A game like Shenmue should have a ton of cut scenes and dialogue. That's what you expect going in. But there's a difference between good exposition, and the kind that you literally can't escape from.
We're not far away from Shenmue 3 finally dropping, with the game landing in a fortnight for PC and PS4. It's been an arduous journey for Ryo and Shenhua, whose journey started as a Kickstarter campaign at E3 (remember those days?), before getting Kickstarted again, and then delayed not once, not twice, but three times.
But the ride's almost finally over. Which means we're not far away from appreciating Shenmue for all its weird, wonderful quirks.
Except for one quirk.
How a cutscene is shot can make a massive difference to a scene's delivery. Gamers tend to ignore cinematography when it comes to their video games, although developers certainly don't. I remember The Old Republic, Bioware's Star Wars MMO, precisely for this reason. It might have leant real hard into the WoW-style of fetch quests, but every time you went to hand those 40 robot limbs in, the camera would always take weird and unique angles.
Sometimes scenes were framed from a high shot up near the ceiling. Other times they'd use over the shoulder shots, super long shots from far away, wider shots with other NPCs in the frame, and sometimes they'd just keep adjusting from one character to another mid sentence to keep the scene visually engaging.
It's kind of a necessary evil, because the characters are meant to be static in the physical space where they are - you run up to the quest point or the quest NPC, and everything operates from that space. So Bioware Austin makes do with what they have.
Shenmue 3 is in a similar boat, at least in the early hours of the game. Kickstarter backers got their hands on a demo back in late September, but a slightly different demo was playable for two hours at a recent preview showcase held by the company's local distributor, Koch Media. It was a chance to see how the game holds up on the PS4 Pro — I'd previously seen it running on a high end PC — but also a chance to practice my kung fu.
Most backers focused on all the mini-games you could play around Baidu Village, like turtle racing, Lucky Hit, and so on. Having seen most of that, I focused on advancing Ryo's search for the bookie as quickly as possible, working my way to the marshal hall, which meant a lot of running back and forth with Shenhua that I never saw in the original streams of the Kickstarter demo.
There's a lot of stopping and starting in the first half hour, because every 40 or 50 metres you walk there's another cut scene with Shenhua. And what I can't get over is how inconsistent the scenes actually are.
In one of the first scenes, Ryo and Shenhua are walking down the road while they talk. Halfway through the scene, the pair stop walking. The conversation keeps going, but then before the scene ends, the two start walking again.
It seemed weird. Why would they talk on the road, stop over something fairly nondescript, and then keep walking again? The characters aren't doing this of their own accord. There's not some AI bug that's just pushing them down the road and the in-game camera has to keep up: the designers choose where the characters stand, where the camera goes, and whether they move or not.
Over the course of the first half hour, I counted four separate scenes where Ryo and Shenhua chat on the run, stop, then start chatting again. All of the cut scenes also have really hard cuts. That's super jarring given Shenmue 3 is a slowly paced game: you're often waiting for animations to finish, fight scenes go into bullet time so you can input button combos, and many of the voiceovers and cut scenes are unskippable.
If this seems at odds with the Shenmue 3 gameplay you've seen online, there's a good reason why. Searching for Shenmue 3 demo footage today will bring up videos of Ryo and Shenhua at a small bridge, a short cutscene of Shenhua heading onto the next settlement, and then Ryo wanders around playing dice, getting into punch-ons and losing at various mini-games. The objective is to find the bookie with a scar, but my gameplay demo featured an earlier sequence when you're headed to the village to look for clues about Shenhua's father, only to discover that two thugs have ransacked one of the villagers' homes.
It's the hour before you get to play all the mini-games, basically. But instead of running around at your own pace, you're forced to follow Shenhua — you'll run into a ton of invisible walls if you try to wander off — and question a lot of the villagers, who more or less tell Ryo to piss off as soon as he says hello.
With the unskippable scenes, it's a lot of downtime. You're not given any specific hints on where certain characters are, so you have to run around looking for each character and seeing their name pop-up to recognise whether it's the person you're after. It's slow, and not out of context for Shenmue, but absolutely worth knowing if you're jumping into the franchise for the first time.
I can't help but watch it and think, "Man some of these could have seriously used an editor." It's a similar thought I've had about every Hideo Kojima game, Death Stranding included. And that's totally fine if that's absolutely your jam. But it only took about 15 minutes before I was praying for some kind of button to mash my way through a lot of the more useless cut scenes and animations.
I genuinely hope the full version of the game is a little more malleable. Sure, some fans have waited an eternity for a new Shenmue game, but that doesn't have to mean players have to wait aeons while they're playing it too.
Shenmue 3 launches for PS4 and PC via the Epic Games Store on Tuesday, November 19.