Over the course of three games, the Yakuza series has always yielded mixed reception in the Western market, failing to solidify itself as a third-person action powerhouse amongst stiff competition. Who would have thought that running a muck in the confines of Tokyo’s diverse criminal underground would have trouble appealing to western audiences?
Fortunately, these preconceived notions did not seem to affect developer Toshihiro Nagoshi and the Sega CS1 Team, as Yakuza 3 brutally makes its way to Western PS3s, looking to not only alter perceptions of the series, but of the genre itself.
Being my first foray into the criminal substructure of Tokyo, I thought it would be best to freshen up on my knowledge of Yakuza, that is, what Yakuza actually are. After satisfying my stupidity curiosity, I set forth with my interest piqued. Yet, I knew of the expansive backstory behind the Yakuza series, and was a bit worried in terms of familiarity with the characters and setting. However, it seems that Sega was one step ahead of me.
Before you jump into (and during) a new game, you’ll have the option to “reminisce” about the previous two titles (Yakuza 1 & 2). They essentially provide a recap of the past two canonical titles, but are finely crafted with cutscenes from the original PS2 games, and new voice overs from series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. Games of this magnitude should take this into serious consideration; both retellings were very enjoyable, but more importantly, they provided a familiarity with the characters and story that, without it, newcomers would be more than a little confused.
Yakuza 3 initially sees a change in setting from the seedy underground of Tokyo and Osaka, as Kazuma takes to the Ryukyu Islands of Okinawa with his adopted daughter Haruka, and becomes the caretaker for the Sunshine Orphanage. However, the orphange lies on land being brokered for a deal that would see a seaside resort built in its stead – a deal that will make many politicians very rich, and also involves Kazuma’s former Yakuza organization, the Tojo Clan.
After an assassination attempt on the current chairman of the clan goes awry, Kazuma sets out to return to Tokyo’s crime infested streets, and with the help of some old friends, unravel the mystery surrounding the Tojo Clan and the Sunshine Orphanage.
Living up to series standards, Yakuza 3‘s story features lengthy, engaging cutscenes to bolster the solid yet quirky plot. It takes a bit to pick up, as you’ll be doing missions for the children in the orphanage for the first couple hours (with required brutality spliced in), and the 295 minutes of cinematics might be off-putting for some, but once you return to Tokyo and get into the meat of the story, it becomes a thoroughly captivating narrative featuring amazing voice acting.
While the series is generally regarded as an action-adventure title, Yakuza 3 breaks the mold, essentially becoming an open world, action-JRPG. For the most part, combat plays out like other action games, but as you progress, it evolves into a gratifyingly deep system. Using combos, finishers, and a variety of weapons and objects found on the street with the X and Triangle button, you’ll work towards building the Heat gauge, opening up a wide range of heavy-hitting moves.
Once the Heat gauge is full, you can use an assortment of objects and weapons purchased from stores or picked up around Tokyo to perform special attacks with visceral brutality. Some of the most enjoyable moments will be had stomping a street punk’s head into the pavement and teeing up on a Yakuza’s face with a nine iron, as you revel in the blood spurting from their orifices.
Learning new techniques is where the JRPG aspects begin to come into play. With each battle and sidequest, you’ll receive experience to use in one of four trees: Soul, Tech, Body, and Essence, gaining new attacks and increases to health and Heat gauges. Many abilities are used in situational fighting, such as being grabbed from behind or swinging an enemy around, bashing into others waiting for a piece of Kazuma, creating a more realistic combat experience. Maxing out each tree will take some good old fashioned JRPG grinding, and will require many sidequests to be accomplished. But it’s a welcome change to the “orb collection” that has saturated the genre, allowing for more freedom when choosing from the unique ability pool that can be tailored for any style of fighting.
Obtaining new abilities is not simply limited to Kazuma’s upgrades. Throughout the sandbox-style cities of Tokyo and Okinawa, you’ll find some side missions that will grant a Revelation, resulting in a new technique for Kazuma. Using a cell phone in a first-person-view, you’ll seek out extraordinary events from regular citizens, capturing photos and posting them on Kazuma’s blog (yes, I’m serious). Each Revelation features a bizarre scenario along the lines of a drunk man pretending to pole dance on a street lamp to a woman on a scooter too distracted by her favorite actor on a billboard. Some are funny, while others are just tend to be way too wacky, but they all provide special attacks that are a blast to use during the game.
These are only a fraction of the 101 different side stories you’ll find throughout the game, adding to the 20-25 hour main story. To give you some perspective, after getting about an 85% completion rating, I was close to 50 hours. Getting 100%, that is, finishing every side mission, opening all 100 coin lockers, and competing in the Underground Arenas, amongst a plethora of other content, will take even longer. There is a tremendous amount to do around Tokyo and Okinawa that’ll keep you on your couch for hours on end, particularly the Underground Arena. Pitting you against 50 fighters in 11 different modes, you’ll fight your way through the ranks in single and tag-team battles with a variety of rules that has its own unique style of play akin to Virtua Fighter 5.
Like other Sandbox games, Yakuza 3 features an array of minigames for your entertainment, a total of 16 to be exact, ranging from baseball to golf to karaoke to traditional Japanese games. Some of them are really fun and play great, like Boxcellios (a shoot-’em-up) and surf fishing, while others often feel like a chore and very clumsy, such as the batting cage and golf. Even though there are many games to play, the same amount of polish wasn’t devoted to each one. Sometimes, less can be so much more.
Other times, this proves to be very false. Yakuza 3 will most likely not impress you graphically, especially since the game is already more than a year old, having been released in Japan during February of 2009. The event scenes in each of the 12 chapters, all done through motion capture, are beautifully rendered, but the rest of the game looks only slightly better than some PS3 launch titles.
Another problem arises concerning the voice work. Although it’s top-notch, there is no English voice acting, as Sega decided to subtitle the entire game rather than rerecording for localization. Personally, I felt it made for a more engaging atmosphere, creating a deeper connection with the characters and their surroundings, but at the same time, if I happened to be distracted I could have potentially missed major plot events.
Despite its slow start, Yakuza 3 shapes up to become a fulfilling hybrid adventure, packed with equal parts sandbox, JRPG, and beat-’em-up action. After returning to Tokyo, the story really fleshes itself out, becoming a riveting narrative backed by gorgeous cinematics and some truly inspiring voice acting, regardless of the language choice. Top it all off with excessive brutality and a devastating medley of weapons, and Yakuza 3 shouldn’t be passed up. You’re in for a treat.
While the event scenes are gorgeous and the narrative spins a fine tale, the rest of the game is visually unimpressive.
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Running around Tokyo and Okinawa busting heads is a blast, especially due to the fluid combat and deep leveling system.
You'll find some of the best voice acting in Yakuza 3, even if you can't understand it, and bashing a man's skull into the ground has never sounded so pleasing.
With a main story that lasts well over 20 hours coupled with the sheer amount of side content will keep you in Tokyo's criminal underworld for 60+ hours.
After years of playing second fiddle in the action-adventure genre, Yakuza 3 finally makes some waves with an engaging, cinematic experience that will punch you right in the face, but in awesomely brutal fashion.