on the head set. I picked up the controller, took a huge intake of breath, and the time had come. All of those days, months and years had led to this moment of finally re-embarking Ryo Hazuki’s journey on his quest to track down the man who murdered his own father, discover why it happened, unravel the mysteries of these strange stone mirrors, and just where this entire tale is going. With one last gasp of breath, I pressed the A button on the controller, and the screen went dark.
As mentioned earlier, the run time of the demo would be 45 minutes, coming to an end 1 of 2 ways; finding the bookie with a scar on his face and defeating him in combat, or, the internal (non-visible) 45 minute time limit running out. I knew from the very beginning that there was no way I would be engaging the bookie in a fight, and possibly ending the demo earlier than the 45 minutes allowed. I was going to take my time, soak in every second of this demo, and right from the off, that’s exactly what I did. It must have been a good 10 minutes before I even moved Ryo from his starting position, at the base of some steps leading to a decorative bridge across a small stream.
As the demo began, straight away you were hit with just how amazing the game looks. Whilst I cannot say for sure, Shenmue III did look to be running in 4k and also at 60fps. It just looked like a dream. For reasons I do not know, every piece of video media we have seen of Shenmue III thus far does not do the game justice from a visual standpoint, and having this running on your own hardware will be the only way to truly see how amazing this game looks. I was greeted with the new Shenmue III notebook. A staple of the series, where Ryo can look back on notes to remind himself of what his current quest objective is, the new notebook appeared to be much larger than seen in previous games, with 6 or 7 different segments. There are tabs on the left hand side to keep track of which section you are browsing, with the top 3 tabs being individually coloured from the ones below. The first tab has the name Bailu Village written on it, leading to the conclusion that the other 2 coloured tabs below it, will then contain the names of the future areas that we know Ryo will visit. Revealed back at the beginning of the Kickstarter campaign, we know Ryo will travel to a port side area called Choubu/Niaowu, and finally an area that was originally known as Baisha, but subsequently repackaged as a “fortified castle”, back in Kickstarter Update 104.
The remainder of the tabs below the 3 coloured tabs cover various in game information, such as gambling locations, and a new “maps” section of the notebook, where it seems Ryo will have hand drawn maps of areas which he will need to explore. Also, on the bottom corner of each notebook page, seems to be a little stencil of an environment drawing, also representing what section of the notebook you are in. The music of the notebook is worth mentioning here also, despite being the main Shenmue theme playing in the background as heard in previous games, it’s slightly tweaked to a lower audio, as well as a better cross fade in and out on repeat. After having a flick through the notebook itself, it soon became clear that certain events had happened before the starting point of the demo. From as best I can tell, the demo takes place on day 2 of Shenmue III, with Ryo still relatively new in the Village. There seemed to be a bit of hostility with guards who stopped Ryo crossing the bridge we began the demo at, as well as a bunch of other entries. It will be interesting to see if these will be removed for the final public release of the demo to backers later in September, to prevent spoilers ruining the opening scenes of the game.
After spending a few minutes with the notebook, I still had no intentions of going anywhere. Upon closing it, I was greeted to a full view of Bailu Village in all its splendour from a point of view just over Ryo’s right hand shoulder. I had arrived. I was here. I slowly moved the right analogue stick to do a full 360 degree view of just exactly where Ryo was standing, taking in the vibrant colours and visuals which the demo offered. Again I had no intentions of blasting through this demo, and before going anywhere, I tried my best to absorb everything I could. The watch makes it’s reappearance in the top right hand side of the screen, with its appearance now changed from the original Timex brand aesthetic, to a more generic looking timepiece, complete with gold arms and numbers.
Below the watch, situated at the bottom right hand side of the screen are the command buttons. All seem to be more or less identical with Shenmue II, but one major difference with Shenmue III is that the R1 trigger is now used to bring up the main inventory hub, where as in the old games, it would have been the Y button on the controller. Now, the Y button is dedicated to offering the player any sort of control or in-game help, should they need it at any point of the play through. Upon clicking the R1 trigger, the player will be presented with a new inventory section, which makes the previous inventory in older Shenmue games seem minuscule. If anything, it could prove overwhelming to some players, with nine sub sections to dive into. Despite the amount, I became accustomed to it in no time. Food, Key Items, Items, Herb Sets, Capsule Sets, Skill Book Exchange Item, Skill Books, Skill Book Editor and Setting areas should be the first port of call for any player beginning a new game, to help get familiarised with the new elements of the games inventory management.
One of the biggest changes in Shenmue III, when compared to the old games, will be the need to keep an eye on Ryo’s stamina bar throughout the game. Even running in the open world will deplete it, to which, I had my reservations. Whilst I welcome the emphasis to walk, and take your time in this game, I don’t like the idea of feeling constricted, and having to constantly keep my eye on something when I could be looking elsewhere. Thankfully that’s not an issue at all, due to the setup of the inventory menu. If you are running out of stamina, it takes less than a second to click R1, and find yourself in the food section, having a look at what food items you have to eat. I found that some mushrooms I already had offered the biggest increase at 300 XP, working out to a quarter of my overall stamina XP (currently at 1200, and displayed in green on the same screen).
I continued to take my time, bringing me to around the 10 minute mark of the 45 minute demo. Examining each tab of the inventory, as a test to see if this new aspect felt like it had a place in a modern day Shenmue game, or that it was just a gimmick added on to bring it in line with most modern day RPGs. Despite Shenmue always maintaining that it was not an RPG, but rather a Full, Reactive, Eyes, Entertainment (F.R.E.E.) genre, the inventory felt perfectly Shenmue-esque, and if anything, made me a lot more excited for the possibilities it could offer for the user. In keeping with the Shenmue style, each and every item from main items, food, and herbs can be snapped out of their small designated area with a flick of the right analogue stick, bringing them into full view, to be rotated and examined up close. I love this addition, unlike other games where they will just present you with a small thumbnail image, it gives you a sense of familiarity with what otherwise would be a mundane item in a game.
Not only can you examine each individual item and capsule toy, the inventory has also adopted the Shenmue Re-Release idea of actually showing you what toy capsules and herbs you have, what you don’t have, and what are necessary to complete a set. In the original games back on the Sega Dreamcast, you could buy toy capsules until your heart’s content (well, at least until your money ran out!), but there was no way of knowing what actually constituted as a complete set of toy capsules. In Shenmue II, it was possible via the cumbersome scanning of a Pawn Shop flyer, but when D3T redesigned the inventory menu for the Re-Releases, it was made easier to work out if a set collection was complete, or that you needed to keep buying. Thankfully YSNET have done the same thing, and it’s super easy to see distinguish what you have, but also what you need to complete a toy capsule or herb set. For completionists out there, this will be a welcome feature, but it should be noted that completing sets isn’t just for the thrill in Shenmue III. Complete sets of toy capsules will allow you to trade them for rare skill books, and complete herb sets will allow you to create aftermarket tonics, offering the player some serious buffs during fighting segments.
With enough notebook and menu exploration under my belt, I felt the time was right to begin my journey through the demo. I would hazard an educated guess that I spent a total of 10 minutes just exploring under the hood of the game before moving Ryo a single inch, and I was glad I had done so. The immediate thing that struck me about the demo was the visuals. There has been a lot of talk after journalists tried the game at E3, with some describing the visuals as some sort of Dreamcast upgrade, but I honestly don’t see it. I think this game looks absolutely gorgeous on the eyes, with Bailu Village so full of life and colour. It reminded me of how I felt about the jump in colour palette from Shenmue to Shenmue II back on the Dreamcast. The original game, to me, was mostly dark colours. Grey, brown, black… never really emanating any sort of vibrancy outside of, maybe the Slot House in Dobuita. However, arriving in Hong Kong in Shenmue II, I remember feeling as if I had been slapped in the face with a bright colour scheme, totally different from the first game. Somehow Shenmue III does that once again, with the world looking extremely colourful.
As a Shenmue fan, my personal favourite thing about the entire franchise has been the texture work of the original games. I absolutely adore them, and for me, they are what makes Yu Suzuki’s games stand out amongst the crowd. The walls of buildings, the vegetation in rural areas, lush carpets in bars, wooden panels in Dojos, marble work in bad guys’ hideouts, corrugated iron sheets in rundown areas. I could go on, but the entire look of the Shenmue world has been my biggest draw to the series, and immediately after moving Ryo a few steps, I began figuring out the control scheme. Specifically I was looking for any sort of input to allow Ryo to enter a first person mode to look at the world, and I was not disappointed. A pull of the L2 trigger, just as it was in the original games, will pull the camera to a first person perspective, to look around the beautiful Village in all its glory. This is where I will talk about my only little niggle I had with the demo. When in first person, a cross hair will appear in the middle of the screen, as well as a photograph type lined box around it. That, I didn’t like, unless it’s a necessary inclusion for some sort of possible photographing mission later on in the game. If not, then I am not sure as to why it’s been included in the game, but out of all the things to complain about, I am very happy this was the only thing I could find.
Right at the very beginning, I had zoomed into first person, and looking at everything. From the blades of grass on the ground, the pebbles in the dirt, footprints on the path, the stone wall of a nearby building, the trunk of a tree, the wheel of a cart, a plastic beer crate, the butterflies dancing above from flowers… I looked at every texture I could, just to see Shenmue III completely up close, and it did not disappoint. There’s a style there, a type of design that I have only ever seen present in the Shenmue games, and I felt so happy to see that this continued. I have played many games during this console generation, and whilst AAA games such as God of War, Spiderman, Red Dead Redemption II and others all look fantastic with their designs and effects, not one game ever comes close to looking like Shenmue. None have its charm, or its vibe. This was one of my biggest concerns ever since the Shenmue III Kickstarter was announced, and along the way, I have been questioning if it was even possible to retain that Shenmue look and feel from the original games. Would modern technology force the game to look different? I had hoped for a very long time that it wouldn’t, and finally I can happily say that this is a game worthy of the Shenmue III title. It just looks breath taking.
As I looked around, I decided to stay true to my game playing nature, and to not do what the game tells you. This is a Shenmue game after all. Instead of following the path forward, I turned around and went in the opposite direction. I wanted to explore. I know it was a demo, but I did not want to play the game as a demo. I wanted to wander, and take in this world I had waited so long to get to. I walked back across the bridge that was behind me, and after some time, the path led me to what I recognised as the martial arts hall, which I had read about and seen a lot of from the E3 demo. I also noticed the 1 inch punch, and horse stance apparatus outside, and with the help of knowing the path of the demo story, I decided that I shouldn’t visit the hall yet. I turned around, and went back to the original starting point, walking of course, and by this stage, all sense of time had gone. I was not sitting at Gamescom anymore. I was in the world of Shenmue III. So much so that I found out later that Yu Suzuki had secretly entered into the room behind me to watch, and hadn’t noticed at all.
I continued on the path, making my way towards an area where small kids were practising some Tai Chi. As seen in the recent Shenmue III trailers, a large man wearing green was watching over them, so I decided to speak to him. The conversation gave off the sense that he and Ryo had met before, possibly on day one, and offered me some advice on where I could possibly find the bookie with a scar on his face. The controller prompt at the bottom of the screen also offered me a different button input, and after pressing, it offered me the opportunity to spar with him, so I decided to give that a try to test out the fighting mechanics.
I already knew the fighting system had been drastically overhauled, and that throwing moves unfortunately could not be implemented into the game. As much of a shame that was, I was still eager to see how the fighting system had been implemented. I will not add it to the gripe I had earlier about the box outline that appears when you come into first person view because, well, I don’t think the entire fighting aspect of Shenmue III can really come under criticism due to it being the best that they can offer due to budgetary reasons and project management. Many Kickstarter games have been criticised in the past regarding project management, and it would be remiss of me to type about this criticism or that criticism when it comes to Shenmue III. Many articles have done it coming out of E3, and at the risk of coming off as a deluded fan boy, I feel it’s extremely important to shine a light on the fact that this is still an under budget game when compared to many of the other games that are out there, both at AA and AAA level. People have been quick to criticise this and that about Shenmue III, but a lot of the time in doing so, they forget how much of a budget this game had, and what it needed to accomplish to define itself as a worthy Shenmue title.
The fact is that the fighting does indeed feel a little lacking in weight, or lacking in “oomph” should be taken into consideration alongside the fact that there was just not enough money to motion capture and implement a throwing element into fighting system. It was just not possible. Whilst some may be quick to jump onto the project mismanagement bandwagon, I simply say wait until you see the aspects of this game which completely counteract that criticism, such as the sheer jaw dropping beauty of the environments, the interiors, the interaction with objects, the volumes of voice data in the game, the amount of mini games, how geographically huge the land mass is… those are just some of the things where the budget has went into, and I absolutely believe that was the right decision. It’s not that the fighting system is bad or anything, its just not at that Virtua Fighter level of tightness and complexity, and once you begin taking part in battles, you quickly get used to the new fighting system. The tension is still there, as well as the excitement of defeating someone, or the fear of being defeated by a foe with more kung fu than you.
The fight itself was pretty basic, with your punch and kick buttons operating as they have in any Shenmue game, but with the Y button already pre-set to offer help at any stage of the game, the block/parry button has now been moved to the L2 trigger. Whilst having some trepidation about this going in, it took no time at all to get used to. It felt natural, with pulling the trigger simulating a raising of your left arm to block, in a real life battle. It became effortless to back off, parry, move, and strike, and just as I was coasting along in the sparring session, I had a fright as a QTE event popped up in the middle of it. I felt a bit alienated at first, because it was completely unexpected, and struggled to complete the A, B, B, command in time, gaining a “poor” rating for it. But I had successfully entered it, and when I looked down at the bottom left of the screen I noticed that I had learned the Counter Elbow move. The QTE was a way of teaching me the move, and from that point, I could press the button combination to execute the move. The move would automatically be asigned to the R2 trigger, to perform the move automatically, but with playing Shenmue for so many years, I much preferred to integrate the manual pressing of the command into the controller, alongside my fighting technique. The old Shenmue style of fighting kicked in immediately, taking my time for my opponent to make his move, before evading, moving and then hitting him with the counter elbow. Quickly I began to really enjoy the fight, spurred on by more QTE prompts coming up, only this time, receiving an “excellent” rating for the speed of input. I felt better, and as the sparring came to a close, my confidence, as well as reassurance once again, was high. Yes this was a new, and somewhat less stringent fighting system but, it still felt so Shenmue, and so Ryo Hazuki. If this was my initial feeling with my first fight in Shenmue III, then I just know the rest of the game will be OK, with over a reported 100 skill books to obtain. My biggest fears about Shenmue III had all been put to rest.
After the sparring session ended, I noticed another familiar face from the trailers and screens from the past. The little girl dressed in pink (as seen in some of the recent promotional trailers) was crouched down on the ground, drawing some cartoon animal shapes in the dirt, and it was then I got emotional. Just watching this little girl playing in the dirt struck something in me, which I didn’t think I would feel. Something that only Yu Suzuki would do in a game. This was just one of his little touches that again, makes a Shenmue game what it is. The innocence of childhood, in full view in Bailu Village, happily content in her own little world drawing cartoon animal outlines in the dust of the path. Not a care in the world, and a simple smile on her face as she keeps herself entertained with nothing but rocks for her brush, and the dirt road as her canvas. I caught myself feeling a tad emotional and decided to go and speak to her.
The young girl was playing in the pathway which led up to her house, another landmark I recognised from the previous promotional material we had seen for Shenmue III, so I decided to take a walk up and check it out. I wasn’t sure if I could enter, and at this point I was eager to see the interior of a house. The button icon changed as I came to the front door, and despite feeling a little disappointed at the fact that I couldn’t enter, I was laughing out loud, since when I pressed the button, Ryo knocked on the door, paused, and then said “No one’s home?” in identical fashion to Shenmue. A small, yet fantastic throwback to the first game, and that’s another thing that needs to be addressed. Despite being a welcoming game for new players, there are so many little throwbacks to the first two games that they will catch you off guard at any moment, with some of them being completely hilarious too. There is a lot of thought and humour put into Shenmue III that it really pays excellent fan service in spades.
The entire premise of the demo carries a very “What’s Shenmue” like simplicity to it; explore a small section of Bailu Village to track down a bookie with a scar on his face. Much like the original “What’s Shenmue” (a demo version of the game released to the public back in Japan 1999, due to the delay of the original release), a specific area is only accessible to the player. Upon reaching a barrier where the player is not allowed to pass, Ryo will comment that he needs to find more clues, turn 180 degrees, and auto walk back to the quest area for the demo. It was at this point where I began to feel a little lost, and unsure of where I was, but this in itself was again, another great feeling about the demo. I have played both of the original Shenmue games so many times now over the years, that it just felt incredibly surreal to be lost once again in the Shenmue world. I began asking people for directions to where the bookie could be, what area was he in, looking at wooden signs on the road to see what locations were in which direction. It all added to the feeling that I was beginning to get, that this small area that I was in, could be explored for hours on end, and not just in 45 minutes.
I deduced that the town centre would be the place to go, and the huge tower in the middle provided a simple landmark of what to follow. As I arrived, 2 women were chatting beside a well, and I decided to ask them about the bookie. However as I approached, the area music that was playing cross faded out, and once cut, the only sound that could be heard was a beckoning humming noise to my left. As I looked in the direction of the chanting, I noticed a small woman dressed in black, with grey hair, and an odd shaped mallet in her hand, banging it off the table. My instincts screamed at me that she would be of no help, and after walking up to her to chat, a small cut scene took over, with Ryo attempting to speak to her, without any reply. As I left her banging her wooden object on the table, I couldn’t help but wonder how she will come into the narrative at a later point.
Also in the area were a few toy capsule machines, and this demo would not have been the same unless I had a try. Bagging a Nozomi Harasaki capsule toy and a red forklift, I continued onto the “Tao Get Store”, a location I remembered from the footage IGN Japan released during E3 earlier in the year. As I entered the store, I noticed a red ring appear around one of the objects on the table, and after entering first person mode to check it out, it was fantastic to see the old style look and zoom feature from the original games make its return. In typical Shenmue style, the camera will zoom in on the item, with Ryo making a comment. As I progressed through the store, more red rings appeared, highlighting what could be interacted with, and when one appeared over the handle of a cupboard, I immediately selected it to see what it was like. In that instant, I was taken back to the Hazuki Residence in Japan, to when I played the original Shenmue for the very first time. Locking onto the handle and pressing the A button sees Ryo’s hand come into view, to perfectly slide open the door, revealing the cupboards contents. Everything about it was so fluid, with no signs of stuttering, jarring or clipping. It was just as it was in the first game. My first experience with an interior environment in Shenmue III could not have made me happier, as I gazed in awe around the store, taking in all of its little details. Bottles on tables, merchandise on cupboard shelves, inside cubby holes… it was just perfectly Shenmue.
I spoke to the gentleman behind the counter, who offered me the opportunity to buy some sort of stamina drink for a fight. A “Snake…tonic?” as Ryo referred to it. I knew at this stage that I wasn’t going to probably make it to the bookie so I declined, but just with the sparring session I had earlier, I noticed the button icon change, and after selecting that, Ryo then asked the man a different set of questions related to activities. Just as the IGN footage showed, the offer was there for Ryo to chop some wood, which I accepted. Straight away as the mini game begun, I could tell was extremely addictive! A simple mechanic of timing, you effortlessly press the A button to cause Ryo to bring down his axe once his body is in line with the log. The more wood you chop consecutively in a row, the more money you can make, but also the more the tension rises. Whilst I would need to confirm, it also sounded like the music changed with the more consecutive logs I chopped without mistake, with a distinct theme which sounded a lot like the Afterburner track kicking in, raising the stakes more.
Speaking of which, the music of Shenmue has always been as huge a part of the franchise, and with Shenmue III it’s no different. With it’s own separately released soundtracks throughout the years, the music of Shenmue would be top of many fan favourite lists, if asked to recite their favourite things about the series. Yu Suzuki has made it no secret throughout the Kickstarter process, that the original Shenmue games had only used around 20% of the tracks recorded back during it’s original development, so I was curious to hear how the music in the demo compared to the original games. As best I could tell, the music in the demo could be separated into 3 groups; previous Shenmue tracks, new Shenmue tracks and removed versions of previous Shenmue tracks. Whilst the demo is still indeed a work in progress, its safe to say that the arrangements in the demo are not final, and could change in the retail release. I can say that as per usual, each track is perfectly selected to suit each area that Ryo is in. That also brings me onto a somewhat related topic with music, and that is loading screens. Since the Kickstarter began back in 2015, Yu Suzuki has been asked on a few occasions, if the original loading screens remain in Shenmue III, despite modern hardware not really having a need for static screens to be displayed as a new section loads. Despite being a typical Shenmue feature, all of the areas in Bailu Village had no loading screen, except for when I entered into an event such as a mini game, or battle. There were no static pauses, with text letting you know where you were, or what time it was, like the original games had. But, you knew you had entered a new area of the village, as the music would crossfade and seamlessly blend into a new track. As much of a shame it is to lose the old style loading screens, it really did not enter my mind that they were gone. I didn’t notice at all, and if anything, the pleasant change in music as I went into a new area of the Village, added to the overall cinematic feel of the game. Also, with some tracks being reused from Shenmue II, none of them struck me as out of place or jarring. If anything, they served as a reminder that I am indeed in the same location as I was back on the Dreamcast all those years ago. All tracks, new, old, and remixed you could just tell had been meticulously listened to and ensured that they best suited the area Ryo was in. With it being just a demo, the music that was there to be heard definitely ticked as many boxes as all of the other aspects of the demo, and left me wanting more.
With that done, I knew time was getting on, and unsure of how long I had left of the allotted 45 minutes. I decided to run down to another place I recognised from the IGN Japan footage, called “Joy Park”. If I needed to find a bookie, then this surly would be the place. Upon entry, a vendor at a table explained to me that if I wanted to play any of the gambling games there, I would need to purchase tokens, so I exchanged 1000 Yuan. I took a quick walkthrough the area, primarily looking for any NPC that had a scar on his face, but at the same time, having my eyes pulled away by all of the enticing mini games on offer. Roll it on top, Lucky hit, Wind, Flower, Bird and Moon, as well as Turtle Racing was on offer. Since having recently played Shenmue II, and good at making money from the button mashing arm wrestling mini games, I decided to try out the turtle racing, which consists of button mashing whatever one is highlighted on the screen to “cheer” on your selected turtle. My turtle did indeed come in first, but I would be lying if I said that my arm wasn’t as destroyed as when I had fought Jimenez Garcia back in Hong Kong for his $50 bet.
I asked around in the gambling area about a bookie, and they pointed me in the direction of a “Pail Toss” game not far from where I was, so I decided to run around a bit until I found it. Upon locating the bookie, the camera zoomed in on his scar, letting me know that I had indeed found the right guy. I asked him a question, but to get the answer, he challenged me to a fight, with the offer of that he would tell me the answers only if I could defeat him in battle. Since I had not trained, Ryo was defeated rather easily by the bookie. Not even my newly acquired Counter Elbow proved useful. Our sparring session earlier did not provide us with the needed stamina, endurance or skill to defeat him. To stand any chance of defeating him, we would need to train, and he pointed us in the direction of the Martial Hall, which I had visited at the beginning of the game. How I had any time of the demo left at this stage was beyond me, but I decided to push on, and head back to the Hall across the bridge.
As I approached, I remembered that positioned outside were the 1 inch punch, and horse stance mini games, so I decided to give those a try before I entered the Hall. The 1 inch punch game seemed as easy to play as it had looked in the IGN Japan footage. Simply waiting for 2 separate neon blue lines to come together and pressing the A button at the correct time. Just like the sparring and the wood chopping, you will be told immediately how accurate your press was. The horse stance again, was very simplistic in its nature, with Ryo adopting a horse stance position, and the player having to rhythmically tap the A button to keep him remaining in that position until the timer runs out. Once the time is up, you will be shown how much your attributes have increased, depending on how successful your performance was during the mini games.
With what time I had remaining, I ventured into the Martial Hall, and greeted by an older gentlemen asking if I was here to train? I decided to spar, and was told that “Red Tiger” would be a suitable opponent to train with. Only at the first Duan level, the combat with Red Tiger was a bit different to both the encounters with the bookie, as well as the bigger guy at the beginning of the demo. His attacks were less vicious, and he took more of a cautious approach, however in the end he was quite easy to defeat, with a few evades, and attacks with the counter elbow move. Once he was defeated, the screen went black, which I assumed was a load screen, but it was at this point that I was presented with the text, “You cleared the demo. Thanks for playing! Please look forward to Shenmue III”.
Just like that, 45 minutes went by in the blink of an eye.
It’s been a very long time I had felt that immersed in a video game, and after removing my headset, I had a chat with the Koch Media rep who told me that Yu Suzuki had called in for a bit to watch me try. He said I made him worry that I was going to break the controller due to my rapid fire pressing of the controller during the turtle race. I just laughed and explained that it was just something I was used to with the arm wrestling mini game in Shenmue II. I asked him also if this demo differed from the one that appeared at E3, and despite not being 100% sure, he said that outside of the time limit, and graphical tweaks, that it was. I also asked if this would be the backer demo released next month, and again he couldn’t say for certain, but he was pretty sure that was it. Also, that the booklets that were sitting beside each terminal would possibly be what is sent to backers in .pdf format, along with the demo.
With that, I left, and it was time to digest my thought on just what the hell had happened. I had just spent 45 minutes inside the real, living and breathing world of Shenmue III. I wanted to go back to 2012, 2009, 2005, or 2003 just to tell myself that the wait will be worth it, and one day it will come. It really has come, and it really has been worth the wait. I still cannot comprehend it, and to be honest, I don’t even know if this article does the demo justice. It’s something that needs to be experienced, and played alone, especially for those fans that have been around waiting for almost 20 years. Even if there are people out there who haven’t been as involved in the past 19 years, it really doesn’t matter, because this genuinely is a Shenmue III worthy of the name. It just oozes personality, and offers gamers something different, after the fatigue the gaming landscape is starting to feel, in regards to the copy paste open world templates which so many games today are now following.
Shenmue III truly is a love letter to it’s long awaiting audience, but it also offers a fresh new alternative open world game for new comers to instantly pick up and play. With the Sega and D3T developed Re-Releases also available to purchase, there really is no better time to jump into one of the worlds greatest, and most underappreciated franchises. Shenmue III has not been without its controversy over the past 4 years, and as we approach the long awaited release date, all we can implore anyone to do, is to check out the backer demo being released in just a few weeks, or at least check out a decent stream of someone trying the demo. Whilst we have now seen an increase in promotional material being released, my impressions after playing the demo have been that they still do not do the demo justice, especially in terms of visuals. Due to compression, capture setting or any other issues, the game really has not been shown properly to the public yet, and with Gamescom 2019 now in the rear view mirror, November 19th cannot come soon enough.