Yakuza 3 takes place in some bizarre and amazing alternate reality. A world where our protagonist both shatters limbs and writes blogs with equal fiery-eyed, whirlwind-fingered ferocity. A world where saving lives is treated with the same urgency as helping carry a multi-scoop ice cream cone across a busy street. A world where fights are always preceded with each man ejecting his shirt with a single graceful waft of a hand. These are but a scant few examples of the game’s ludicrously daft awesomeness.
Fusing Shenmue’s exploratory beat-’em-up adventure formula with the quests, random battles and level/experience system of JRPGs, Yakuza 3 picks up with skilled people-smasher Kazuma Kiryu retired from the Japanese mafia and living a simpler life running his own orphanage in Okinawa. When a shady land deal threatens his home and his old mafia pals start getting bumped off, Kazuma has little choice but to throw on a swanky suit, dive back into his old life and flatten many a man’s facial structure with the nearest heavy object.
While there’s a wealth of backstory and many significant returning characters, Sega have done a great job at including every possible catch-up method; if the mini-movie recaps of Yakuza 1 & 2′s plots aren’t enough to fill you in, you can ‘reminisce’ in Kazuma’s room, bringing up bios of all the significant players, as well as a family tree chart accessible to keep track of all the mafia families to ensure players don’t feel lost as the plot unfolds between beat-downs.
The fighting scheme, like Shenmue’s, is the simple, tried-and-true Virtua Fighter system – there’s the usual light and heavy attacks, with block, dodge and grapple buttons. To begin with, Yakuza 3′s fights are a simple matter of beating enemies to a pulp, with each successful blow causing your ‘Heat’ meter to fill, which when topped up can be used to unleash a brutally inventive finishing move aided either by a weapon, or pretty much anything in the environment. Pummel a foe to his last bit of health, then drag him to a wall, for instance, and Kazuma will crush their face into the concrete with a lust for violence so potent that you’d think he’d just been forced to endure a night of The Simple Life re-runs. But after each battle (or completed mission), Kazuma gets a boost of experience points which can be used to level up different areas of skill, unlocking added strength, new counter-attacks and grapples or added ‘Heat’ moves. As a result, it offers a near-perfect learning curve as it slowly opens up new skills throughout the length of the game, so even the novice beat-’em-up player will be able to master some elegant and crippling combos without the need for panicked button-mashing.
Players can also seek out added ‘Heat’ moves elsewhere, either by finding or fashioning new weapons at the various arms dealer locations, or by spotting and photographing a ‘Revelation’ moment, wherein Kazuma finds his own violent Miyagi-style inspiration in an everyday encounter, like a tantrum-throwing kid violently defying his dad’s refusal to buy him “toys” from a sex shop or an elderly lady flipping her scooter over a car. He then – in a shining example of the game’s goofy, possibly unintentional, sense of humour – blogs about it with lightning speed to inform the world of his new-found skill, and a ‘Heat’ finishing move gets added to his repertoire. There’s a nice range of diversity in how to score them, and the effort is always rewarded with the satisfaction of more gloriously OTT violence to inflict.
There’s been much furore over SEGA’s decision to cut content from the Western release – a series of sub-quests in which Kazuma manages and dates club hostesses, as well as Shogi chess, Mahjong and Japanese trivia mini-games, amongst other content, have all been removed – and while it’s a perfectly justified reason for people to be irked, what’s more annoying than the removal of sections of the game is the sheer laziness with which it was done. Take an early section, for example: Kazuma is roaming the tourist town in his new home of Okinawa, with the chance for the player to wander freely, buy food, go gambling or obliterate the faces of random enemies, with the map handily pointing out important places of interest to visit, all lit blue and with the map key emphasising ‘Important’. In the Western cut version, places like the Mahjong parlour are still highlighted blue and marked as ‘Important’ places to visit, but while you can enter the building and see characters gambling, you won’t be able to interact with any of them. For players unaware of SEGA’s editing, the inability to interact with locations that the game itself deems important is only going to lead to frustration and confusion, while for those up-to-speed with the changes, it only serves to highlight the rushed laziness of the programmers’ content surgery.
Having said that, even with 21 missions and a few mini-games missing, the amount of activities available are immense. Yakuza 3 can certainly be a daunting experience, not just in the sheer expansive amount of optional mini-games, activities, side quests and other distractions there are to indulge in, but due to how the game throws them at you. It’s not uncommon to accept a sidequest, then while on your merry way to find and deliver a requested item, stumble across and start another mission, then another within that, leaving you with a Russian matryoshka doll of sub-missions, all while encountering a barrage of random battles as you go. It’s certainly overwhelming at times, especially for those adverse to the freedom of sandbox games.
Handily though, there’s a whole menu screen/checklist set aside for sub-missions to keep track of those you’ve discovered, started or completed. And you could always skip the sub-missions if you chose to. But doing so would miss the underlying joy of the whole game. The massive wealth of activities to explore and kill time with is staggering and – most importantly – incredibly fun and addictive, and it’s not uncommon to waste hours playing a mini-game, wasting every last yen playing the UFO Catcher crane game, with the overwhelming urge to obliterate the infernal rigged bastard-contraption marginally outweighed by the addictive urge to empty it of every last (ultimately worthless) teddy bear. So, just like the real thing then. What’s even more gratifying is that almost every mini-game is more polished, extensively well-made and enjoyable than most complete games of their kind – the golf course, for example, offers multiple courses and a tournament mode, all built on a surprisingly robust golf sim engine. With pool, darts, fishing, a batting cage, arcade games and numerous gambling games to keep the player entertained, there’s never any shortage of places to explore and things do, while the replay value is immeasurable.
But while the developers have gone to great lengths to leave you to your own devices elsewhere, the frequent random battle system both puts a damper on the leisure of exploring somewhat, and makes many missions, or the simple act of walking from one street to another an often tedious task. It’s a minor point of contention, especially for a brawler, but considering so much of the game is dedicated to focused side-missions and leisurely exploring and time-wasting fun, it would’ve been great if random battles were isolated to ‘the bad part of town’, leaving the player free to explore peacefully and jump into plentiful brawls when they choose. Still, the annoyance of being blindsided every 5 minutes only makes the satisfaction of kicking the piss out of enemies with extreme prejudice that much sweeter.
Yakuza 3 at its core is a brutal, fun and wildly entertaining brawler with a lengthy, involving and satisfyingly woven story. Not content to leave it at that, though, Sega have heaped on a staggering wealth of mini-games, sub-missions and enough added fun fun to keep almost any gamer happy for weeks on end. It’s not perfect, but it sure is as jam-packed with addictive and diverse fun as any game this generation. And it sure doesn’t hurt that it’s the closest we’ll get to a Shenmue sequel, either.
Yakuza 3 is out now exclusively for PS3.
Click here to get the UK Special Edition from TheHut.com, where it’s currently only £17.93.