Saturday, 28 September 2019

Shenmue III Backer Trial Impressions

Today the long promised Kickstarter backer exclusive demo of Shenmue III finally dropped.


Find out about my thoughts and impressions and what I hope for the nearing release of the game.

It was quite a surreal experience to finally take control over Ryo in an entirely new official terrain.
Close to 18 years have passed since Shenmue II released in Europe and it hasn't been much later that I first completed it. Even the original Kickstart reveal of Shenmue III feels like it has been ages ago, so it was hard to believe that what was in front of my eyes, was actually THE long awaited game. Well, at least a glimpse of it.

Immediately there was a sense of magic surrounding everything I saw, heard and did.
Took some time just to take in the immediate surrounding on the river bank, the lovely flow of the water and the meadows wich are oh so densely covered with flowers of all sorts of colors.
The sun beaming down with a warm glow from the brightly blue skies with clouds moving along.

It was only until I started to move around, when I really got a sense of the scale and sheer spaciousness of the area of Guilin I was in. Never before was there an area in Shenmue that felt this open and unrestricted. Wasn't easy to decide where to go first and it never became any easier as I crossed more and more forks in the roads.

Meadows far and wide with flowers everywhere

Luckily the new controls immediately felt very natural, so getting around the place was a breeze.
Ryo moves around a lot more smoothly with the stick and can run surprisingly fast when you push the right trigger, wich is exactly how it should work in a Shenmue game. Camera also works smooth, follows Ryo just enough as he runs across the winding roads and you can rotate it around him as you desire. It's also possible to re-center the camera behind Ryo with a simple push of a button. The general perspective is now closer to Ryo than it used to be on the Dreamcast, wich is just one of the things that we eventually will get used to hopefully. It's certainly no big deal.

Since I captured the whole "first playthrough" thing for the world to see and for me to look back at it, wich is something I'll sadly never be able to do for Shenmue or Shenmue II. For the showing and my curiousness, the playthrough quickly turned into a "do everything at least once" kinda deal.


There is a surprising amount of stuff to do in the bit of Guilin you're given to freely explore and it's pretty much impossible to go serious with everything until the clock strikes 9 pm and the demo ends.
Luckily that makes the overall rather short demo, wich has only a glimmer story, very replayable.
Do I spend my time gambling, or with training and fighting? Do I become and herb picker or capsule collector? Do I try to find out as much as I can about the person I'm looking for or do I just loaf around and watch the people of Bailu go on their daily life? In typical Shenmue fashion the choice is all up to you and the choices are plentiful. Given how much more of Shenmue III's game world is still awaiting us, the final release is going to be an epic, lovely crafted open world to explore and actually take a part in as a living, breathing being.

The new minigames are all very simple in concept, where you just need to press A in a certain way.
But they manage to make a lot out of that by making the games easy to learn but still challenging to perfect. I had the most fun with Wood Chopping for sure. Lucky Hit, Roll it on Top and Flower, Bird, Wind & Moon all have different physics than they had in Shenmue II. The balls take longer to reach their destination but this doesn't affect the games a whole lot and is just another thing to get used to.


The already mentioned envoriments are stunning in every way and there is not a single fault to be found in them. Everything is crafted very well, there are no major visual hiccups or distractions anywhere and a great amount of care and detail can be found everywhere.
The game is incredibly colorful, wich really lets it stand out in todays typical bland styles that are devoid of anything that really pops. As the sun goes down the lighting and mood expectedly change dramatically. At night it then turns in to a real show of beautiful lights. The torches put out a fantastic glow that is almost piercingly bright in the otherwise very dark darkness. Contrast could almost be sold as HDR, and the bright fires even create their own little lens flare and speckle effects.
On top of that, there is also a some light from the moon, wich also realisticly moves with the passage of time. Probably to bring out all its details it has ben made ginormous. It is admitedly a little bit strange to have it this large and one other tiny thing are all flowers, wich stand out a bit much from the dark grass at night.

Be sure to bring a beefy machine if you want to play it with the best possible visuals, as the game in its current state is very GPU heavy. The GTX 1080Ti in my machine was barely able to maintain 60fps at 3840x2160 with very high details. While only some parts made the framerate dip to 55 or 45fps, the GPU was at 90-100% load all the time, boosting to nearly 2 GHz while at it.
Hopefully there will be some improvements for this 4K performance down the line, even if they won't be ready for the release and come with patches later.

Characters are still a step below the enviroments, but the uncountably often critizied facial animations have come a long way and are more than decent enough, giving the characters a true sense of life. Animations for body movements are also great and the English voice acting is surisingly well done.
Ryo is still very stoic and rather monotone for obvious reasons, but the NPCs sound very diverse, not overdone and bring a lot of charm with them. Part of that is thanks to the writing, wich is amusingly witty at times. But there are also some strangely stiff, disjointed and sometimes questionably translated conversations, that Shenmue just needs to have for the full experience, like it or not.

How about a game of Lucky Hit?

I have some mixed feelings about the music, wich is a shock to myself, as it was always the one thing I never had any kind of doubts about. The right people are on board to create new beautiful Shenmue music and Yu Suzuki still has a vast pool of music that hasn't been heard yet in the games at his disposal. So there was no room for worries for me. Part of this already shines through, as some left over unused music from Shenmue II, aswell as stuff that was once found on the Shenmue Online website can be heard in the demo and that is exactly what I wanted.

There are also slightly more advanced or otherwise different sounding versions of music that did already make an apperance in the games before. Other pieces seem to be taken pretty much 1:1 from Shenmue II. While this sends out a rush of nostalgia, it does feel a bit out of place at times and the recycling can lead to an air of cheapness, even a bit like a fan work. Don't get me wrong, I know more than well that the game has Kickstarter roots and still runs on a budget. But with the statements of how much more music has already been produced before 2000, it is irritating to how much stuff we already know they rely on in the demo. This irritation mainly stems from the fact that after so many years these tunes have already been permanently linked to cetrain areas or events in our minds and just don't really work well in other situations. In places where I feel it would be best to reused the original music, like for the various returning minigames, entirely different stuff is used.

Even the totally new music can seem misplaced, like for example the tune playing for the wood chopping mini game. But in this case it is only because the song is too damn beautiful to be "wasted" like that and it would've been a better choice to have it accompany the many area, instead of the music wich they picked, whose melody gets (and I really hate to say this for something in Shenmue) somewhat annoying. Some of the music is lacking endless loop points, so there are brief moments of silence. The crossroad between the village square, meadow and Joy Park has no music at all, wich is an intersting happening. One thing I don't understand yet is how sometimes the music just goes away after some time. It's good that there is still different music at night, like it was in Shenmue II. But even that is done a bit strangely in the demo. Some main areas don't have night music, but the Tao Get Store has.

Well, music is the easiest subject to change anyway, as the game is still evolving until the ever closer drawing release. As mentioned earlier, Yu's music pool is apparently so vast that he won't be running out of stuff we haven't heard before anytime soon. It might be that a bunch of tunes were just placeholders until the final touches or decissions what to use have been made at the time of the demo's build. The overall sound design is very solid though, with nice sound effects all around.
Some of the signature sounds of the series, like the one when you get an item are still there, while others, like the famous notebook entry notification, have changed, wich is a bit sad.

Red Tiger is quite the sparring partner

Probably the biggest overhaul in terms of mechanics is the fighting system.
It totally reinvents everything that Shenmue and Shenmue II established with entirely new ways of how to control it, how it locks on to opponents and how the camera moves.
It feels very simplified, with more automation, not requiring any directional inputs and having a simple block button and no throws whatsoever. It is deeper than it seems at first though, it cetrainly didn't turn into a button masher. Timing and choice of actions play a more important role and the fights certainly have some challenge to them and can't just be blindly button mashed to victory. Many of Ryo's signature non-throw moves are also still there, some with new names, but all with very familiar animations. It's yet to be seen how battles against multiple opponents will feel.

Training plays a big part in Ryo's life yet again and this is where Shenmue III shines in my opinion.
Stat building through sparring and practicing Horse Stance and One Inch Punch have a much greater sense of reward and accomplishment. While the leveling of the moves is more in steps than before, it overall feels more realistic how Ryo is training here, not just punching the air for ages, or some very short sparring bursts with Jianmin. Moving up the Duan ranks at Martial Hall is also an enjoyable and challenging task, with sooo much more yet to come.


What's in this cupboard?

What ultimately makes the Shenmue III demo feel like Shenmue, are all the things that the series is known for. Exploration, looking at stuff, talking with people, watching the NPCs do their things, collecting, minigames... it's all there. And the full game is going to feel even more like it when arcades, QTEs, Tomato Marts, Telephones and what not are accessible.
In some details it is still lacking a bit of the spirit right now. The lock-on feature changed and lost some of the original features. Objects have to be locked with the press of a button and are always highlighted by a red circle. You can't zoom or move the camera once you look at them closely. There isn't much to physically pick up yet either. Also, your can't lock to NPCs in the demo, so there is no follow mechanic. There's also no way to skip individual lines while talking or leave conversations. Options can effortless do wonders to a bunch of those later though.

In many ways things are more streamlined and game-y compared to the Dreamcast era. Buying things in the shops, consuming items, pulling capsule toys out of the machines? All a great deal more simplified. This takes away a good chunk of the game-transcending experience and hyperrealistic mundane that Shenmue worked so hard to build up. Of course this has the benefit of making things go by quicker with a lot less hassle. While it would probably be asking too much to see Ryo devour all the food he can consume, at least drinking soda cans HAS to be in the game eventually.


That brings me to what I wish for the full game adds and accomplishes when it hits us in two months of time. Already mentioned the music needing some shuffling and the performance in 4K, aswell as the soda drinking and group battles. I'd like to see more of the familiar minigames, we know nothing about yet, return, namely Darts, Arm Wrestling and Roll It On Top. Also, working a Lucky Hit stand yourself should be a thing again. Capsule toy machines can hopefully also be expanded, because the list of items seen in the demo is a choice of rather strange things and the machines certainly need more than 5 different toys in a set to remain interesting.

Other than that, I have no fears where Shenmue III is headed. Especially not about the greater feel of things and the story. Let November come and let the game reach its fullest Shenmue potential!

If you want to see the whole 76 minutes of me playing through the game twice, in one very exploratory run and one more direct one, check out the video I captured for that purpose.






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