Contrary to the opinions of their detractors, video games are constantly improving our lives. Even ignoring the obvious benefits (improved hand/eye coordination, etc.) we learn new, important lessons on a daily basis: teamwork (online multiplayer games), the value of friendship and comradery in surmounting world-shattering obstacles (countless JRPGs), and overcoming shyness and low self-esteem (any music game in a group setting – although a few stiff drinks will generally do the job as well).
Similarly, Sega’s Yakuza 3 has taught me that should I ever find myself in Japan, I will be able to resolve any problem that comes my way – no matter how trivial – with the judicious and measured application of my fists, feet and whatever nearby everyday objects that aren’t nailed down to said problem’s face. Whoever said “violence isn’t the answer” obviously never met Kazuma Kiryu.
First off, let’s clear up a few potential misconceptions. Despite repeated attempts by the West to shorthand the Yakuza series as a Japanese Grand Theft Auto, it really isn’t. Yakuza 3, like its predecessors, is actually an RPG where combat happens to be resolved via real-time brawling, rather than the usual abstracted, turn-based, menu-driven system. Organized crime doesn’t automatically equal an open-world sandbox, kids. Remember this.
Secondly, for those of you worrying you’ll be unable to jump into Yakuza 3 without tracking down and playing the earlier PS2 installments, allow me to alleviate your fears; it stands pretty damn well on its own without any prior knowledge of the franchise. Sega also included a “CliffsNotes for Would-Be Gangsters” compilation of story cutscenes from the first two games as on-disc extras. There’s even a handy relationship tree showing you how the large cast of characters are connected to one another, should you become confused. The game may not exactly ease a newcomer into the narrative, but it certainly provides the tools to make it less jarring, should you choose to use them.
As for the game itself, Yakuza 3 continues the saga of Kazuma Kiryu, the now-former 4th Chairman of the Tojo Family, a criminal organization based out of Kamurocho (a fictional Tokyo district based on the real world’s Kabukicho). Since the events of Yakuza 2, Kazuma has grown weary of his old life and retired to the island of Okinawa to raise his foster daughter and an orphanage full of rambunctious youngsters. However, before long, circumstances beyond his control and spectres from his past drag him back into the intrigue of underworld politics. Oh, and you’re going to have to kick in several hundred sets of teeth in order to get to the bottom of it all. Did we forget to mention that? Hope you brought your good teeth-kicking shoes.
Seeing as this is indeed an RPG, random battles are still the order of the day. Street punks, rival yakuza and other ne’er-do-wells will run up as you wander the streets, aching to start trouble. Onlookers form a perimeter and before you know it, the fight is on. You have a mix of strong and heavy attacks at your disposal, along with the ability to grab, defend, dodge and taunt (the last of which helps build your Heat gauge, used to execute powerful special attacks).
Overall, combat in Yakuza 3 is simple and repetitive, but at the very least it’s not as boring as rushing through menus of a typical RPG, mashing the same button to spam your basic “Attack” as you pound low-level foes. Strategy does play an element as you’re always outnumbered and enemies come in several flavors: average goons; speedy, skilled fighters; tough. resistant brutes. However, since you can arm yourself with a variety of impromptu degradable weapons from the surrounding environment (store signs, bicycles, etc.) you at least have an available, if temporary, equalizer.
In typical form, experience can be exchanged for new moves and power upgrades. Cash can be spent in a variety of shops around town on everything from food and energy drinks for health and Heat boosts, to items used in weapon crafting, to a round of songs at the karaoke parlor. Yes, Kazuma seems have a bit of a weakness of sentimental enka ballads. Go figure. Karaoke is just one of the huge selection of mini-game activities Yakuza 3 sports. From bowling to gambling to pit fighting, Kaz will never lack for things to do while taking a break from the main storyline or one of the many side-quests. I clocked 45+ hours by the end of things, having done a fair amount of side missions, and still was only 36% complete overall. If you stick to just the main missions you could probably finish in around 25-30 hours.
Yakuza 3 has a lot going for it. It’d be nice to see more RPGs that try to tell a straight narrative in a modern day setting while totally eschewing supernatural or sci-fi elements, so it fills an underrepresented niche. The story has the appropriate levels of pathos and melodrama, and the usual dance of alliances, twists and betrayals that come with the kind of material it draws from. Combat isn’t super-deep, but it’s at least engaging enough to keep you from getting too bored with the grind, unlike most RPGs. The characters are appropriately colorful and there were at least a couple of moments where I actually got angry at the game for making me choke up because I had gotten emotionally invested in the characters. And, as mentioned above, there’s certainly plenty of distractions for when you need a break (or for those obsessive trophy completionists out there).
However, the game also has a few hiccups that mar the experience. First, it takes a good two to three hours to really get moving; an expected issue for RPG veterans, but those unprepared or impatient could find it off-putting. Another annoyance is that despite the fact that a lot of side missions require you to make decisions, they rarely amount to more than “Help this person” versus “Mind your own business” with no serious consequences. I’m not asking for a morality compass, which is much more of a Western RPG mechanic, but it would be nice to feel like your choices had more weight to them. Also, certain side-missions could use more elegantly designed pathways between elements as there is at least one long quest I encountered that only advances at pre-determined times during the main story. Except you have no way of knowing this. I wandered for hours around Kamurocho, wondering what minor thing I had overlooked, only to eventually discover my “problem” when I finally broke down and consulted a FAQ. Finally, some of the content cut for the Western release affects the flow of other aspects of the game; specifically, the hostess clubs. You can still date the hostesses in the game, but without having previously met them their appearance is totally without context – do Japanese women just hang around fast food establishments, asking random men to take them on dates? I’m not really sure if I should hope that they do or not.
Yakuza 3 isn’t all bloody knuckles and fat lips. Provided you can look past some of the game’s more dated aspects there’s actually a fair bit of fun to be had. I only hope it does well enough outside of Japan that Sega considers localizing future installments to be a viable move. After all, who would ever have considered that the typical JRPG protagonist – androgynous, moody teenagers sporting crazy hair – would have gone over well with Western gamers? If they can manage to do it, one would think a gruff, tattooed badass with a heart of gold would be welcomed with open arms, right?
Things We Liked: The setting (modern day RPGs for the win). Abundance of side-missions. Aggressively Japanese. Brawling instead of turn-based combat is a nice change-up. Some of the characters (esp. Rikiya) really grow on you.
Things We Disliked: “Ojisan! Ojisan! Hayai yo!” – How about you you learn to hold onto my hand while running, huh? Graphics feel last gen. Removal of content for Western release. Slow starter.
Target Audience: Strident Japanophiles. Those not afraid of a little reading (remember, there’s no English voice track – only subtitles). People who are badass enough to eat a duck’s head (it’ll make sense once you play the game – trust me).
(Yakuza 3 – Developer: Sega of Japan. Publisher: Sega of America. Available on PlayStation 3. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. New to CFD!’s reviews? Read our explanation here.)