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Review: Yakuza 3

Recently, I decided to finally address a glaring sore spot in my backlog: the Yakuza series.  Deciding to skip the first two PS2 entries in order to make the task at least LOOK like something I could accomplish, I went straight to Yakuza 3.  The game includes a couple of movies to catch you up on the storyline, although it is extremely convoluted so you may not carry away much from it other than “Kazuma beats up a LOT of people.”  That seems to be the overarching gist of the series anyway, so that’s probably good enough.  Yakuza is an interesting game best described as a cross between a Japanese RPG and Grand Theft Auto.  That’s a combination you won’t find anywhere else, so at the very least you know you’re in for something unique.  The question is then, does unique in this case equal good?

Yakuza 3 - Orphanage

…for the children

The story in Yakuza 3 is split into two parts.  The first revolves around the orphanage that Kazuma is running.  You see, Kazuma has basically retired from his Yakuza life at the beginning of the game and is running a children’s orphanage in Okinawa.  A lot of time is spent having you interact with the children, getting involved in their day-to-day lives and learning their personalities.  While some might find this part of the game a bit slow, it is not time wasted.  They really get you invested in the orphanage so that when people start to threaten it and the children, you care.  It’s also interesting to see the contrast of this big tough Yakuza guy who is so good with the children and takes looking out for them very seriously.  Great stuff.  Then there’s the other half of the story, that deals with convoluted Yakuza power plays, more Japanese names than even a Japanese person could remember and political ramblings about shadow organizations that would almost make Hideo Kojima proud.  Luckily, you don’t really have to follow this convoluted mess to understand the main story of the game, which is more about Kazuma and the orphans.  My overall plot summary is this: Yakuza 3 is a game about traveling across Japan and beating up Japanese people…for the children.

Yakuza 3 - Fight

Everything is a weapon!

Gameplay is mission based.  You have not only your primary story missions but also tons of sidequests you discover as you explore the cities.  Along the way, you will run into random thugs who will pick a fight with you, at which point you will shift into battle mode and duke it out with them.  Yes, this means you are prevented from attacking random pedestrians and causing pointless mayhem.  But that is largely made up for with your ability to use practically anything as a weapon during combat.  From baseball bats and swords to street signs, bicycles and furniture, anything is fair game.  Combat is 100% real time, and as you level up you unlock new special moves as well as gain more health and “heat” – what you use to pull off the special moves.  Combat is largely fun, but it could have benefited from a lock-on mechanic – especially in boss fights, it can become difficult to keep facing your target.  It doesn’t help that the only way to successfully block is to be facing your attacker.  These are minor quibbles tho, since combat usually goes very smoothly and is seldom very difficult.  The bosses have a lot more health and tend to block a lot more, but you’re given so many health items during the course of the game that you’re almost never in any real danger.

The sidequests often end in another round of combat, so the mechanics of them can be slightly repetitive (in Japan, every problem is solved by beating someone with a bicycle).  But the stories behind them are usually very interesting, so it’s still fun to seek them out.  In addition to sidequests, there are a ton of minigames – bowling, batting cages, darts, pool, dice gambling games, locker keys to find, Revelations to discover, and much more – there is almost too much to do in this game!  When I finished the game it gave me my completion stats, and it told me I had 18% completion.  And for a good bit of time I was actively seeking out and completing side content.  Needless to say, the bang for your buck factor is high with this one.

Yakuza 3 - City

The cities are full of detail

The detail that has been put into the world of Yakuza 3 is extremely impressive.  When wandering around the cities, you really get the feeling that you’re getting a glimpse into the culture of Japan – outside of random thugs picking fights with you every couple of minutes.  The graphics hold up very well, even if this is a 3-4 year old game now.  And the music and voice acting – which is mostly in Japanese and subtitled into English – is top notch and really serves to draw you further into the game.  The only knock I have against the sound is the occasional American character that speaks in English.  It is obvious that these are voiced by Japanese people trying their best to fake an American accent, which just makes it sound odd.  But those characters are rare enough that it almost never pops up.

In the end, the few negatives I encountered with Yakuza 3 – mainly, the somewhat high encounter rate, overly convoluted political aspects of the story and occasional spotty English voice actors – do little to detract from the overall quality of the game.  It is an entirely unique and surprisingly touching game with a level of detail that makes you really want to explore its world.  From what little experience I’ve had with the series in the past, I’ve always felt that it was the spiritual successor of the Dreamcast classic Shenmue.  Now that I’ve finally played a Yakuza game from beginning to end, I feel even more strongly that that is the case.  Anyone who loves good Japanese game design or is looking for something different in the open world genre should not miss this.

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