Yakuza 3 is, for all the furore surrounding its Western release, the game it was meant to be. A competent brawler/JRPG/GTA hybrid built on aging technology, this third outing positively bursts at the seams with brand-new and well-established extraneous content that defines rather than hinders the experience. The repetitive combat, reams of dialogue and melodrama at its core certainly won’t cut it with a huge audience, but for those of you interested in a genuine slice of Eastern curiosity, look no further.
Mindful of the niche appeal of the original two, Sega has seen fit to include most of their cutscenes in a “previously on Yakuza…” format, but new players only really need to understand the plight of series’ stalwart Kazuma Kiryu. Former chairman of his Yakuza clan, the story picks up as Kiryu retires to Okinawa to look after an orphanage. In between slicing onions, resolving playground problems and chasing dogs, Kazuma eventually becomes embroiled in a murderous land-grab plot that pulls him back into the mafia fold and straight into a tale of government conspiracy, double-crosses and outside intervention.
As ever, it’s a story told in unique style and peppered with random battles on the free-roaming streets of Okinawa and fictional Tokyo suburb of Kamurocho. This is a Japan in which positively everybody wants to fight, and not only that, they all want to fight you. Repeatedly.
Yakuza’s chosen brand of combat is reminiscent of Streets of Rage extrapolated into a third dimension, and still barely progressed from its PS2 roots. Light attacks, heavy attacks, blocks, dodges and grapples comprise the basic repertoire, whilst an ever-present ‘Heat’ gauge fills with each successful blow. On activation this serves to trigger any of the 100+ environment and weapon-based context-sensitive finishing moves, which range from a brutal curb stomp through to death by traffic cone.
Indeed, if you’ve ever wanted a game in which you’ll routinely batter people with bicycles, sofas or a particularly large fish, Yakuza 3 is for you. Its playful undercurrent of silliness and experimentation carries the otherwise repetitious battle mechanics throughout 20 hours of campaign, whilst the implausible narrative offsets the action as a semi-serious soap-opera portrayal of politics and brotherhood within the criminal underworld. The larger-than-life supporting cast hammer home moralistic plotlines with all the subtlety of a brick to the face, but it’s difficult not to get carried along with a game that simply believes in its own stupidity and faux-importance.
But, even against amidst that confident cocktail of narrative and brawler, the surrounding material again steals the show. Despite there being some controversy over Sega’s decision to nix the well-publicised Hostess Bar mini-game content from the Western release, Yakuza 3’s streets are lined with well-implemented distractions. Including but not limited to: bowling, baseball, karaoke, darts, pool, golf, strip clubs, shopping, restaurants, bars, side quests, arcades, gambling, arena battles, mah-jong, UFO catchers and photo blogging.
That focus on depth of content and authenticity of environment allows Yakuza to stand tall amongst other open-world games, even with an aging graphical engine at its core. Animation is stilted, texturing is woefully blurry, and yet the constant thrum of activity on neon-lit streets draws the eye away from any glaring problems. From any logical standpoint it‘s a series in dire need of an engine upgrade, and yet none of that really matters when the constant distraction papers over the cracks and runs screaming in the opposite direction. It’s hard to know where to focus, and in this case, that’s no bad thing.
With Yakuza 4 already released in Japan and selling by the truckload, it’s a little strange to be considering this may well be Sega’s final push for the series in the West, but here we are nevertheless. Yakuza 3 certainly isn’t for everybody, but it’s a series that deserves a whole lot more than mishandled marketing and general apathy. Don’t let it pass you by without at least giving it a last chance to impress.