Review: Yakuza 3 (PS3)

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If I wanted to spend that much time with virtual children in Yakuza 3, I would have played Sims 3 instead. The good news is that Kazuma Kiryu’s fists and feet are as uncompromising as ever.

The main story itself does a decent job in pulling the player into Kazuma’s world without feeling too much like a gaijin as long as you don’t mind doing a lot – and I mean a LOT – of reading. For those unfamiliar with the series, Yakuza 3 recaps his past exploits by stringing all of the cutscenes from the past two games together in an optional mode. This is still a series that rewards longtime fans for sticking with it as many characters from the previous games make a return in this latest chapter of Kazuma’s story. But it does a great job in providing plenty for newcomers to warm up to so if you don’t want to go through the trouble of watching that much history, don’t worry about it.

Kazuma, once known as the Dragon of Dojima as well as the Fourth Chairman of the Tojo Clan, continues to try and leave his violent past behind. Unlike Rambo’s turn at a Buddhist monastery, however, Yakuza 3 sees Kazuma trying to run the Sunshine Orphanage on Okinawa following his adventures from the second game. But, as always, his peaceful life is eventually interrupted by the arrival of another dangerous conspiracy connecting politicians, crime bosses, and street thugs in a web of intrigue and face busting pugilism that only he can kick his way through.

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Yakuza 3 is a slow starter, especially in the beginning. A big reason for this is that a chunk of the game is dedicated to dealing with the kids at his orphanage in listening to their issues and figuring out their problems. All of this is well and good – showing that Kazuma has a soft side isn’t a bad thing by itself – but it comes off as more of a series of menial chores than as something that drew me in given how the gameplay elements reduce much of it into a series of Fedex and “find-the-NPC” jobs. Blending in a Brady Bunch angle on a series that is known more for the bodies it leaves behind felt more than a little forced.

And then there’s Haruka, the “10 billion yen” girl that he had rescued from the first game who is now his adopted daughter and right-hand at the orphanage. At certain times in the story, I had the opportunity to take her around and buy things for her to raise her “trust” scale which starts out at “F” which also makes as much sense as snow in summer. After two games, you’d think that she’d trust him a bit more, but it makes more sense when you think of it as a measure of how well she can get Kazuma to buy her things. Raising her trust level awards Kazuma with neat trinkets, most of which I really didn’t have a use for in the main game making these optional outings best spent avoided in order to move on.

When I finally got back to what Yakuza does well, I was only too happy to start kicking punks around like sandbags again while doing good around the old ‘hood. The series prides itself on its twisting storylines filled with plenty of details, convoluted motives, and always colorful characters whose attitudes and grinning faces make them as outrageously bizarre as some of the signs seen on the streets of Kamurocho. This also means that the melodrama is laid on pretty thick within certain scenes elsewhere, so be warned.

The story is stuffed with details and the ending is just as explosive a climax as the last. Other details, such as a tattoo master’s explanation on taking on another artist’s work to a con man’s ongoing rivalry with Kazuma, add an incredible variety of social color unique to Yakuza 3′s immersive gameplay. There always seemed to be something new around the corner from the most unexpected directions.

Despite being grounded in reality, Yakuza has never taken itself too seriously with its approach to Japan’s underground with thugs on every street corner, extreme combat moves that would kill NPCs in other games instead of waiting for them to get back up, and crazy urban legends such as a hobo’s high-rise paradise complete with gambling halls. It’s also a slice of Japan as seen through a gaming lens with product placement tie-ins and locales such as Suntory beverages, BOSS coffee, Sega arcade parlors, and cramped convenience stores with blaring music.

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It’s something that the series has always done consistently well and seeing how Sega’s artists have carefully updated Kamurocho and created their own slice of Okinawa on the PS3 is one of the big reasons to step into Kazuma’s cheap suit. Flashing signs, destructible objects that Kazuma can pick up and use against enemies, and storefronts have been rendered in remarkable detail. Even when the fighting starts, it no longer transitions to another area as a crowd gathers around and the fighters start to square off keeping it seamlessly integrated with the rest of the world. When the characters speak to each other in the cuts, their facial language works in delivering subtle nuances atop of what they’re saying.

What it isn’t, though, is a Japanese version of Grand Theft Auto. The areas are much smaller, although are stuffed full of little details that help make each one stand out no matter where you turn the camera and there are a lot of little things hidden in each one. Glimmering locker keys, stores, restaurants, bars, as well as troublesome thugs and gangsters or NPCs in trouble are crammed into every street. So while it doesn’t come close to the physical size of GTA IV’s metropolitan playground, it certainly comes off as if it has much more to do at every turn.

And as the previous iterations have, it also comes off as much of a homage to Sega’s Shenmue and every beat ‘em up out there with its wish-fulfillment fantasy of taking Kazuma Kiryu out into fictional Kamurocho and using the wrecking balls inside his knuckles to mete out street justice as an old-school yakuza enforcer. A few RPG elements have also been thrown in such as earning experience via beat downs or in solving side quests from other NPCs allowing players to level different aspects of his character in order to unleash new fighting moves and special abilities.

Punks, wannabe gangsters, and the local yakuza will often run up to Kazuma as you take him around. They’ll assert themselves in his face with a number of lines which, unfortunately, start to get as repetitive as their posturing, but are always a valuable source of practice for his moves as well as a few other rewards such as cold hard cash as an apology. It’s too bad that there still isn’t an option to continue a beat down after its over as some of these enemies can come off as needing a little extra incentive to provide you with something better, but Kazuma isn’t quite that ruthless.

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Kazuma also has Heat which is measured via a special gauge at the top of the screen that slowly grows whenever he beats someone senseless, takes a swig from a special drink, or through a special ability that can be earned later in the game. When Kazuma glows blue from heat, he can use certain moves such as driving his snakeskin boots into someone’s face to finish them off. At the highest levels, Kazuma glows red indicating that he can also pull off certain other moves that are outrageously brutal. As he burns with Heat, it can also give him a few advantages such as being able to better resist being knocked down by attacks. Chaining together an attack and then using a Heat move to bring in the pain at the end is always a special moment in Yakuza 3.

He also has special “Super Finishes” that can be triggered at certain points against bosses once unlocked and following the QTE button sequences can increase the damage that he can do. One move, Hell’s Floor, has a particularly long sequence to follow, but the reward for following each step can often put an end to a tough villain’s career. If they can still get up from that, I had either missed a button or it’s my cue to start worrying about how tough they were.

QTE’s are a big thing in Yakuza 3 and several mini-games will often quiz your fingers with them, although there aren’t enough of them here to make the experience an annoying one. Mini-games, in particular, have also improved from the last game with a few more thrown in to give players something to do outside of the main story. If you really like playing UFO catcher games for stuffed animals, knock yourself out.

Fishing, bowling, golfing, and even playing an arcade shooter are a few of the things that add a little character to the game, but ultimately, were pretty easy to ignore given how much else that there was to do with its huge number of side-quests providing better rewards. Kazuma even has a cell phone now and, with a little help, can use it to take pictures of special moments that can inspire him to discover a new move in his best impersonation of an iReporter.

Chases are also new to the series. Players take control of Kazuma as they guide him via a chase camera over obstacles, around corners, and through crowds in order to tackle their prey. These are exciting bursts of action that add a little more variety to the usual gameplay and aren’t overly difficult to get around, although they tend to be mandatory. Mini-games like these that have something to do with the main story can’t be skipped which might put off players more interested in cracking heads than in leaping over bicycles.

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If you look around Okinawa and, eventually, the slice of Tokyo known as Kamurocho, Kazuma can find plenty of things to help with ranging from finding someone’s lost cat to solving a murder mystery in order to clear someone’s name. Most often involve showing up and kicking someone’s ass. He can also date a number of women found hanging around in burger or gelato shops who aren’t too shy about asking strangers for a night out on the town. These often end with someone’s face getting broken, such as a loan shark who had previously tricked Kazuma’s date leaving him to sort things out with his unique set of negotiation skills.

A new addition to these side-missions are the “hitman” missions. The Honest Living Association has arrived and wants to help out former yakuza find their way back into society. Unfortunately for them, another organization is out there terrorizing the same gangsters that they’re trying to help, so Kazuma gets a chance to test his skills against each one for quite a bit of money and experience. These mini-boss battles are tough, but rewarding in both experience and cash, and offer even more beat ‘em up material for players relieved to be curb stomping bad guys as opposed to dealing with training dogs to sit and roll over at the orphanage. As a nice side story, the hitman missions were my favorite new change in the game especially after encountering the final “boss”.

Once he hooks up with a weapons dealer in the game, Kazuma can also mod his weapons and accessories if he has the right ingredients along with the recipe. By heading into stores and buying movie DVDs (you can’t actually watch the movies, though) and certain books, Kazuma can learn new ways in which to make his inventory of goodies even deadlier than before. Fortunately, in addition to his limited personal inventory, he has access to an infinite chest at his hideouts. Accessing this storehouse is as easy as finding a telephone which also doubles as a save point and he doesn’t have to carry the ingredients in order to tweak what he’s carrying.

Yakuza 3 is also a long game thanks to its elaborate story presentation and Japanese-speaking cuts which lay out plenty of info for the player to read through. There’s even a diagram that updates and tracks all of the information on each of the major characters for players to keep up with making this a game for action geeks that want as much story as they do targets. The lack of an English option for the voices also tends to give it the feel of a foreign film than something simply ported over for mass consumption in the West.

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But that also doesn’t mean that it had come over entirely intact, either. Sega publicly came out and had stated that a few things, such as hostess bars and a quiz show, would be cut because of a lack of time as well as a concern that these elements wouldn’t “resonate” with the West. On Sega’s forum, a post has also indicated that several sub-quests have also been cited as missing in comparison to the Japanese release of the game.

Granted, though I wasn’t as much of a fan of the golf game or the fishing, and the main story has been emphasized as being intact despite the subtractions, I’d rather see those options provided for players than simply removed for the reason that the West won’t like them. I kind of miss managing that hostess bar in Yakuza 2 and setting it all up.

Given the implication that in either cutting the content or not release the game, I’m still not happy about the missing material but I’d also rather see the game come out and try to reach a larger crowd on the PS3 in the West than let the series wither on the vine for who knows how long. But hardcore fans have been watching this entry closely and I only hope that Sega will do a better job in keeping everything intact with the next entry, no matter how “Japanese” it might be. Players picking this up shouldn’t really expect it to be American Ninja, after all.

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Despite having so much to play with in the game, it still had its downsides. Sure, it was fun and the story, as always, was exciting to play through, but it comes up short in other ways. Invisible walls, such as ankle-high traffic cones, often corral Kazuma by ensuring he doesn’t wander too far off the beaten path and anyone expecting to grill NPCs for specific information are still out of luck thanks to the linear nature of most every conversation in the game.

Nevertheless, Yakuza 3 doesn’t shirk from loading up on even more of the body breaking and face planting action that is as much of a trademark as Kazuma’s sideburns. Despite its slow start and the the glacial pacing of certain chapters, it’s a superb improvement over everything else within the series’ formula. Fans will find plenty to do in Kamurocho and newcomers have as good a reason as any to jump into the series in finding out why Kazuma Kiryu continues to be the baddest man in Japan.

Yakuza 3
Sega
PS3
Rated M for Mature