Review: Yakuza 3

Yakuza3.jpg Sega’s Yakuza series is often thought of as the “Japanese Grand Theft Auto” without cars and guns, or, on an even simpler level, a glorified brawler. That, too, was my knee-jerk opinion of the PS2 series-starter after playing it years ago, a game I wasn’t particularly fond of despite a few bright moments.

Now we’re up to the third game in the series (we’re WAY behind Japan, where the fourth game just came out), and in large part Yakuza 3 remains in lockstep with the preceding installments. It has the crime drama and sandbox mentality of a GTA and the visceral fisticuffs of an old-fashioned third-person beat-‘em-up, yet in some strange way I actually find myself likening Yakuza 3 to a JRPG more than anything. And above all else, I finally feel like I “get” what the series is trying to be, and because of that I have discovered a newfound appreciation for all things Yakuza.

I know it may sound like a stretch to consider Yakuza 3 a JRPG, but upon closer inspection it really isn’t all that crazy. Let me run through the JRPG checklist real quick:

Lengthy cutscenes? Check!

Melodramatic storyline? Check!

Characters that constantly sigh and repeat each other’s names? Check!

Random encounters? Check!

Experience points and skill advancement? Check!

Loot collection? Check!

Loads of side quests and mini-games? Check!

Really, the only thing Yakuza 3 is missing is an angsty teen hero with bulging eyes, a crazy hairdo and spiky jewelry hanging from every appendage!

But in all seriousness, Yakuza 3 is very much a story-driven game, and a great one at that. Cutscenes look amazing and frequently stretch on for 10-15 minutes at a time (sometimes upwards of 30!), and although the story can often be silly and nonsensical, it can also be serious and heartfelt, and when it is, it’s riveting drama. In particular, Sega’s decision to keep the Japanese language track paid off tremendously. English voice acting in a game like this would only undermine the authenticity (as I remember it doing in the first game), and though I’m sure having to read subtitles will turn off certain players, the Japanese voice acting really was the only way to go. The writing may be questionable at times, but the voice acting is sensational.

Part-time Yakuza enforcer, part-time orphanage operator, Kazuma Kiryu (aka “Uncle Kaz”) returns as the protagonist, a loving, soft-spoken man who is happy to sit at home sorting out the petty dramas of his adopted children but will beat the ever loving shit out of anyone or anything that interferes with his orphanage (which is exactly what happens to pull him back into the Yakuza lifestyle this episode). Both sides of his personality are explored to great effect in Yakuza 3 too, with the game’s events split between two different settings – the seedy alleys and neon-lit streets of Kamurocho and the beachside city of Okinawa.

While at home running his orphanage in Okinawa, Kazuma gets into a few tussles, but mostly spends his time running errands for his children and solving any individual problems they may have, such as helping a boy who is being bullied at school, teaching a young girl a lesson about stealing, or taking his adoptive daughter Haruka out for a day of shopping and leisurely entertainment. At times these errands are more busywork than fun – sifting through lengthy text boxes and running back and forth around town figuring out what to do next certainly can be tedious – but juxtaposed to the gritty action you find yourself in while pounding the asphalt in Kamurocho, this downtime actually serves as a nice change of pace.

When you’re in Kamurocho, though, it’s all business. Random thugs and gang-bangers wait on every corner to bash your face in – enemies engage you in combat just like a random encounter in a JRPG, and they even give you loot after you take them down – and when you aren’t brawling you’ll most likely be frequenting nightclubs and engaging in Yakuza politics.

Combat in Yakuza 3 is definitely a high point. Targeting gets frustratingly finicky when surrounded by multiple thugs and some of the attack animations look straight out of the PS2 era, but beyond that the controls are smooth and the action is quick and satisfying like any classic beat-‘em-up, with intuitive combos, brutal weapon- and environment-based special attacks and finishers, realistic blood splatters and bone-crunching sound effects. Experience points are also earned during battle, and they can be used to pump up Kazuma’s Soul, Tech, Body and Essence attributes to in turn unlock new combos, finishing strikes, evasive maneuvers and health bar extensions.

Like previous games, Yakuza 3’s two main environments are limited in scope and detail when held to the standards of other open world games, but the quantity and diversity of side activities they have to offer is unmatched. To be honest, I actually prefer the more condensed open world design, as it cuts out all the unnecessary travel time that has always annoyed me with games like Grand Theft Auto without chopping out the freedom of sandbox play.

Sub stories (aka side quests) are in abundance and do a great job fleshing out side characters, and a series of 10 “Revelation” scenarios add comic relief by allowing you to record bizarre events (like a drunk guy falling on his ass while swinging around a street lamp like a pole dancer) with a cell phone camera, upload it to your personal blog and draw inspiration from the event to learn a new special attack. You can also put your fighting skills to the test in Hitman missions and underground mixed martial arts contests.

There certainly is no shortage of mini-games either. Golf, fishing, darts, billiards, bowling, baseball (batting cage), arcade and casino games are featured in full form, and, surprisingly, they all play extremely well. All told, the story chapters gave me 17 hours of gaming, yet according to the in-game stat tracking I’ve only completed a measly 7.5% of the game. That alone is evidence enough of this game’s high replay value, but it doesn’t end there. Upon game completion you unlock a host of bonuses, including a Premium Adventure mode enabling you to explore all of the side content independently from the story, an Ultimate Skill mode with various graded challenges like defeating groups of enemies within a time limit, boss grudge matches and so on, and a Premium New Game mode that lets you start over on a harder difficulty with all abilities, items and money carried over from your first playthrough. There’s even a theater mode so you can go back and watch your favorite cutscenes, and for those who missed out on the first two games or need a refresh, Sega was also kind enough to include two video primers recapping previous events (each one lasts a good 15 minutes too).

As someone who didn’t care too much for the first game and subsequently skipped past the second game without even the slightest interest, I’m shocked by how smitten I’ve become with Yakuza 3. It’s a great sandbox brawler with the heart and soul of a JRPG and a storyline that, although heavy-handed, is completely enthralling. The extreme “Japanese” influence may not be everyone’s cup of tea here in the West, but if you like a good story and are willing to try something a bit different, Yakuza 3 is a fantastic buy.

BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Compelling story
+ Excellent Japanese voice acting
+ Fun brawler combat
+ Loads of side quests, mini-games and unlockables

Cons:
– Heavy Japanese cultural influence may not be for everyone
– Clumsy targeting system and animations
– Pacing can be fairly monotonous

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega
Release Date: 3/9/2010
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!