While Sega’s Yakuza franchise has been wildly popular in its native Japan, it has always had more of a cult following here in the States. Though it has taken its sweet time getting here, the first next-gen title in the series, Yakuza 3, finally hit western shores earlier this month. Chock full of the same great crime narrative and beat ‘em up combat that have been series hallmarks, Yakuza 3 doesn’t really stray that much from the formula, which is both a good and bad thing. After waiting for more than a year filled with uncertainty as to whether or not Yakuza 3 would even come out in America, I can tell you the wait was worth it, but just barely.
If you’ve never played a Yakuza game before, you might be a little confused as to what’s happening when you start up Yakuza 3. Thankfully, there are two very short recap movies you can watch that get you caught up with the events that transpired in Kiryu Kazuma’s life before this game. Unfortunately for newcomers, Yakuza 3’s story starts out extremely slow. You see, after the events of Yakuza 2, Kiryu has retired from mafia life, and now runs an orphanage in Okinawa. This is where you’ll spend the first five hours of the game. It’s a bit tedious, and impatient people who are getting the game thinking it’s going to be a raucous action game will be turned off almost immediately. Once you get to the made up Tokyo district of Kamurocho, the action and story pick up speed, but asking people to wait the equivalent length of the complete Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 solo campaign before they see any real action or story progression is a bit much. That said, once the pacing picks up, and the game finally gets into the heart of the story, it is pretty solid. I enjoyed Yakuza 2 a bit more since it was a little less soap-opera-y than Yakuza 3 is at points, but Yakuza 3 does a fantastic job of continuing the story of Kiryu without feeling overly repetitive or stale.
Though combat in the game is very simple, it’s also incredibly enjoyable. Initially Kiryu is limited to punching, kicking, throwing, and blocking, but as the game progresses, you are able to level up abilities, incorporating special throws, better attacks, and the all important “Heat” finisher. “Heat” is a meter that fills during combat, and the better you’re doing, the more “Heat” you’ll earn. Filling the meter unlocks an instant finish, which when used right, can make all the difference when you’re outnumbered. As you roam around the few towns and locales available, you’ll actually get into random encounters with thugs or other Yakuza who think you need to have your face punched in. They’re sometimes avoidable, but it’s likely that you’ll want to take on all comers to level up more often. At times when you’re exploring it can get to be a bit much, but you’ll want to grind early and often to bulk up for the tougher story-related battles. In addition to actual weapons like knives, golf clubs, and swords, nearly everything in the environment can be used as a weapon. Yakuza 3 also has a new crafting system where you can make some new weapon types from objects you find around town. It’s an interesting idea in practice, but since you can find or buy weapons and armor, it’s often not really worth the effort to track down all the parts necessary for making those items. There are also a few additional ways to earn new moves, like finding hot spots around the map to photograph weird events where people can inspire you, or training with a weapons master to earn the ability to use new armaments. The inspiration moments, known as Revelations, are interesting ways to bring cell-phones and blogging into the game, but are at times a bit forced and awkward. Training is about as straightforward as it sounds, and is quite useful later in the game.
Side-quests and mini-games are a pretty large part of Yakuza 3, and even though the American version has had a lot of content stripped out, you won’t notice what’s gone. Aside from the removal of hostess clubs, and the ability to manage your own, the optional content in the game that’s been cut will hardly be missed. There are still plenty of other quests to beat and mini-games to play, though there is one aspect of these subtractions that may impact your playthrough. Completing side-missions awards you with experience that you can use to level up Kiryu. You’ll have to rely solely on random encounters to boost your levels, and though it’s not a big issue early on, the late game content will require some pretty heavy grinding so you can compete with the bigger story bosses. I don’t understand the reasoning behind cutting valuable character building content, but at least they kept in the near pointless karaoke mini-game.
Now, I really enjoy playing this game, and this franchise has a special place in my heart, but there are some pretty blatant issues with Yakuza 3. First and foremost, it still feels exactly like a game from last generation. Seemingly the only real upgrade the game got when moving to the PS3 is in the graphical department. The city looks fantastic, and if you can get over how shiny all the people are, so do the character models. The voice work, and sound design in general, is pretty great. However, there are a ton of invisible walls preventing you from accessing areas that look like you should be able to reach, as well as buildings you can enter, like mahjong parlors, where you can’t do anything but look around. Though the game’s combat is extremely easy to understand, and fun to use, it hasn’t changed one iota since the last game, and it’s starting to feel a bit dated. Part of the reason not much changes is because these games are pumped out on a near yearly basis in Japan, so by not overhauling the system, the turnaround time is much better. Over here, that method doesn’t really hold up since we don’t get Yakuza games nearly as often, and are accustomed to games actually evolving over time, not staying repetitively stale.
For all the little issues that creep up in this game, Yakuza 3 is definitely a title I highly recommend. It may take a little more patience than other games in the sandbox and beat ‘em up genres, but you’re rewarded with one of the most interesting stories, characters, and fun to use combat in gaming today. It’s not quite the breakthrough hit I’d hoped it would be, and is likely not going to ever be more than a cult classic, but Yakuza 3 is still highly enjoyable, and would be a great addition to anyone’s library.