A reader is concerned that the long-awaited Shenmue sequel will end up too stuck in the past, and without enough money to do it justice.
Cards on the table from the outset, I’m a Shenmue fan, even the little glitchy things in Shenmue like the stilted dialogue delivered like an uncharismatic ransom demand, the facial animations that looked like hockey masks asked to emote, and the uncompromising day night cycle where if you missed a meeting then hard cheese you had to wait and do a boring day’s work as punishment for your tardiness.
In other games these mechanics would be considered a war crime but Shenmue had something over those other games, firstly it was made in 2000 (really) and therefore these backwards mechanics actually represented the bleeding edge of game design and secondly Shenmue was delivered with such honest sincerity and simple charm you grew to love its wooden characters. It is also easy to forget how ambitious the first game especially was in terms of its narrow but deep scale and its faithful representation of the streets of Yokosuka in the ‘80s. All that said however, I am not a blind fanatic, and this brings me to my meandering point that I’m a bit worried about Shenmue III.
It started when that announcement was made during the ecstatic Sony 2015 E3 conference, when nostalgia was dragged out and milked literally bone dry on stage. The Last Guardian, a Final Fantasy VII remake, and to an already shell-shocked reeling audience the knockout blow was delivered with the reveal of Shenmue III. Obviously, I was as overjoyed as every other Shenmue fan. The endless memes could finally end and we would finally find out the next chapter of Ryo’s story. The euphoria was palpable and unrefined. The next day after the night before, the cloud of nostalgic funk started to fade and the doubts and questions started to harsh my buzz.
The first nagging doubt that emerged was who was paying for this? The people on the stage at the time seemed to imply Sony might be, but in the same breath a Kickstarter was launched? The question was why? Could a massive corporation like Sony not afford to bankroll a game like Shenmue? Maybe not, after all it nearly bankrupted Sega to bankroll it so maybe this was a risk mitigation tactic. If not enough was raised then Sony could walk away from a fairly risky bet cleanly, couldn’t they?
Well, let’s take a mosey over to the Kickstarter and see what they’re after? £2 million? That’s fairly paltry for a modern game when the original cost in the region of $50 million. It later emerged that Sony was only helping with the marketing and publishing but most of the money would come from the Kickstarter and from other ‘traditional means’. It was then later said that on the night of E3 Sony had lent Yu Suzuki the stage, presumably as part of the marketing commitment which Sony had made.
This was probably an honest mix-up but the confused, mixed messaging soured a launch that should have been much more positive. The confusion aside, the money being talked about didn’t seem nearly enough to give fans what they wanted. Yu Suzuki later said that £10 million was needed to make the open world he was after and made this a stretch goal of the project. Now this I didn’t understand because if the minimum to make the game was £10 million why not simply ask for that amount rather than the £2 million target that was romped over in a matter of hours?
Again, the messaging could have been much clearer to potential investors. So, from all this I have a question. Do they have the money to make the best sequel possible? I frankly don’t think they do, but I’m just random Joe Public and not privy to the inner workings of the production, I can only speculate.
As far as the development goes I was concerned the game went dark. Only intermittently have I seen some screenshots and brief videos of progress, including an extended trailer showing the briefest glimpse of gameplay and the quality of that material hasn’t been of the highest standard. Animations look stiff and unnatural and the faces look like the 2000 original, lacking life and emotion. While graphical prowess should not be the marker of the overall quality of a game what I’ve seen shows a stubborn adherence to the visual aesthetic of the 2000 era game, and this leads me to a more problematic question.
Will the gameplay also lean heavily into the nostalgia of the original games? To me this would be mistake.
Gaming has moved on in leaps and bounds since the original Shenmue blew us away with innovation and shocked us with its detailed open world. But I think relying on 18-year-old gameplay mechanics and graphics could lead to frustration and anger amongst the gamers who will dip into Shenmue to find out what all the fuss is about and have been weaned on a diet of beautiful graphics and user-friendly gameplay mechanics.
My hope is that the nostalgia is tempered by an intelligent use of more modern gameplay mechanics to blunt the opaquer aspects of the game, maybe allowing for speeding up day night cycles or finding a way to reinvent the QTEs that Shenmue made famous. Or finding a way to modernise the fighting mechanics.
They have to do this while also allowing fans like myself to feel that nostalgic serotonin rush we’ve been craving for years, a maybe impossible balancing act to get right but see Yakuza 0, Resident Evil 7, or Doom for examples of games who’ve thought completely outside the box and produced the effect that I’ve just described.
Before I close I couldn’t leave before I’ve recounted my favourite part of the Shenmue series, it’s a bit of an esoteric pick but it’s stuck with me many years after I last played the game. It involves the trip to Guilin from the harbour towards the end of Shenmue II. These games are action-packed and busy, especially in Kowloon a place so odd I could scarcely believe it actually exists. And so this quiet introspective section stuck out to me as you simply walked, and camped, and got lost, and connected with one of the characters. It was one of several brave sections that showed that Yu Suzuki wasn’t afraid to use the players time to build connections with his characters and I can’t help but wonder would modern gamers tolerate this?
Shenmue III could be a resurrection moment for the Shenmue series as a whole. Get this right and they could prove to a major publisher, such as Sony, that Shenmue is no longer a risky bet but a sure thing and get them to invest in another game so that Ryo can stretch his wings fully and bring this brilliant story to another generation of gamers. But on the flip side, screw this up and a fond memory would be desecrated for a different generation of gamers who have fought hard for this game, the people who dip in will not see what all the hoopla was about and the accompanying crowing schadenfreude would be the saddest funeral march for a venerated franchise.
By reader Dieflemmy (gamertag/PSN ID/NN ID)
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