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Review

Review: Yakuza 3

Big, brash, Japanese. But is it monosugoi?

Proof that moaning on the Internet invariably gets you what you want, the fact that you can walk into a store and pick up Yakuza 3 at all is testament to both the fervour fans of the series have shown and Sega’s admirable trait of actually listening to the laments of half-crazed Jap-o-philes.

Released back in February of 2009 to the usual fanfare in its native land, Yakuza 3 was never destined for a Western release. After all, what do we know about the intricacies behind Japan’s dangerous crime world? And, more pointedly, it’s not like we bought the first two in great droves.

Cue constant badgering by the aforementioned fanbase, and a sneaky suspicion on the publisher’s behalf that there may just be some merit in this whole ‘games are now global’ phenomenon, and here we have it – petitions noted, thirteen months and one accomplished localisation later – Japan’s answer to Grand Theft Auto for all us round-eyes to relish.

Of course, it would be both grievously inaccurate and wholly unfair to relegate Yakuza 3 as some sort of inferior Grand Theft Asia knock-off. It may profess some similarities with Rockstar’s renown series (the glorification of crime, an open-world setting, dodgy wardrobe choices) but the connection ends there. Sega’s take is more an homage to the Japanese fighting games of yesteryear rather than a direct competitor to the recent mega-budget sandbox titles of the West. A heady concoction of Grand Theft Auto and Double Dragon, it’s the king of its own genre.

Regarded, at least spiritually, as a descendant of the Shenmue games, the Yakuza titles play very much like the legendary adventure quasi-RPG. As a series itself, Yakuza has crammed more into its two opening games than most franchises manage to portray over countless titles. But it’s this ability to marry so much into cohesive, riveting stories that elevates the Yakuza games above its peers; a merging of styles that manage to masterfully click together.

It’s the very fact that the story of Yakuza is used as the keystone to everything else; the very foundation on which the rest of the game hangs, which is an indication of just what its designers are attempting to achieve. This isn’t a vacuous, trite excuse for muscle-bound freaks to thump seven shades out of each other. Yakuza 3 has a theme, it has tone, it has purpose; a purpose that can be felt from the opening scenes.

This, the third in the series (we’ll exclude the time-travelling period piece Kenzan! for now), Yakuza 3 continues the story of Kazuma Kiryu, 4th chairman of the Tojo clan, ex-Yakuza, ex-con, adoptive father, and all-round painted bad-ass. The backdrop of the Yakuza tales have always been peppered with beguiling characters, shocking betrayals and relationships that flip more often than a hyperactive acrobat, and Yakuza 3 is no different – we just get it at a grander scale. It even sports what one might consider the most nuanced, complex and heart-wrenching of all the Yakuza tales so far.

Luckily for those who have missed the first game and its sophomore outing, Sega have offered the entire back-story in two handy recap videos. It’s a welcome if somewhat onerous chronicle, burdensome simply because it takes about forty-five minutes of inactivity to complete; watching what is essentially an amalgamation of the cut-scenes from Yakuza 3’s predecessors spliced together with some expositional subtitles added to tie it all together. It is worth viewing, however, especially if you’re completely new to the series. That said, it does glance over some pretty big events, which is more a reflection on the previous games’ scope rather than Sega’s over-zealous editing techniques.

The game picks up after the events of Yakuza 2 with Kazuma and Haruku in Okinawa and running an orphanage. The reasons for getting Kazuma back into the game (a specious land-grabbing attempt to snatch the orphanage from our protagonist along with an assassination attempt of old favourite Daigo Dojima) are tenuous at best, but, nonetheless, we find ourselves forgiving these plot devices as it soon results in Kazuma stomping around Kamurocho, a fictional rendition of Tokyo’s real red-light district Kabukicho, once again. As someone who has been to Kabukicho (I got lost, I swear), the designers have done a wonderful job HDing the seedy and effervescent spectacle that is Kamurocho town.

Graphically, the locales impress without dazzling, more due to the colourful subject matter of Japanese culture rather than blindingly fast poly-pushing or state-of-the-art after-effects. Nonetheless, Yakuza 3 has its own visual flair which, though rarely awe-inspiring, is often impressive enough in its own way to illicit more than a few whoops of appreciation. The claustrophobic, incredibly ornate environs of Japan are especially depicted with flair and authenticity.

This leads us to address the obvious fact that what we have here is a quintessential Japanese game. It’s a rare treat to play Yakuza 3 if purely for what it represents; a game that is shamelessly focused on what Japanese gamers want. With no future Westerners to cater for during its design phase, if you have any desire to see how a typical Japanese game plays, Yakuza 3 is a must.

And you won’t be bored with what’s on offer. Along the way toward revenge and retribution, Kazuma can play arcades, participate in pub games, fish. He can even sing karaoke. And when we say can, we don’t just mean it’s possible in the game – the man has an impressive set of pipes on him. It’s the game’s daunting gamut of possible things to do that some people may cower in awe of, possibly even becoming overburdened with the options on offer and balk. Though the majority of the ancillary tasks presented are clearly on the periphery, and could be quite accurately deemed superfluous to the game’s core, it’s their very inclusion that infuses Yakuza with an inherent charm. Remove the plethora of quirky ‘distractions’ and Yakuza 3 becomes a mindless brawler; a competent if decidedly shallow grind. Revel in these challenging foibles, and Yakuza 3 metamorphoses into a smorgasbord of varied gaming treats, holistically representing a wonderful fusion of fun.

It’s violent fun, of course; the environment becoming a deadly playground for Kazuma to interact with, where interact is usually synonymous with combining the face of one of the many thugs eager to prove their worth in Japan’s seedy underworld with whatever object is at hand. The game is punctuated with incessant random battles, and though needed to support the RPG elements of the game as Kaz levels up a wide-range of Heat Actions, it sometimes is like being transported back to the days of Final Fantasy VII when you couldn’t scratch your arse without some freak popping out from out behind a tree, begging to be drop-kicked in the face. Be thankful that the process of stumbling into yet another chance encounter/opportunity to jump on someone’s head is contiguous with the game’s exploring aspect; the shimuresu batoru (Seamless Battle) feature working, well, seamlessly.

It’s not all tearing up Japan and goons, however, as when he’s not charging up his aura and introducing people’s faces to lampposts, Kazuma can be found chasing adversaries through the streets or engaging in some pensive drama. Or blogging. Yes, even tattooed Japanese hard-asses can’t resist sharing their thoughts with the online world it seems.

If such extra-curricular activities weren’t enough, the amount of side-missions scattered throughout the game’s many locations is beyond prodigious. If you thought Niko got pulled into every mundane, half-cocked excuse possible just to drag him around town, meet Kazuma-san: Master of the Micro-task. It’s not just the many, and quite often story enhancing, sub-quests that marks Yakuza 3 as an ADD victim’s worst nightmare, there are more mini-games presented here than a Christmas party at your mad aunt’s. It’s all appreciated, though, and it should be noted that finishing the game barely scratches the surface. Just like GTA (there’s that similarity again), you’re presented with a ‘percentage finished’ statistic. If you get past 10% on your first run-through, you’ve done well. It’s challenging, and if you reckon you deserve a Bronze trinket for watching all those catch-up prologues, think again. Try a full five hours of cut-scenes before You Have Unlocked A Trophy: Blurred Double Vision.

As a character, Kazuma is well-rounded and amiable, despite showing conspicuous signs of bi-polar disorder. He’s either the flamboyant, avuncular protector of the young Haruku, or he’s making random hoodlums eat traffic cones. Think Mr. Miyagi on steroids with a vicious streak and a penchant for walking around in full Teddy Boy apparel. Then again, have you seen the guy’s roundhouse? Are you going to tell him he looks like John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever with a popped collar that could blot out the sun?

Sega have done a competent job at localising the game for the Western market. It’s far from perfect, however, with the basic game loading interface in particular shockingly thrown together. For example, upon inserting the disc in preparation for the mammoth mandatory install, you’re immediately presented with a “No Game Save Data Found” black screen error. It’s not there because we haven’t created it yet Sega. This might be au fait with your Japanese customers, but it freaks the shit out of us Westerners who equate this black screen with the Heavy Rain-esque “Oh crap, my Blu-ray drive sounds like it’s having a coronary” scenario. It’s a minor gripe, but, in general, saving, loading and generally navigating around the game lacks that final globule of spit and polish that us Westerners have come to expect these days.

The game is, thankfully, presented in its original Japanese rendition with the necessary subtitles. The translated text is very good, with a lot of care and attention taken to express some of the more peculiar Japanese expressions. It’s still truncated in parts but such is to be expected. After all, not every word or phrase is represented in the English subtitles of English games, and the main thing to recognise here is that the flow and context of the story is reproduced exceptionally well.

Apart from the language localisation, a lot has been made of the excises from the Japanese version of the game that have not made it into its Westernised cousin. Cabaret bars and a massage scene have been cut, the former a little odd while the latter simply something we were quite looking forward to as apparently it’s hilarious. It’s the other cuts that are more unfortunate though. Sega have essentially missed a rare opportunity to teach Westerners Mahjong for example (it’s not that hard and actually really addictive), and while the loss of the Japanese history quiz game is venial, it’s a tad disappointing nonetheless that something else could not have been put in its place. Of course, this would have cost extra during what was already regarded as a risky localisation process, so it’s hard to grumble considering we’ve got 99% of a game we were 100% not getting a year ago.

Pros:

  • Very Japanese.
  • Almost fathomless in its scope.
  • Varied, fun gameplay.
  • Great story, well told and keeps you gripped.
  • Awesome tattoos.

Cons:

  • Very Japanese.
  • The missing content is disappointing, if somewhat forgiving.
  • Some of the fighting can become tedious at times.

Conclusion:

Yakuza 3 is an anomaly; a game we were never supposed to get but one that we should thank our lucky hoshi we finally did. It won’t be for everyone, but what game is? If you’ve got an interest in Japanese (sub)culture, you’ll invariably get a lot more out of it than those who do not. As an action game it holds up very well, as an RPG it will keep the average quest junkie enthralled, and as a fishing/karoke/arcade sim, it also manages to tick each of those apparently mutually exclusive boxes with a defiant stroke. As a whole, and, more importantly, as a game, it works. Yakuza 3 is a genuinely enjoyable gaming experience. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait this long for Yakuza 4.

Score: 9/10

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