Playing Shenmue III is more like an exercise in videogame archaeology: for 18 years, it has been one of the great games that never happened, yet now here it is, like a still-furry Ice Age animal emerging from melting permafrost. The big question is whether it can hold its own in a gaming environment which has moved on a long way since 2001.

What's the history?

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. 

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Ironically, given its fossilised nature, Shenmue III owes its existence to modern technology, or at least modern funding models: Suzuki raised its development money via Kickstarter. As it was made in Unreal Engine 4, it doesn't look like a fossil (although its graphics are perfectly adequate rather than cutting-edge), and it preserves the Shenmue games' distinctive stylised look.

Does it all stack up?

Sadly, there are two areas in which Shenmue III doesn't rise to modern standards. The character animations are patchy – although fine when you're brawling, they are often slightly, but disconcertingly, off in the wider game. And the dialogue – especially that between protagonist Ryo Hazuki and Shenhua, the Chinese girl he is helping – is disappointingly wooden and badly delivered by the voice-acting cast.

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Those glaring shortcomings shouldn't necessarily be interpreted as evidence that Yu Suzuki has lost his touch: they are more likely to reflect the tight budget in which he had to operate after his crowdfunding round. Ultimately, they prove to be occasional annoyances in the vast playground of delights that Shenmue III offers.

Gloriously free

The first thing that strikes you when you fire up Shenmue III is that it wilfully bucks the most modern trend in gaming: towards constant, narrative-free action repeated on an infinite loop, as epitomised by games like Fortnite, Overwatch and PUBG. Shenmue III is fantastically, gloriously slow – especially in its initial stages – inviting you to explore its world at a leisurely pace and get to know it intimately. Only then will you start discovering the plentiful dopamine hits it contains.

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Anyone who played the original games will find it as comfortingly familiar as their favourite armchair. The story picks up precisely where Shenmue II left off: in the tiny Chinese village of Bailu. Shenhua's father Yuan, a stonemason, has gone missing amid reports of a gang of thugs terrorising the village; Ryo resolves to help her find him (with thoughts of avenging his own father's death still at the back of his mind). A typically epic quest ensues.

What's it like to play?

There are many strands to Shenmue III's gameplay. At its heart is kung-fu fighting, governed by a system that sounds oddly elaborate, but makes sense, since it forces you to develop a deep knowledge of how it works. The actual fighting is all about stringing special moves together, and blocking when necessary. But Ryo can only acquire new special moves via Skill Books, which are expensive but also given as rewards for completing side-missions or other activities (such as collecting full sets of capsule toys).

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Plus, Ryo can work on his base kung-fu skills via playing various mini-games, which increase his core health and stamina. Skills must then be levelled up by sparring at dojos (which are plentiful); later on, you can earn money by prize-fighting.

As in the rest of Shenmue III, you're left to discover the intricacies of the system by yourself, but once you do that it provides a great deal of satisfaction. In addition, when you get close to taking on bosses, you have to learn extra special moves from various initially uncooperative martial arts experts, which adds a Karate Kid-like story arc.

Get a job

At first, Shenmue III primarily engages you in detective work: questioning locals and searching for hidden clues. But as the story begins to unfold, a hugely diverse set of activities emerges. At key points, you must raise seemingly huge amounts of money, which forces you to engage with the game's quirky but extensive economy. 

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By far the best way of making money is herb-collection, which sounds mundane, but proves strangely addictive. You can also take various jobs – including old Shenmue favourites like wood-chopping and forklift-driving – which involve playing mini-games. Videogame arcades are back, containing some old Shenmue favourites. Or you can gamble: fairground-style games and casinos abound, and you can exchange winnings for prizes, then turn those into money at pawnbrokers. 

Verdict

Shenmue III's overall vibe is charming, naïve and nostalgic, without even a tiny hint of the grit found in the likes of the Yakuza games (made by many of the original Shenmue team). Again, Suzuki seems to be making a point, about evoking bygone times. Bailu Village is so bucolic that, even though the game is set in 1987, you could almost have been transported back to mediaeval days. The game's second main location, Niaowu, is a more bustling port-town, but still hardly a full-blown metropolis.

The end result is that once you find yourself on intimate terms with Shenmue III's game-world, you won't want to leave it – it offers an incredibly enticing escape from the real world. You will find yourself becoming obsessed with all manner of trivial activities. Particularly in Bailu, it often feels a bit like Animal Crossing, except populated by humans.

Shenmue III is too obviously flawed to be hailed as a stone-cold classic, and its ending is disappointingly abrupt and inconclusive. However, even that has a silver lining, since it all too obviously sets up the prospect of Shenmue IV. If Suzuki-san manages to secure more lavish funding for that – and to address Shenmue III's inadequate areas in the process – he could finally complete the rehabilitation of his once-impeccable reputation. Let's hope he has another masterpiece left in him.