In 2001, Shenmue II earned its creator, Yu Suzuki, endless plaudits. It was hailed as a masterpiece among the greatest games ever made. Sadly, it also saddled its publisher, Sega, with a titanic loss – lavished with a budget somewhere upwards of $50 million, it arrived just as Sega (following various marketing debacles) was about to withdraw the console it was made for, the Dreamcast, from sale and forever abandon the business of even making consoles. Once that’s over with, Shenmue III’s story revolves around a small martial-arts village in the middle of China (and later, a larger harbor town), as he investigates various happenings, interacts with the populace, and engages in time-wasting activities like mini-games, gambling, scrounging for herbs, and levelling up his fighting skills. In other words, it’s Shenmue.
Shenmue 3 picks up right where the series left off in 2001, like the last 18 years never happened. The next chapter of Ryo Hazkuki’s vengeful quest takes him to China, but don’t expect huge changes from the Shenmue of old. We’ve mostly liked what we’ve seen so far, but it’s only time will tell if Ryo has successfully made the jump into the modern gaming world.It’s an ideal setting for a Shenmue game, a series famous for its languid, aggressively deliberate pacing. This is a game as slow and meandering as the old man strolling through Bailu’s marketplace deciding which kind of steamed bun to have for lunch. And the village’s steadfast resistance to a changing world, to the creep of modernisation, neatly reflects Shenmue 3 itself.Suzuki later said his aim was to replicate not realism, but reality, with all of its periods of listlessness and boredom. As such, the game was filled with daily chores, repetitious part-time work, all the stuff that, ostensibly, people play video games to escape. The gamble did not pay off. Only two of the planned six instalments in the series were released. Grand Theft Auto 3’s arrival in 2001, with its cinematic set pieces and celebrity voice actors, changed the arc of video game design, probably inevitably.
It was profoundly influential on the next 20 years of game design. By today’s standards, it’s quaint. At the time, there was nothing else like it. A real-time day-night cycle? A world full of fully voice-acted characters? Weather effects? Characters who lived out their daily lives on a schedule? These things had been done before individually, but Shenmue brought them together to craft what felt like a living world. Ryo Hazuki’s quest to find his father’s killer led us through this world and all of its details.Textures load in after a second or two, water reflections actually ‘reflect’ any 3D object above it on the screen space, shadows and details visibly pop in in the distance, and materials look just a little more ‘matte’ compared to real life. Even so, there are many moments of obvious beauty, with gorgeous lighting and phenomenal detail, and all despite the impressive scale. You can run across the city in one go and then examine individual fruit skewers on a market stall, all without a loading screen.Shenmue 3 won’t disappoint fans of the first two. But that’s almost secondary to the real story here. Shenmue 3’s real strength is in the way that it suggests a different way of looking at the very storytelling of videogames. It challenges the idea that a game’s value is in it aspiring to be “cinema”, and it provides a pretty compelling argument for the alternative, too. On a personal note, as a fan of both theatre and Shenmue, this game is effortlessly my pick of what has been a very good 2019 for the creative side of videogames.
The phenomenon known as the ‘Quick Time Event’ that the original pioneered has thankfully passed through gaming’s digestive system in the past decade, but is back here, though thankfully it’s used sparingly. Even so, the prompts simply don’t give you enough time to react. You’ll be shouting at the screen “I literally pressed that!” but you’ll still be replaying the sequence, memorising which button comes when rather than reacting to the action.It is a wonderful relic whose eccentricities, while alienating by modern standards, are essential to capturing the experience and feel of the originals. If you are new to the series, it will be an abrupt introduction. This is a game for players who have already accompanied Ryo all the way through the previous two games, from Japan’s sleepy neighborhood streets to the bustling underworld of Kowloon.The unhurried storytelling and orthodox detective work – virtual hours of chatting to villagers in search of leads, and rifling through musty drawers – has an honest, if, for the contemporary player, initially jarring appeal. If anything, the pacing has slowed further still. Shenmue 3 opens in rural China, where water is drawn from a well, fish are caught from a river, and the evening entertainment consists of placing bets on where a dropped ball-bearing might land.
Shenmue remains an ambitious series—Suzuki first imagined it as a 16-part epic—and that ambition is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that every new location is lush and respectfully brought to life. On the other, it means that not even Shenmue III resolves Ryo’s tale. Its charm ultimately wins out in the end, but the finale is bittersweet.Card of Darkness, the latest from Zach Gage (SpellTower, TypeShift etc.), with art by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, is one of the brightest, a puzzle card game masquerading as a Tolkienesque adventure, able to chew any commute into a blur. You manoeuvre your character across a 4×4 grid populated with stacks of cards. Some represent enemies, others spells and weapons.